The Extinction of Experience

A pair of great spotted woodpeckers at a nest
A pair of great spotted woodpeckers at a nest.
© 2021 Duncan Greenhill

It’s the relationships we have that give meaning to our lives. We may achieve what passes for status – career success, possessions – via the consumption and competitiveness that marks and mars our society, but it is the relationships we have and nurture that define who we are. The relationships with our friends, our family, our ‘significant others’. But there is one significant other where the relationship is being undermined, neglected, where it’s faltering, right at the point where it’s at its most important for us. Our relationship with nature. As the world warms, our future is intimately linked to the natural world that sustains us. It’s always been that way of course, but the severity and speed of the change is about to refresh the memory of that in those that have forgotten it. This loss of connection, this ‘extinction of experience’ as Miller has called it, disadvantages us. It removes a source of knowledge that gives context to the challenges we face, and a source of comfort as we face them.

The public health measures around Covid placed restrictions on where and how we could connect with our fellow human beings, and in response many found connection to nature instead, experiencing benefits physically, but also mentally, in a world that had lurched away from what we recognised as ‘normal’. I live about as far from the coast as you can get in the UK, so travel restrictions meant that I could not journey to the ocean for significant periods of time. I responded by revisiting some of my local sites containing my second favourite habitat: woodland. I found familiar friends, like yellow lesser celandine flowers that reminded me of early morning walks to lectures at university. I saw both parents at a great spotted woodpecker nest as they changed shifts to look after their young inside, the male with a red flash on the back of his head. I saw nesting swans hatch four chicks, only for two of them to be lost, presumably to predators or illness. I found badger tracks, latrines, and spoil heaps from freshly dug setts in an area I have known since childhood, yet never knew they were there. The truth was I’d never looked, always discounting the area as too enclosed, too urbanised, too small to support a badger population. Walking through a woodland reminds me of the ocean in some ways. Where sunlight is fractured by the canopy and shards of light dance over the woodland floor I feel much of the same immersion, the same enclosure, that I do snorkelling through shallow water.

The connection between nature and us is one where each depends on the other. That may seem strange – it’s easy to see our dependence on nature, but how is nature dependent on us? Perhaps dependent is the wrong word, perhaps reliant instead. Nature is relying on us to stop inflicting the damage we are.

There’s a concept in ecology called ‘shifting baselines’, that the losses we register, the comparisons we make, are only to the earlier times we have experienced. We only compare change and loss to what we have previously known. We can see the change, like the maximum size of an particular fish landed for example, but assume that past point in time represents an undamaged state, a starting point of decline. But old photographs show fish of a size we would consider giants, fish that would dwarf what a fisherman now would call exceptional. Change is overlain by change and damage and loss accumulates, but we see only the latest phase of that damage, the rest hidden, like looking only at the outermost shell of a set of Russian dolls.

We learn the attitudes we hold as adults from our family, carrying them into independence. They colour the value we place on things. Our attitudes to nature we also bring from childhood, and childhoods devoid of messy play, sat in front of screens immersed in counterfeit experiences, divorce us from our ecological identities. We are as dependent on nature for our survival as an otter twisting through water chasing a fish. Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children and Nature Network talks of the ‘last child in the woods’, and how modern society, at least in developed nations, is increasingly isolating our children from experiencing nature in the way that earlier generations did. The consequences could be profound. What policies are made more difficult to introduce or implement when a community, without the knowledge that comes from that connection to nature, doesn’t see the importance and relevance of them? The changes we will need to make to deal with the climate emergency come to mind.

In the end, people protect what they love, they love what they know, and they come to know what they experience. That what we strive to protect is what we are ultimately dependent on makes immersion in those experiences all the more vital.