The Wild: How would you rate your relationship to nature, animals?
One day, on Kodiak Island in Alaska, Richard Louv was walking down a narrow trail near a cabin where he was staying.
“And this is very wild area and per capita bear population is huge compared to humans,” Richard said. “And these are the Alaskan brown bears. This is the biggest of the grizzlies, I believe.”
They are. And like any bear, you don’t want to surprise these grizzlies. Richard was all alone as he made his way to the local lodge. He wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings; he was busy looking for something in his wallet.
“And suddenly I stop in my tracks because I'm stopped by two blazing eyes that are looking right into mine, right in front of me on the path,” he recalled.
Fortunately for Richard, this wasn't an Alaskan brown bear. It was a fox.
“And I looked at him and he looked at me. And I as I describe it, I thought I was almost looking into a parallel universe. It was almost seemed like seeing planets in its eyes and stars. And I know that sounds woo woo. It wasn't that literal, but I saw something there."
Maybe you’ve also had a moment like this – when you felt a connection with another species. It could have been a wild animal like a fox or a bird, or even your dog. And it’s in these moments when there is some understanding that happens between man and beast.
“And so, when I was talking to the fox, I said, ‘You know, I'm going to step forward here’ and I did,” Richard said. “And the fox, not two feet in front of me, eases over to my side and then follows me up the path side-by-side. We walked up the path until the fox turned off the path and went into the high weeds and disappeared.”
Richard Louv is a world authority on human relationships with the natural world. His work has uncovered so much about this mysterious bond and how transformative it can be for our mental, physical, and spiritual health -- how nature can help us look at things differently, and even provide an antidote for loneliness.
“You know, maybe, the fox was just telling me to pay attention,” he said.
Lonely tech lives
You may know Richard Louv from his writing, such as his books “Last Child in the Woods” or “Our Wild Calling: How connecting with animals can transform our lives” – fascinating stuff. Or perhaps you’ve heard this oft-used phrase “nature deficit disorder.” That was Richard.
He argues we’re at a loss in our modern world because humans no longer spend enough time with our natural curiosity. He blames technology, or what he calls “anti-social media.” The more high tech our lives become -- and they will get more high tech -- the more nature we need as a balancing agent. That doesn't make technology bad, but it does suggest that if that's all we do, that's all we become.
Tech, despite being so connected, can also cause people to feel more lonely. Richard says that's one of the major themes of "Our Wild Calling."
"It's about the rise of human loneliness," he said. "Many medical folks now describe as an epidemic. Not everybody agrees with that word, but many of them use it. They say this is a serious thing and that loneliness may soon outrank obesity as a cause of early death. That's what some of the medical folks are saying."
"And by the way, one of the most disturbing studies that I report on in this book is a study of generational loneliness," he said. "I may be a little older than you, but you remember how it was supposed to be elderly people who are the loneliest. This study looked at generational loneliness, starting with the greatest generation -- Baby Boomers -- and on down, Gen X and all of that, Millennials. What they found is that the younger the person was, the younger the generation was, the lonelier they were. Now, what does that say about a society in which the younger you are, the more likely you are to be lonely?"
There's plenty of tech blame to throw around, and many will shake a finger at the likes of Facebook. Richard says it's much deeper than that. He says it's "species loneliness."
"As a species, we are desperate to not feel alone in the universe," Richard said. "Why else would we look for Bigfoot? Why would we look for intelligent life on other planets?"
The irony is that we are not alone, not on this planet.
"We're surrounded by an ongoing conversation and ongoing, what I call the 'whisper of our fellow creatures' on this Earth," he said. "And the more one looks into the nature of that conversation, the more complex it gets, the more interesting it gets. And we can look to that conversation of other animals as a source of healing."
"We're surrounded by intimacy, but we don't tap into it," he said. "We don't notice. We don't pay attention. That's not true of everybody. Some people do, and I bet the ones that you know, that do are extraordinary people."
The problem with the internet is that despite it providing a window into the rest of the world, we can't take our senses along. Instead, we block out most of our senses when our faces are in front of a screen.
"I don't know about you, but that to me sounds like the very definition of being less alive," Richard said. "What parent wants their child to be less alive? I don't know many. And so this really is fundamentally about being more alive."
I know the feeling of being alive.
I've spent hours in the woods tracking grizzly bears, learning to see things through the eyes of a bear -- turned over rocks, scratches on trees. I've been able to take that experience and apply it to my own life without realizing it. I just became more aware. I have bears to thank for that.
Hear this story and much more on The Wild podcast.
The Wild is a production of KUOW in Seattle in partnership with Chris Morgan Wildlife. It is produced by Matt Martin and edited by Jim Gates. Fact checking by Apryle Craig. Our theme music is by Michael Parker.
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