“The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.” – Carl Sagan
Almost all of us have been awestruck by an encounter with the natural world. We may have witnessed a magnificent sunset during a long drive, stood in front of a vast expanse of water before dipping our feet in, or reckoned with a mighty mountain during a hike.
Every time we interact with nature, we’re reminded that we’re part of something so much bigger than ourselves and that we are a tiny thread in the complex fabric of a thriving ecosystem. The enormity of this reality can take our breath away and lead us down a trail of wonder if we let it.
Biologist Charles Darwin, since the time he was a young boy, always had a deep reverence for the natural world. But his love for it blossomed when we embarked on his voyage to South America where we discovered new plant and animal species that were beyond his wildest dreams.
On careful observation, he came to the conclusion that humans are no different from other creatures on the planet. This was a bold statement to make during a time when the superiority of man was upheld in the highest regard by religious institutions and by the elites in society. He insisted that we were not divine descendants from a heavenly creator, but that we are a product of a phenomenon known as natural selection – a process where all organisms develop and evolve by inheriting genetic characteristics that increases their ability to survive, compete, and procreate. Humans are a part of this – it’s ‘survival of the fittest.’
Darwin said, “there is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one”. Yet in today’s world, with the proliferation of technology and urbanization, we’ve lost sight of this. Our egos have been inflated during this ‘age of the individual’, where we can construct make-believe worlds through social media where we are the stars of the show, immune to what we have come to consider ‘ordinary’.
That’s not to say that we should dim our light by downplaying our importance – we do need a healthy sense of self-confidence to make it in the world. Instead, we should be watchful of allowing ourselves to veer into the territory of entitlement. Nature is instrumental when it comes to reminding us of how small and insignificant we really are in our enormous geosphere. It not only brings us ‘down to Earth’, but it motivates us to do more and be more – not because we are fundamentally lacking, but because we inherit a sense of responsibility to contribute to the growth and wellbeing of the planet. This transcendence we feel when connecting with nature helps us rise above the petty concerns and drama of everyday life and see the bigger picture.
Nature encourages an understanding of our role in instigating chains of events that could ripple out in ways that we may not even see from our vantage point. Throwing a piece of trash on the road may teach a child passing by that it’s okay to litter the environment. Not speaking up for someone who has been bullied sends out a message that bad guys can get away with being mean. Everything that we do and don’t do matters, and nature reminds us to take heed of this truth.
The natural world is like a grandmaster, we behold it with reverence and respect, but we also feel vulnerable in its presence. Like students, we’re humbled by its wisdom, and we open ourselves up to the many lessons that it has to teach us. We know that intelligence can be found in the most unlikely places if we’re led by our curiosity.
The strength and resilience of an oak tree, the industry of ants and bees, the protective and nurturing ways of a grizzly mother bear, the fearlessness and grandeur of a lion – when we observe deeply, we’ll see that there’s much we can learn from every facet of the natural world. When we’re willing and open to being under its tutelage, we stand to gain a lot.
Here are four reasons why nature, with all her complexity and beauty, humbles us:
1. It is our only source of sustenance: There’s a reason why we refer to our planet as ‘Mother Earth’ and associate it with feminine energy. Like a maternal figure, it nurtures and feeds us with all her bounty. The fresh water from the mountain springs, the juicy berries from her trees, and the sweet honey from bees – as far as we know, there’s no other place in the cosmos that can offer us sustenance. Neglecting to take care of our planet will ultimately cut us from her life-giving support, which could lead to the demise of our species.
2. We’re frequently reminded of its unpredictability: All of us have witnessed powerful natural phenomena like tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods, droughts, forest fires, and many others. As devastating and frightening as these events are, their frequent occurrence serves as a potent reminder of nature’s unpredictability and how it can turn our lives upside down. Primitive humans used to interpret these events as a sign of God’s wrath – a punishment for some kind of oversight. With the advent of modern science, fewer people interpret things in this way, but that doesn’t take away the humbling effect that comes from knowing that nature is never fully under our control and that risks are always present.
3. It has existed since the birth of our planet: Earth formed over 4.5 billion years ago. Like an elderly relative, we respect it for its resilience through countless changes and fluctuations. From the early days of the volcanic infernos, ice ages, and dinosaurs, through to the more recent incidents such as climate change and deforestation, our planet has been through a lot. Astrophysicist Carl Sagan, in his book Pale Blue Dot, writes, “look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
4. The immense variations in size and diversity inspire us: According to scientists, our planet is currently inhabited by several million species, with more new species evolving during our lifetime. 1.8 million of these species are described as being ‘incredibly diverse’, which include the tiny celled microbes that live on parasites, to the giant organisms like Sequoia trees and blue whales. The considerable variation in color, size, features, and shapes is mind-boggling to even the most well-versed biodiversity aficionados. We can all gain inspiration from every single animal and plant on the planet and feel honored to be a part of this incredible ecosystem.
Author David McCullough Jr. once said, “climb mountains not so the world can see you, but so you can see the world.” When we climb mountains and behold the majestic vista around us, we’ll realize that our magnificence is nothing but a reflection of the magnificence of Earth. We are as much a part of the earth than anything else.
All my best on your journey,
Reflection Question: What kind of effect have your encounters with nature had on you? What did it teach you about your role in life?
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