Trevor Hancock: Recognizing the spiritual value of nature

The Midwinter Solstice is nearly upon us, and it is a powerful time of the year. For our ancestors, the shortening days and the growing cold must have been a source of concern every year; would the sun come back, would winter end?

So the point at which the sun stopped moving north and the days stopped growing shorter was a vitally important time of the year. The Midwinter Solstice was a time to celebrate, and of course our various midwinter festivals — Christmas, Hannukah, Diwali and others — are rooted in that time of year.

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Recognizing and celebrating the solstice is an important way of re-connecting us to the seasons and great cycles of nature. But in the past century or more, we have become increasingly disconnected from nature.

On average, in Canada, we spend only about one hour a day outdoors, and since we are 80 per cent urbanized, most of that outdoor time is spent in an urban environment, with little contact with nature.

Symbolic of our disconnect from nature is a wonderful but disturbing book that was published in the U.K. last year — The Lost Words. The lost words in question were words related to nature which had disappeared from the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. They included words related to common plants and animals in Britain (and for that matter, here in Canada) such as acorn, dandelion, fern, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter and willow.

In their place were new words such as attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste and voicemail. As the publishers noted, this shows “the outdoor and natural being displaced by the indoor and virtual,” something that was seen by many as “a powerful sign of the growing gulf between childhood and the natural world.”

Yet over the past couple of decades, there has been a growing body of work showing a wide variety of mental, physical, emotional and social benefits of nature contact. This, in turn, has given rise to a growing interest in issues such as outdoor play, nature kindergartens and “forest bathing.”

But it is deeper than that. Surely we have never known a time when we more desperately needed a strong connection between humans and nature.

We face not only a climate emergency but a wide range of other troubling human-induced global ecological changes that threaten present and future generations. I firmly believe that what we face is not a science and technology problem — we have known at least in broad terms the science of global change and the technologies we need to address the problems we have created for at least 50 years.

It is instead a social, economic, legal, political, cultural and ultimately ethical and spiritual problem.

Which is why faith communities are such an important part of the conversation, because we need not only to understand nature in an intellectual way, as the source of all that we need for life and health and for our material prosperity, but to feel a real emotional and spiritual connection to nature.

The need for that spiritual connection, and also a concern with ethical matters related to our relationship with the Earth, seems to be of growing importance for some faith communities here in Victoria and, for that matter, around the world.

In the past month or so, I have spoken on the issue of becoming a One Planet Region, and the ethical and spiritual aspects of that, with three congregations.

Many who experience nature would agree there is a spiritual quality to that experience. Nature can be beautiful, a source of peace and tranquillity, of reflection and contemplation; it can also be awe-inspiring and humbling as we see the power of a river, a storm or a volcano, or the immensity of a forest, a canyon, a desert, the ocean or the sky.

Rediscovering the spirit in nature, experiencing both the awe and the peace that nature can provide, may be one of the more important ways for us to address the massive ecological, social and economic challenges we face.

Because ultimately, saving us from ourselves is not a technological but a spiritual quest to live in harmony with and as part of — not separate from — nature.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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