Living well in the world

What nature teaches us

The Eight Master Lessons of Nature: What Nature Teaches Us About Living Well in the World, by Gary Ferguson. Published by Dutton, an imprint of Random House, 2019.
The Eight Master Lessons of Nature: What Nature Teaches Us About Living Well in the World, by Gary Ferguson. Published by Dutton, an imprint of Random House, 2019.

Nature lovers are sure to enjoy The Eight Master Lessons of Nature: What Nature Teaches Us About Living Well in the World, by Gary Ferguson. So should anyone worried by the global coronavirus pandemic and the dramatic changes in our world. People often see humans as outside of nature, rather than fundamentally connected to it. Ferguson uses nature as a teacher to help us understand those connections and better navigate our daily lives and become more resilient. The lessons also provide hope for the future, a welcome salve during challenging times.

"After disaster and disruption, nature teaches us the fine art of rising again." This is Ferguson's most poignant lesson. Rejuvenation following major forest fires is a testimonial that in the wake of devastation comes new growth. Megafires rob the soil of nutrients; similarly, emotional trauma can lead to anxiety and depression as life seems to spin out of control. An ecosystem heals after a disturbance, as waves of new life build upon each other. In our human world, the first wave of recovery involves calming fears. Physical activity helps repair the nervous system, and mindfulness is "like a gentle rain falling on burned soil." Neuroscientists and psychologists have documented the power of nature. In times of turmoil, those who experience nature in their daily lives are more likely to emerge from difficulties emotionally intact. As we are hunkered down in our houses, we would be well served to go outside and experience nature in our own backyards.

The power of diversity is another lesson of nature. "The more kinds of life in the forest, the stronger that life becomes." There are more than a trillion species of plants, animals, insects and microbes on earth. Diversity makes ecosystems more resilient, and this is applicable to our human communities. Creative problem solving and better outcomes are fostered by teams of people with different backgrounds, lifestyles, life experiences and learning styles. Science is better served when a diverse group of people analyzes the same data from different perspectives.

"Healing the planet, and ourselves, means recovering the feminine." In the animal community, matriarchs help ensure species survive and thrive. For example, elder female elephants create defenses against lions and lead their herds to food and water in times of scarcity. In nature females have both nurturing and leadership roles, but this doesn't detract from the essential role of males. "The idea that one gender is more important than another is a human illusion – one that ignores the fact that nature is an expression of the balance between the two... Life thrives when the masculine and feminine are fully partnered," writes Ferguson.

"We live on a planet with energy beyond measure, yet life doesn't waste a drop." From sloths to hummingbirds, species have evolved in highly diverse ways to be efficient. Nature's emphasis on efficiency is a great teacher. Imagine what our world would look like if individuals and nations were aligned around living efficiently and taking only what they need. Efficiency is also applicable to how we think. Persistent anger and frustration are not healthy and are a waste of mental energy. Spending time in nature can ease tensions and contribute to positive mental energy.

Ferguson's other lessons from nature emphasize the value of mystery and embracing what we don't know, recognizing the significance of nature's web of connections and learning how our animal cousins make us smarter and happier.

"Old growth, the planet's elders, can help us be better at life," is the final lesson. Throughout the natural world, wisdom is transferred from mature adults to the least experienced member of the species. The strongest cultures are those that balance the energy and strength of youth with the life experience of elders. Humans are no exception.

Karen Ackerman Witter is inspired by nature. She has a master's degree in ecology from the University of Wales, owns a hill prairie nature preserve in Menard County and has experienced nature's power of awe when visiting national parks, traveling throughout the world and hiking in our own backyard at Lincoln Memorial Garden.

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