Monday, April 20, 2009
“Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.” Hal Borland
You know what? The grass is greener. In bucolic Wayne, Pennsylvania, that is. Frankly, the grass is greener almost anywhere. Because most grass is greener than no grass. Because I live in a place, a wonderful place, that boasts very little of the green stuff.
Sure, we have Central Park and I love the Park. The fam and I have had many magical moments at Turtle Pond. But the truth is there is a paucity of nature here in this lovely concrete jungle. Does this matter? According to Yale professor of psychology Paul Bloom, the answer is a resounding YES. To kick off Earth Week, the New York Times included Bloom's fascinating article Natural Happiness in yesterday's Magazine. In this article, Bloom proffers an admittedly self-centered argument for why we should care about nature; it makes us happier and healthier creatures. He endorses Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson's well-known “biophilia” hypothesis, namely that "our evolutionary history has blessed us with an innate affinity for living things. We thrive in the presence of nature and suffer in its absence."
For me, this raises two immediate questions: (1) Is Bloom right?; and (2) Is this argument patent evidence of our human-centered thought?
I do think Bloom is onto something. Something big. Something fundamental. I spent the weekend amidst grass and flowers and trees and you know what? It was a good weekend. A happy one. The girls were all smiles. And, yes, I'm sure this had a lot to do with my In-Laws, the incomparable Grammy and Dad-Dad, and the tasty home-cooked meals, etc., but I do think the fact that we were outside for much of the time, tasting nature (not wilderness, but nature nonetheless) had a lot to do with it. On Saturday, we visited Chanticleer Garden, the former estate of the Rosengartens, a big pharmaceutical-family which has been open to the public since 1993. We spent the morning meandering through this utopia of flowers and foliage and fountains, and then enjoyed a yummy picnic of sandwiches from the local farmer's market. It is not a coincidence that this oasis is called "a pleasure garden."
As much as Bloom and Wilson and the biophilia hypothesis might be true, is this argument another indicator of misguided, human-centered thinking? Perhaps. After all, this is Earth week and not Human Happiness week and we should care about the earth and work to protect it because it is intrinsically valuable not because it enhances our happiness quotient. Now, all of this might be true, but if our bottom line is to preserve nature then we should collect all of the reasons, even if they are rooted in self-centered soil. As Bloom says, "Look at it from the coldblooded standpoint of the enhancement of the happiness of our everyday lives. Real natural habitats provide significant sources of pleasure for modern humans. We intuitively grasp this, and this knowledge underlies the anxiety that we feel about nature’s loss. It might be that one day we will be able to replace the experience of nature with “Star Trek” holodecks and robotic animals. But until then, this basic fact about human pleasure is an excellent argument for keeping the real thing."
Practically speaking, what does this mean for us city-slickers? For us Manhattan moms? Bloom refers to author Richard Louv's disconcerting argument that modern children suffer from "nature-deficit disorder" because they have been disconnected from the myriad physical and psychic benefits that result from organic contact with nature. Great. Just another disorder to worry about. But, seriously, what can we do about all this?
I'm not so sure. But suddenly, I am very thankful for the blossoming Magnolia outside our brownstone window, for the Park in our backyard, for the pesky pigeons Toddler chases on the sidewalks, for Grammy and Dad-Dad's open arms and green grass mere hours away.