The bold proclamation that we should protect and connect half of the planet’s lands, seas and waterways no longer silences a room. The eminent scientist E.O. Wilson, having made “Half-Earth” a central tenet of his eco-evangelism, has helped to expand our collective field of vision. WILD Foundation has placed its projects and solutions within this scale for years under its Nature Needs Half umbrella. Most conservation biologists now concur that this is likely an appropriate and approximate target to ensure that the planet’s systems and all life — wild and otherwise — remain viable.
We are among those wild things. And all of this is good. While the scientific underpinning is sound and necessary, what does it actually mean to the mother of two toddlers in Atlanta, Georgia who has never heard of E.O. Wilson, or WILD Foundation, and likely never will?
This is the most interesting part, I think, because it’s where we all come together, regardless of our scientific proficiency, bound by the joy of a relationship that every human shares. Nature Needs Half asks us to consider and value nature’s needs, as we do the needs of another in any other caring relationship we value. We’re very aware of our needs every second of every day. We know when we need a jacket, when we need to sleep, when we need to eat, when we “need” to get our hands on the newest iPhone. To say that Nature Needs Half is to speak aloud a mantra that concedes that other things we relate to have needs as well. In this case, it’s nature. While we’re a part of nature, we’re not always the greatest at recognizing that the rest of nature has needs, and that those needs should be at the center of a balanced relationship. What nature has also shown is that it will fight for us. That it gives and gives and gives. Given half a chance, it thrives.
So what can we do to advance the needs of nature? While some argue that people will act on behalf of nature only if it is in their economic interest to do so, I can’t believe that to be true. If people feel healthier and happier surrounded by wild nature, why wouldn’t we pursue that? Of course we will. And it starts in our homes and in our communities.
Nature Needs Half is an ambitious, visionary perspective on Earth as a whole, but its relevance also rests in every individual, on every street, in every city. The WILD Cities campaign embraces this notion as it encourages people to regenerate and celebrate wild nature in and near urban areas – to improve quality of life for all. In its simplest form, that could mean changing the way you think about your yard. What if you set aside half of your yard, as the Audubon Society has championed, to create space for wild nature? The great thing here is that, while the small act alone may seem insignificant – one yard on planet Earth – it adds up fast, and it’s easy to visualize. According to Audubon, in the United States alone, about 45 million acres of lawn is covered by a largely lifeless carpet of sod. That’s eight New Jerseys. But since we’re talking about a balanced relationship, perhaps you’d still like some ordinary grass to admire and observe (mostly) and to trounce upon occasionally. That’s OK. In this give and take, give something back to nature. Maybe it would look something like these front yards along this treed boulevard. Space for butterflies, bees, birds, squirrels, frogs, insects, flowers…an endlessly happy checklist of wild and beautiful things that also contribute to the Whole Planet, ensuring that nature’s needs are met.
For decades, conservationists have suggested that we humans need to be a little less selfish, consume a bit less, and set aside a bit more for the wild. That may be true, generally, but let’s re-frame it as a celebration of abundance, of our wildness, of our oneness. The rest of nature gives us Life, in the capital letter sense of a fully-alive sort of Life. Let’s celebrate, and invite everyone to the party!
The other evening I walked the streets of my fair city of Boulder, Colorado, as I sometimes do to just quietly observe the goings-on. Natural street photography, I guess, but it’s really an excuse to walk and look for beauty, since the photos are rarely or never as good as the experience. Boulder is a naturally beautiful city, rich with trees, flowers, birds and many examples of wildness in its design, so it’s a lovely thing to enjoy just that.
What I always notice, though, is that people – and especially kids – tend to gravitate toward the trees, flower beds, boulders and other Things of Nature amid the commercial district. I’m looking for that correlation as I walk, so my perspective is biased, but increasingly we have scientific support for the effect that nature has on people, and why we seek it so.
On this particular evening I came upon a young girl swinging around and around a young tree in an elevated planter. Beyond her, people enjoyed the ease of dusk in their own leisurely way, but nobody was paying attention to the girl. As I approached, I lifted my camera to capture the scene and she stopped her swinging abruptly.
“Wait. I’ll pose.”
She stopped for the amount of time that it takes to depress a camera’s shutter button, and then carried on her dance with the tree.
I didn’t take any other photos that night as I reflected on that moment, of me being fully alive watching her being fully alive. With this tree, the young girl is strong. She is protected. She has joy. She is confident. She understands and is connected to something we sometimes lose as adults. This is our Life with the rest of nature. She, like the tree, is also vulnerable, and that’s why we care, about each other, about this Life.
When we talk about Nature Needs Half beyond the science, we’re talking about emotions and relationships and perhaps most of all – empathy. We’re now actively trying to understand and share the feelings of another. The legendary Aldo Leopold famously described a turning point in his life as the moment he saw the “green fire” die in the eyes of a wolf, a moment when he felt empathy for the wolf he had just killed, but also wondered about the perspective of the mountain that had observed the whole incident. He named the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” and it contains some of the most beautiful words ever written about our relationship with the rest of nature.
“I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.”
Like Leopold, all of us who care passionately about the wild world have had some experience that changed our life, and usually many, that continue, in a relationship we can’t imagine losing. So when our empathy for our friends in nature arises, we ask: what does nature need?
I am listening, River. I hear you, Ocean.
In the vast arc of history, I am small. My time is short, barely longer than a worm or duck. That’s OK. This is our moment, this is our Life.
I am HERE, with you, Juniper.
I am HERE, with you, Blue Jay.
I care about you and the rest of nature. #IamtheWILDHalf!