We Have Forgotten Who We Are

This split between wild and tame lies at the foundation of
both the addictive personality and technological society.
– Chellis Glendinning
We have forgotten who we are. We have alienated ourselves from
the unfolding of the cosmos. We have become estranged from
the movements of the earth. We have turned our backs
on the cycles of life.

– U.N. Environmental Sabbath Program

On the same morning this past week that I read the above lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Invitation,” I had an extraordinary chance to practice her suggestion for living more attentive to the natural world around me. In fact several months ago, I began a new spiritual practice of daily reading a poem from one of Oliver’s books for just that purpose. I have found it has deeply enriched my life.

Now, back to that extraordinary experience. It began as I was making my morning walk through the neighborhood where I live toward the train stop for my commute into the city. At the end of the second block, where I turn onto another street, I spotted a bird, a Blue Jay, hopping around and pecking at the ground amid the fallen leaves on the lawn of the corner house. Blue Jays are a rare sight around here. I used to see them often in the mountains of Colorado, so the sight of the bird called to mind those fond memories, but it also reminded me of Oliver’s words of invitation. Wanting to heed her observation to “change your life,” I let go of my need to rush for the train and lingered for bit, watching the bird search out his or her morning meal.


After a minute, I said good-bye to the bird, wishing it success, and moved on down the sidewalk, not knowing that awaiting me moments later was an even more wondrous sight. I had only taken a few steps, when I suddenly spotted up on the next block a large doe trotting toward me down the street (in earlier blogs I have mentioned that we live in a neighborhood bounded by rivers, streams, and forest preserves and that deer are quite plentiful here, despite it otherwise looking very “civilized”).

Then, much to my surprise, I saw that behind her, in close pursuit, was an even larger buck, with a great rack of antlers crowning his head. The two of them did not see me, and made their way toward me down the street until they were only across the next street corner from me, where they made their way around and toward the back of the corner house.

As I prepared to write this blog, these experiences – and the call from Oliver to take special note of them – reminded me of what I also recently had read from the ecopsychologists, like Chellis Glendinning. It was that our human species evolved on Earth in a gradual process taking place over some three million years and a hundred thousand generations, and along with and a part of the entire community of life. We may, as in my neighborhood, believe that our world consists of wood and brick houses, trimmed lawns, garden boxes, and asphalt driveways, but there is a world of nature all around us carrying on its rhythm of life as well.

As Glendinning observes, as humans we not only take our physical bodies from the nurturing elements of Earth, but also are “psychologically built to thrive in intimacy with” Earth. The reality of this, and how it affects our daily moods and ability to cope, is something I find worth exploring in more detail.

Glendinning notes that it was only 300 generations ago, or a mere 0.003 percent of our time on Earth, that humans began to lend their own hand to manipulating the processes of nature through the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals. In the West, the industrialized culture which now dominates us has only evolved through the course of five or six generations.

Glendinning suggests that the “mass technological society” in which so many of us now find ourselves is characterized by the same psychological symptoms which appear in acute trauma. This, she says, is key to understanding why our age is marked by so many addictions. She quotes psychologist Terry Kellogg, who explains that our addictive behavior is not natural to the human species. It is, rather, a response to “some untenable violation” done to us. This violation has the effect of any “trauma” – an experience so outside the range of “normal” human experience that we have no coping mechanisms for it.  This trauma, suggests Glendinning, is the “systemic and systematic removal of our lives from the natural world: from the tendrils of earthy textures, from the rhythms of sun and moon, from the spirits of the bears and trees, from the life force itself” (p. 51).

Glendinning goes on to describe our lives in contrast to those of so-called “nature-based” peoples (who represent the way our species lived for 99.997 percent of its existence):

Nature-based people lived every day of their lives in the wilderness. We are only beginning to grasp how such a life served the inherent expectations of the human psyche for development to full maturation and health. In nature-based people who today maintain some vestiges of their relationship to the Earth and their Earth-based cultures, we can discern a decided sense of ease with daily life, a marked sense of self and dignity, a wisdom that most of us can admire only from afar, and a lack of the addiction and abuse that have become systemic in civilization. (p. 52).

As I reflect back on my encounters with the Blue Jay and the deer on my morning’s walk the other day, and read these comments by Glendinning, I am of mixed opinion.  On the one hand, I recognize what we have lost in becoming “civilized.” I also understand that in the moment when I saw the antlered buck trotting down the street toward me, I microsoft cliparthad a range of feelings. As I focused on the array of pointed tips crowning his head, he seemed at once both magnificent and fearful. I felt both awe and vulnerability as I considered what it might be like to be the target of those antlers.

We humans today live in a particular moment in the flow of the river of evolution during which humans have sought over the eons to cope with both our human nature and our human vulnerability to nature. Ours, it seems to me, is also a moment in which we must become more cognizant of the price we are paying for our own protection from the realities and rhythms of that river’s source.

Glendinning, C. (1995). Technology, trauma and the wild. In T. Roszak, T.; M.E. Gomes and A.D. Kanner (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, healing the mind.  (pp. 51-53). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club.

U.N. Environmental Sabbath Program. (1991). As cited in E.Roberts and E. Amidon (Eds.), Earth prayers from around the world. (p. 70). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.

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