Biophilia: On Love and Nature

Dedicated to P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, that he might better understand

When you tell people that you love nature, you run the risk of being accused of one of two things (and sometimes both at once).

Percy really wants to get in your pants.

If you speak of the pleasure you derive from those ordinary natural things that abound in everyday life — the simple symmetry of a flower, the entrancing movement of sunlight reflected on rippling water, the spinning fall of a leaf, the arch of your cat’s back as he stretches on the windowsill — some people will tell you that you are sentimental and maybe a bit naive. They will tell you that such views of nature are pastoral, idyllic. They will tell you that your views of nature assume too easy a familiarity and that you do not appreciate the harsh reality of the natural world, red in tooth and claw. They will say that it is only thanks to the mastery of modern science and technology that you are afforded the luxury of enjoying what is really only a tame, neutered landscape.

If you instead talk about your fascination with wilderness — the immensities of storm and stone that rule the mountain ranges, the tangled undergrowth that has reclaimed the ruins of human ingenuity of ages past, the harsh sands of a desert that unrolls for miles beneath a relentless sun, the vast oceanic vistas that overwhelm you with awe — these same people will likely tell you that you are fetishizing nature as something exotic. They will tell you that such views are superstitious, unscientific, maybe even a bit gothic. They might even tell you that it is the usual mark of the colonialist and the conqueror to eroticize the Other as something “pure” and inviolate, to project onto that yet-unknown a chance to find the wholeness that still eludes him and so to justify his colonialism or his escapism.

Do not date these kinds of people. They are terrible in bed.

No, but seriously. There’s been some talk in the online Pagan community recently about whether or not “nature reverence” is or should be an essential aspect of Paganism. I’m not all that interested in that discussion, but I am interested in clarifying what nature reverence means to me as an essential part of my spiritual life.

I’m a nature-lover. A treehugger. A dirt-worshipper.

Hi, I’m Ali, and I’m a biophiliac.

Many of the criticisms of nature reverence (and the accusations of romanticism and sentimentality that go along with them) have some basis in reality. The love of nature is complex, and it can be deeply problematic.

On the other hand, that’s love.

I start to get suspicious when someone insists there’s just no good way to love something.

The Nature of Love

“All animals feel wonder.” – Charles Darwin

Azalea After StormThe term “biophilia” was popularized in the mid-1980s by Edward O. Wilson, an American biologist and naturalist, who defined it as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.”[1]

More broadly speaking, biophilia is the love of life and of living systems, an instinctive attraction to the natural world and all that is vital and alive within it. Some evolutionary biologists and psychologists have come to think of biophilia as a fundamental aspect of human psychology, a predisposition to be drawn towards natural landscapes and lifeforms that is etched into the human psyche by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Like other animals, the theory goes, the human animal has a natural predilection for the kinds of wild, outdoor spaces where our species’ ancient ancestors once roamed, and this affinity for the natural world transcends the ever-changing specifics of culture. Our love of the natural world is something we all have in common.

But what is love? The scientific theory of biophilia is interesting as far as it goes. Biologists talk about biophilia in terms of affinity, attraction and affiliation, but for most of us, love goes beyond what those words suggest. It’s a truth that even teenagers can grasp, as Marty reminds us in Dan in Real Life: “Love isn’t a feeling. It’s an ability.” Love is something that we do.

Maybe that sounds a bit sappy, so as the pop song goes: Let’s get meta-physical. In her book Radical Optimism, Dr. Beatrice Bruteau explores a theological approach to love as a sacred mystery. For Bruteau, love is a relationship defined by a freely-willed act of creative self-giving. It is freely-willed because it is not compulsory, it cannot be earned or deserved; in this sense, love is an act of grace (or what I’ve seen some modern Hellenists refer to as, kharis).

Love is also an act of self-giving. As Bruteau explains:

In general, [love] seems to mean to give what one considers oneself to be, as distinguished from what one has, to give what cannot be separated from oneself: in order to give it, you yourself have to go along and be present. [bold added]

In this way, love is a bit like knowledge. We can give our knowledge away to others without losing it ourselves; and in fact, sometimes in the act of giving it away (for instance, through teaching), we discover that we gain even more. Yet unlike knowledge, love is not something we have, it’s something we do, a way of being — the dancer dancing the dance. Love requires us to be fully present to the one we love, to bring our entire being into relationship with the beloved. And so, Bruteau observes:

Since we cannot “detach,” or separate, what we give when we love, we must give the whole of ourselves. This makes us aware that we are a whole, a unity. That’s why love is so integrating and why it, above everything, makes us “holy” (whole).

This is why love is a creative act. In loving, I experience myself as the lover, the one who loves the beloved — in a sense, because I bring my whole self along in the act of loving, I have to “get myself together” and experience myself as a whole person. We are used to thinking of love as the act of being (or the longing to be) united with another. But love is also an act of individuation, of discovering our own wholeness and completeness. We experience our uniqueness and subjectivity as individuals, as well as the uniqueness and separateness of the beloved whose own individuality and subjectivity we recognize in our act of loving. After all, if we completely subsume the identity of the beloved into our own, there would be no beloved to love; and if we lose ourselves completely in the identity of the beloved, there would be no one to do the loving.

Therein lies the paradox of love: it both unites, and differentiates. Bruteau puts it succinctly this way:

Usually we have one principle to establish difference or distinction, and another principle to establish unity or sameness. But love has this unique property that it necessarily differentiates, because it consists of giving yourself to another, and by the very same act unites what it differentiates, because the intention of love is to unite thoroughly with the beloved. Neither unity nor differentiation, neither sameness nor difference, neither the one nor the many has priority; and neither is reduced to the other. [bold added]

The Breath of Being

“Breathing involves a continual oscillation between exhaling and inhaling, offering ourselves to the world at one moment and drawing the world into ourselves at the next…” ― David Abram

Dewed WildflowersBruteau, who is a Catholic theologian, sees the paradoxical nature of love as an essential aspect to understanding the Mystery of the Trinity, the doctrine that the Christian God is both one (the monotheistic, omniscient, omnipresent creator) and many (the three persons of the trinity: father, son and holy spirit). She goes on to explore how a god whose nature is love is, by necessity, a god of both unity and multiplicity, and why the number three is particularly significant as a number of holy communion and sacred community.[2]

But we do not need to suppose a transcendent monotheistic deity in order to benefit from Bruteau’s examination of love. In many ways, the mystery teaching of the Trinity can give us some important insights into our relationship with nature. Our relationship with nature gives rise to a paradox, in the same way that love creates a paradox. And that paradox — a relationship that both unites and differentiates — closely parallels the on-going struggle we have with the question of whether we are a part of nature, or separate from it. When we think of nature as our beloved, we discover that the answer is in fact: both.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that we are a part of nature, we arise from nature and nothing that we do is really “unnatural.” Everything about us — from our physical appearance, to our mental abilities, to our relationship with the surrounding environment — arises from the long process of evolution that has sculpted us as physical beings embodied in the material world, in relationship with our surroundings and the other beings who share them with us. We might make cities, but we construct them from resources found in the world around us, building them with our own physical bodies or with tools that we have also created from our environment. Even before the city is built, when it exists only as an idea in the mind of some engineers and architects, that idea takes shape within the physical brain and is inspired by the structures and forms that we see around us in nature. A city, as a human-built habitat, is no more “unnatural” than a beehive or a prairie dog tunnel. As Lupa writes in her post, “We Do Not Return to Nature. We Are Already There.“:

If we remember we are nature, that we cannot separate ourselves from nature, then we come to realize that our cities and other habitations are part of ecosystems — dramatically changed ecosystems, but there nonetheless.

On a more metaphysical or mystical level, we can see this understanding of nature reflected in Taoism, for instance, which sees the Tao (“the Way”) not only as a guide to follow but also as simply the Way Things Are. Taoists believe that, to a certain extent, you can’t not follow the Tao (which gives rise to the Taoist concept of wei-wu-wei, or the action of nonaction). When we talk of “human nature” or the “nature of things,” we’re saying that nature just means the reality of what is.[3]

But on the other hand, we have an intuitive sense that “nature” is not the man-made structures and mechanisms of civilization. This intuition has persisted for thousands of years and may reach as far back as our prehistoric ancestors. Although the concept of “nature” has changed and evolved over time and has manifested differently in different cultures, it seems that humans have long thought of themselves as separate from the rest of nature in one way or another. This intuition of our separateness is confirmed by the fact that current research into human psychology and neuroscience shows that being exposed to what we normally think of as “the natural world” (as opposed to what is “human-made”) actually does improve our sense of well-being, as well as boosting our concentration and creativity while helping to reduce stress. This research supports Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, that human beings evolved within certain natural environments and so have an affinity for those environments and the other living beings in them. In other words, we human beings have managed to create environments for ourselves that are not “natural,” insofar as they go against our own natures.

We might try to get around this apparent contradiction by using the word “wilderness” to describe these environments that are mostly characterized by the absence of human activity and yet are so beneficial to human health both physically and psychologically (and also, I would say, spiritually). Calling this “wilderness” instead of “nature” might help us to emphasize that cultivated or “civilized” human-made spaces are still part of the natural world, but this terminology has problems of its own. First, research suggests that even the presence of domesticated pets and houseplants can have similar beneficial effects — few of us would think of these plants and animals as “wild,” but most of us would still think of them as “nature,” even when domesticated (for example, when home decorators talk about having houseplants as a way of “bringing nature indoors”). In addition, to think of non-human-made spaces and landscapes as “wilderness” can suggest that they lack the order and structure of human-made spaces and are instead more chaotic or irrational, while at the same time implying that human-made spaces are not generally chaotic or disorderly. But then, wilderness landscapes have an order all their own, and human-made spaces can be quite chaotic.

Again, from a philosophical perspective, we see this difficulty repeated. As self-aware animals, we are able to think reflexively about ourselves and the world around us, and to organize the world into categories. If we can conceive of “the nature of things” as simply the reality of the way things are, then we can also imagine how reality might have been different. In other words, the moment we understand the idea that something is “natural,” we also create the possibility — even if only in our imaginations — of something which is unnatural, something that is fake or deceptive, something that appears to be other than what it really is. As tool-making animals who take great enjoyment in designing objects in imitation of other objects — and even using our own bodies to evoke the appearance of other humans, animals, plants, spirits and gods in ritual and art — it’s no surprise that we have come to associate “human-made” with this idea of what is “unnatural.” The fact that our self-awareness is itself natural, a result of our evolution as a part of the natural world, does not help us to resolve this paradox.[4]

The Love of Nature

“I come into the peace of wild things. I come into the presence of still water. I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.” – Wendell Berry

Purple WildflowersTo be a nature-lover is to recognize this paradox, not just as a human being in relationship with the rest of the world, but as a lover in relationship with the beloved. When we love nature, we see that our love both unites us with and differentiates us from what we love. In this way our love of nature affirms the most basic truth of our experience as self-aware creatures: that we are both a part of and apart from the world around us, that we are both whole individuals ourselves in a diverse community of other individuals, and united in a whole that transcends our individuality.[5]

We can think of our love of nature as something that is holy, because it affirms not only our own wholeness as individuals, but also the wholeness of what we love: the complex, interconnected unity of the whole world, of existence itself. And yet, this love is also sacred and affirms that “everything is sacred,”[6] because it puts us into relationship with the individuality and subjectivity of the many “parts” of the natural world, including our own selves. We come to know the spirit of a place and to love that place even while recognizing that the boundaries of that place are fuzzy, that it is a place deeply interwoven with every other place. The contemporary poet Gary Snyder puts it this way:

To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are a part of a part and that the whole is made of parts, each of which is a whole. You start with the part you are whole in.

Another poet and environmentalist, Wendell Berry, expresses the strange paradox of love that both acknowledges our union with the natural world and honors the space that separates us. In his poem, “How To Be a Poet,” he writes:

Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

And later:

Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

This one simple principle — the love of nature — gives rise to so many ideas and relationships and practices that it would be impossible to even scratch the surface of them all in this post (which is already rather longer than a competent blogger would have allowed it to get). Last year, I wrote a post that encapsulates some of my own beliefs that arise from my love of the natural world, and I’ll share just a few of those thoughts again here:

I believe in the Song of the World, a harmony of interweaving melodies woven from the chorus of atoms and earthquakes, of wind and fire, of sun and starlight, of misty woods at dusk, of the butterfly’s dance and the call of the heron, of rainstorms and rivers, of ocean tides and cresting floods, of blood and gore spilled red upon the white purity of snow and the black of the crow’s wing, of rosebuds and the smell of summer grass, of the gods in their myriad forms, of the beloved dead, of the spirits of the land. I believe this World Song is what the Taoists call “The Way of Things” — both the deep, resonating essential nature of all that is, and the guide of natural harmony that shapes the world and the land around us and within us, and that we shape in turn.

I believe that all things are a part of the Song of the World, and that all things also have a song, a unique self which embodies one of the myriad ways in which existence experiences and is conscious of itself. Rocks and whirlwinds possess a consciousness just as humans and house cats do, not to mention oak trees and gods and computer circuitry. I celebrate the raven-ness of ravens and the mollusk-ness of mollusks, the utter tree-ness of a tree and the stone-ness of a stone as sacred expressions of the numinous, each with its own gift of awareness and experience to give back to the World Song.

In the coming weeks as part of the Pagan Blog Project, many of my posts will explore aspects of my nature-centered spirituality in more depth and detail. For now, let’s set the poetry aside and find our way back onto firmer ground.

Isn’t It Romantic?

“Without beauty and mystery beyond itself, the mind by definition is deprived of its bearings and drifts to simpler and cruder configurations.” – Edward O. Wilson

Dried RosesSpeaking of poetry — what about those accusations that loving nature is just a kind of romanticism? In today’s society, romanticism has become a catch-call criticism for sentimentality, superstition, irrationality, naivety — in short, anything that makes us feel somewhat embarrassed and squirmy in public.

Sentimentality is not a problem that’s unique to loving nature, however; it can creep into any kind of loving relationship. The problem of sentimentality is basically one of boundaries. Sentimentality reduces the object of its sentiment from a unique, whole being in its own right, to merely the stimulus for pleasurable emotions. It fails to acknowledge or value the tension that exists between the lover and the beloved as distinct and separate, but instead collapses under the weight of the lover’s enjoyment of the beloved, subsuming the one into the other. In other words, the problem of sentimentality is its lack of distance.

This is why Romanticism as an aesthetic and philosophical movement was so often attacked by thinkers grounded in the values of the Enlightenment and modern science. Nothing is more important to the scientific mind than objectivity, the distance between the observer and the object being observed, which allows the observer to aspire to as unbiased a perspective as possible of the nature of things, that is, the “way things really are.” Respecting the distance between the observer and the observed is also essential to acknowledging our limitations as observers, our inability to know or see everything — and so, repeatability and peer review are also highly valued from a scientific perspective. These values clash with the Romantics’ tendency to prize individuality and originality, the uniqueness of every person’s own subjective experiences as unlike anyone else’s and valuable in their own right, whether they can be verified or not.

The problem is that this desire for distance and objectivity collapses in the other direction. If sentimentality is the lack of distance, then objectivity can err on the side of too much distance. For instance, science has a tendency to think about love in terms of affinity and attraction, ascribing its effects to chemicals in the brain and the bloodstream, and it takes no real interest in the subjective experiences of the objects that it studies. This reductionist view has had some bizarre consequences that have actually kept scientists from being able to understand “the way things really are.”[7] Subjectivity is an essential aspect of how we experience and understand reality, and attempting to suppress or downplay our own subjectivity has led to a tendency (in the hard sciences especially) to deny the subjectivity, and therefore the individuality and innate value, of others.

This is why the Romantics themselves were so skeptical and distrustful of the rationalistic mindset of their day, which they thought reduced the world (and the human beings in it) to mindless, mechanistic processes that could be harnessed and manipulated according to the whims of those in power. It’s important to remember that the Romantics did not merely idealize nature as pure and good, they also defended the rights of the individual against institutions of injustice and exploitation, and upheld the importance of cultural diversity in the face of colonialism and imperialism.[8] When we shy away from acknowledging the subjectivity of others, we make it easier to think of ourselves as the only ones who really matter, reducing everyone and everything else around us to utilitarian means to our own ends.

The truth is that Romanticism and Rationalism are two sides of the same coin, and in many ways they were reactions to (and shaped by) one another. We live with the legacies of both movements in today’s society, and each has been tempered and challenged by the other. Today’s artists and poets make ample use of irony and postmodernism to maintain some of that distance which preserves their works from becoming merely sentimental. Today’s scientists have to grapple with an ever-expanding array of specializations, some of which (like quantum physics) undermine the very belief that we can be objective observers of the phenomena we measure, while others (like ecology) affirm that we are, in fact, part of a vast, self-sustaining living system that functions as a single whole. Even the poster boy of scientific genius himself, Albert Einstein, said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” and discovered some of the most astounding insights into modern physics through imaginative thought-experiments, such as trying to imagine the subjective experience of a wave of light.

What does this mean for those of us whose love of nature plays a vital role in our spiritual lives? The lesson is, once again, one of dynamic balance between contradictory ideas — a kind of sacred paradox. We can work to bring art and science, romanticism and rationalism, into conversation with each other. We can understand our relationship with the natural world as characterized by both emotion and intellect, intimacy and mystery, union and separation. We can appreciate the knowledge that science gives us while also acknowledging the subjectivity and individuality of beings vastly different from ourselves.

In fact, we can heal the rift that both the Romantics and the Rationalists were unable to heal in their day: the rift created by our ability to imagine that we are separate from the natural world. This perceived separation is neither a sign of our sinful, fallen state of being, nor an illusion that we must force ourselves to awaken from, nor a mastery that we need to achieve.

Our perceived separation from nature is an expression of our capacity to love — for we could not love the world if we could not in some way see it as the beloved, the Other towards which we feel such longing. It’s our very ability to love — and not our imperfections or our inability to see the “way things really are” — that gives rise to the old schism that we have tried so hard to resolve one way or the other.

As soon as we see through the eyes of the nature-lover, we see that there is really nothing to be resolved, and that we wouldn’t even want to resolve it if we could. Just as the lover and beloved are forever swept up in the dance of union and differentiation that both sanctifies them as whole individuals and carries them beyond themselves into relationship with the other — our love of the natural world both unites us with nature and forever holds us at a distance. This tension between intimacy and mystery is both ecstatic and deeply fulfilling, and our longing keeps us moving through the spiraling dance. We are children of nature who make and unmake the world, and ourselves, again and again through our creative acts of love:

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
     And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
     I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
     The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
     Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
     And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
     I arise and unbuild it again.

                                                                 - from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “The Cloud”



[1] Wilson is also, apparently, the world’s leading expert on ants. So, there’s that.

[2] For Pagans who are in the habit of thinking of monotheism as simplistically monolithic (or simply nonsensical), I definitely recommend her book as a good introduction to some of the nuances to be found in some approaches to Christian theology.

[3] In this sense, we might even think of the gods as “natural” — they are what they are and what it is their nature to be.

[4] Incidentally, this problem doesn’t require humans to be the only animals with self-awareness. It might be that all animals, or indeed all living beings, have some form of self-awareness and so experience this odd kind of disconnection or separation. If we think of wonder as the sudden, overwhelming experience of just how strange and yet amazing it is that things are the way they are, instead of being some other way, then Charles Darwin might well have been right when he said that “all animals feel wonder.”

[5] Now I know what you’re thinking. “This just sounds like monism,” you say? But it’s not. Monism is the philosophical theory that all things are reducible to a single substance or reality, and that the most basic characteristic of the universe is unity. My belief, however, is that the universe is both a unity and a plurality — that the paradox of self-identity that we experience within ourselves reflects a basic paradox about the nature of existence — and that this paradox of union-and-differentiation is irreducible to either one or the other. This might seem like a small difference to make, but it makes all the difference in the world. (Yep, that was a pun. You’re welcome.)

[6] Despite the protests of somewhat curmudgeony yet loveable old Pagan philosophers.

[7] For instance, it was only last year that the modern scientific community finally came to the consensus that humans aren’t the only animals to possess consciousness and volition. This is not a question of materialism, exactly. Even though materialists generally reject the existence of the “supernatural,” many of them still acknowledge the reality of “subjective experience” in conscious living beings — after all, as human beings, they experience that subjectivity firsthand on a daily basis.

[8] Folks today who accuse nature-centered Pagans of being “romantic” and culturally appropriative might be surprised to discover that the trend within Paganism towards reconstructionism as a way of respecting cultural context is itself a legacy of the Romantics.


This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. Why not join in?

Stay tuned next week for “By Candlelight: Celebratory Ritual”….


Share This Post:

Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

2 Comments

  1. Alison Leigh Lilly
    Sep 30, 2013

    This is a test comment.

  2. Erin
    Feb 9, 2014

    I love what you’ve expressed here, and was just sharing this basic idea in a group the other day. I appreciate how you have plumbed and probed the depths of this idea of otherness in order to be in relationship through the mutually dividing and uniting aspects of loving. :)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Universe is Full of Magical Things | What Stranger Miracles? - [...] came across this quote today after reading Alison’s post on biophilia. (A term which perfectly describes the intent of …
  2. By Candlelight: Celebratory Ritual | Alison Leigh Lilly - […] This is the primary purpose of ritual in my life. I do not shy away from words like “worship” …
  3. Bear: Companion of Winter | Alison Leigh Lilly - […] Stay tuned next week for “Biophilia: On Love and Nature“…. […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>