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In Context #8 (Fall, 2002, pp. 19-22); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

Love and Detachment
How We Can Reconnect with Nature
Stephen L. Talbott

  Stimulated by the symposium, "Conversing with the Intelligence in Nature" (see the report in News from the Institute, above), and challenged by David Abram's moving plea for re-engagement with the sensuous earth, I wrote the following set of post-symposium reflections. They were intended for circulation among the symposium participants, and here I have retained some of the personal and informal quality of the original text. You will, of course, have to read somewhat between the lines in order to discover the symposium context from which these remarks have arisen.

The individuals mentioned in these remarks were among the symposium participants. In particular: Jon Young is founder and director of the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Washington; Ron Brady teaches philosophy at Ramapo College in New Jersey and is an affiliate researcher of The Nature Institute; David Abram, around whose work the symposium was centered, wrote the award-winning book, The Spell of the Sensuous (1996).


The Dutch phenomenological historian, Jan Hendrik van den Berg, writes about our estrangement from the world this way:
Many of the people who, on their traditional trip to the Alps, ecstatically gaze at the snow on the mountain tops and at the azure of the transparent distance, do so out of a sense of duty .... they are simulating an emotion which they do not actually feel. It is simply not permissible to sigh at the vision of the great views and to wonder, for everyone to hear, whether it was really worth the trouble. And yet the question would be fully justified; all one has to do is see the sweating and sunburned crowd, after it has streamed out of the train or the bus, plunge with resignation into the recommended beauty of the landscape to know that for a great many the trouble is greater than the enjoyment. (van den Berg 1975)
Surely the passengers on the bus want to appreciate nature. They may even feel guilty for their flat response. Gazing at the impressive sights, they know they should be moved by what confronts them, perhaps moved to tears, but their eyes remain dry. Can they help it if they draw only a blank? Despite their yearning, nothing specific and concrete speaks to them from the landscape.

I identify with those sightseers. I, too, draw mostly a blank. Isn't it the case that most of us today scarcely experience the natural world? Which is to say: isn't it the case that we cannot render the world phenomenal for ourselves, that we cannot bring it to manifestation? Its speaking, its expressing, is what the world is, and if we cannot interpret the speaking, cannot comprehend the expressing, then nature's presence is an absence for us.

A second symptom. Jon Young mentioned how his students, after extensive, life-changing immersion in nature, typically run into a brick wall of misunderstanding from family, friends, and surrounding culture. The conflict can be psychologically devastating, and has two sides: the larger culture fails to see the value of the student's experience; and the student, despite the richness of his new experience, has few means to confront the massive conceptual investments of a society plunging heedlessly forward in its disconnection from nature.

Perhaps those Native Americans who faced the European invasion would understand something about the dismay and confusion of Jon's students. In fact, we can take the worldwide capitulation of indigenous cultures before the Western onslaught as a third symptom. The symptom, repeated so frequently and catastrophically, testifies not only to the corrosive force of Western culture, but also to an inadequacy in the overwhelmed indigenous cultures—an inadequacy in the straightforward sense that these cultures met a historical challenge they could not contend with.

Here I'm thinking primarily of the traditional cultures that have failed to resist the blandishments of Hollywood, the temptations of money and power, and the attractions of slick consumer goods—not those cultures that " had no chance" because of the sheer force of external violence brought against them. Of course, it's true that there's a kind of violence in all forms of cultural aggression. But it's also true that even where the overt violence was crushing, a lesson of inadequacy remains—a lesson for us. Nearly all of us—certainly if we are likely to read words such as these—stand to one degree or another within the offending culture. We find ourselves willing or unwilling participants in it, and the problem of an adequate, healing response to the hubris of power, which may have been an impossible problem for the Native Americans, remains the decisive and inescapable problem for us today. This is now true regardless of which culture we identify with. Either we find the nearly impossible, adequate response to mindless consumerism and accumulating technological power, or there is no hope.

I don't think it will do to say, "If we can just immerse enough young people in nature, our pathologies will eventually heal themselves." Such immersion may be a prerequisite for healing, but by itself it is insufficient, for our alien habits of thought run deep. We are scarcely aware of them, and therefore we are not wholly free with respect to them. Take any group of students who have spent years reconnecting with nature, and you will find that nearly all of them are still bound by unexamined ways of thinking about cause and effect, mechanism and organism, part and whole, self and other. When, for example, they look at chromosomes and genetic data banks, they will almost inevitably think about these more in the manner of the genetic engineer than in the spirit of the native American. "Getting close to nature" does not by itself enable us to transform and redeem the language of molecular genetics.

One of the most inspiring things at our symposium was Jon's instruction about the ways of birds. I personally hope to follow at least some of the path he laid out. Yet we do need to acknowledge that university and industrial research laboratories will not empty out and close up shop simply because we've managed to fulfill the dream of 50 million people listening to the language of birds. It's true that one can hardly imagine any single thing that would have a more powerful, transforming effect upon society. But it's also true that there remains a logic, a body of thought, a momentum of thinking represented by our foundational cultural enterprises that cannot be challenged except by reckoning with it in its own terms. We must be able to walk into those laboratories, take up the language of cause, mechanism, and all the rest, and learn to shape-shift this language into a speech revealing a fuller reality.

The Need for a Change of Mind

Clearly, in order to grasp a fuller reality, we must turn toward whatever meets us in nature, attend to it, value it. But this is not all, for we might still find ourselves in the position of those sightseeing tourists. Even after we turn toward the Other, we will not recognize its speech and gesture unless we have also enlarged our conceptual resources.

If today we mainly draw a blank when we look at nature, it is because we cannot see what we cannot name, and we have few names left that are adequate to the life of nature.

This is where I find David Abram's work so inspiring. He helps us to recover a language for experiencing nature's depths. At the same time, his impressive scholarship and his many years of travel and anthropological investigation remind us that what things mean—what their true names are—is not given to us automatically in the very act of encounter. Meaning may have been given that way to our ancestors, but today—for most of us anyway—getting at meaning requires a disciplined inner activity. Meaning does not come ready-made from "out there"; we must summon it also from "in here" in response to what meets us as Other. Both movements are necessary: a receiving from the Other and a giving from ourselves. Truth and meaning arise from the harmonious encounter of the not-yet-manifest Other and our own conceptual resources—our thinking.

By "thinking" I do not mean only our thinking about things once we have perceived them. I am also pointing to the conceptual content that is so habitual for us, so much a matter of "common sense," that it is already built into our perceptions by the time we experience them. As Ron Brady showed in his paper, without this figurative or imaginative thinking we would not perceive anything at all. And because this thinking is our own activity, we can (with however much difficulty) slowly change it—a task that David's book promotes so wonderfully well. Through this reconceiving, we allow expression to nature where before we heard only its silence.

But a change of mind is required not only of cultures that have been cut off from nature. If we ask how the remaining indigenous peoples could become more sturdy and resilient in the face of cultural aggression from outside, one answer might be: they must take conscious hold of the sources, the riches, of their own culture, raising these to full conceptual clarity—which is, to some extent, to objectify these riches and therefore to gain a certain freedom and independence with respect to them. Then, choosing what to hold onto, they can organically evolve their cultural heritage according to its own inherent potentials, rather than allow it to be bulldozed by an alien cultural imperialism.

The obvious retort here is that the detachment and objectification enabling this conscious choosing are alien to most indigenous peoples—and much of the wisdom we value in their cultures is related to this fact. So the necessity I'm pointing at is indeed radical—but then, so is the fate of being overwhelmed by a globalized aggression. The fact is that no culture can survive today except by transcending itself. Simply being is no longer an option, if it ever was. The task of preserving a culture already implies change. This should hardly surprise us, for all life sustains itself through a continual becoming.

All this points us toward a broad movement, an evolution, of human consciousness. And we should not become so one-sided as to forget the essential contributions that Western civilization has made to this evolution.

Consciousness and Detachment

Today, I believe, all healthy movement toward the future must be founded increasingly upon conscious clarity and choice. A native wisdom that remains merely what it was cannot survive in the modern world. A degree of separation from nature—the separation that makes conscious choice possible—lies in our destiny. There is no escaping the necessity for an inner activity that originates within ourselves, in freedom from all natural compulsions. There is a shift in "directionality" here: where once it may have been enough for us to be moved by the natural world, now we bear some of the responsibility for the future movement and evolution of that world. This in turn requires that we stand outside as well as within it.

To move in perfect unison with our environment was, in a sense, to be moved by the environment, just as to speak in perfect unison with our environment was for the environment to speak through us.

Many today seek to rediscover a harmonious life within nature, but the harmony cannot be purely of this old sort. For the seeking itself, along with all the political and deliberative processes supporting it, bespeaks a historically recent burden of choice and freedom. We must not allow ourselves simply to be moved by our environment. We can usefully seek only by consciously choosing what we will seek, and through this choosing we inevitably bring something new and creative to nature. The very choice to reject much that our species has done in the past already separates us from nature in the old sense; this choice can only take place across that aesthetic distance, and within that reflective space, opened up by our temporary alienation from nature.

If, as aliens aboard the planetary tourist bus, we find ourselves pitifully locked up within ourselves, perhaps we are being pressed, in part, toward an inward search—a search for those powers in nature that once moved us, once spoke through us from without, but that now must be consciously exercised as our own powers. Not merely our own, but our own as in "you now bear a special responsibility for nature's becoming; nature seeks to realize itself in part through your conscious activity."

I believe we can recover a harmony with nature, but it will be a harmony with a new "directionality." Our relating to nature will be a moral, artistic, and scientific venture, consciously embraced and undertaken at our own initiative. We will have to take ourselves in hand in a deliberate fashion.

Nothing I have said argues against our unity with nature, although it does point toward a change in the nature of this unity. An organic unity becomes more profound as the parts woven into and weaving the unity gain their own distinctive, individual character. In Coleridge's terms: an organic unity becomes most profound when the parts have the greatest interdependence while at the same time they "have themselves most the character of wholes" (Coleridge 1848, pp. 44-45). Think of the highly developed organs of the mammal—heart, lungs, liver—each with its own distinct, integral character, and yet each thoroughly integrated into the larger whole. The part's own relative wholeness makes possible its union with the larger whole on entirely new and more complex levels.

Similarly, the man and woman who can live most independently of each other can also form the deepest, most integral bond of marriage. The marriage now becomes a creative venture freely entered into—and can be all the higher for this fact. If we have found ourselves with a new independence from nature, it is so that we can begin to love her, be re-unified with her, in a way that only a certain distance allows. Our ability to destroy nature is the unavoidable flip side of our opportunity to enter into a new and higher sort of unity with her. So we cannot be content simply to bemoan the various cultural conditions that prepare the way for ecological destruction. They also prepare the way for a higher responsibility.

Centered in Our Humanity, Embracing the World

It is common among those urging a healthy respect for nature to react against every sign of anthropocentrism. I hope, however, that the foregoing suggests why we cannot reject all anthropocentrism as unhealthy. Yes, we should recognize how human ways of thinking can destroy the biosphere. But this is already to grant the decisive importance of our ways of thinking. Our task is to gain, among other things, a sounder thinking, a truer thinking, and to bring this responsibly to bear upon the earth.

Every species has its distinctive place within the natural order, and we have ours. Why should we not speak of it? How can we urge earth-responsibility upon our fellows without granting them the full gravity of their responsibility? If the raccoon must be true to its own nature—if it must be raccoon-centric—then surely we must be properly anthropocentric and true to our nature (Talbott 2002).

Really, how could we possibly escape, or even desire to escape, our own nature? Wouldn't the desire itself be an expression of our nature? Even when we ask people (quite properly) to transcend a narrowly anthropocentric view of the world, we thereby appeal to one of our most distinctively human capacities—our ability (born of our detachment from the world) to assume different points of view.

Every species helps to create and define its environment while also being defined by its environment. Part of what makes us human is our growing ability to understand our impacts upon the environment, which in turn lays a weight of choice and responsibility upon us. We cannot exercise this responsibility without certain inner resources, including acuity of insight, adequacy of conceptual repertoire, purity of heart, and resolve of will.

What this means is that the nature-awareness we have talked about cultivating must be double-sided. It must be turned lovingly inward as well as outward. We must attend to the manifestations of our inner life with all the subtlety and powers of distinguishing that we bring to the external world. Only in this way can we develop the inner resources adequate to meet the external world and comprehend its evolutionary potentials.

All this may seem hopelessly self-preoccupied when the urgent task is to save the earth from ignoble destruction. But listen to those words: "to save the earth from destruction." Isn't this already a heroic, almost god-like task? Our powers to destroy, and therefore also to remedy, look more and more like earth's primal shaping powers. Here's how Bill McKibben puts it:

We are no longer able to think of ourselves as a species tossed about by larger forces—now we are those larger forces .... In the past decade a great windstorm and an epic ice storm have passed through here, leveling thousands of square miles of forest. By the old ways of reckoning, these were not disasters, just extreme incidences of the powerful forces that made this place. But now who knows what mixture of "nature" and of "us" they embody? Who knows what they mean? (McKibben 1999)
We have no choice but to begin learning what they mean. In many domains, from nuclear engineering to medicine, from genetic engineering to the fight against environmental degradation, we find ultimate responsibilities being thrust upon us willy-nilly. It is hardly a time to belittle those who must somehow find a means to begin rising to these responsibilities. It makes no sense to denigrate the humans from whom you ask world-shaping behavior. We need sources of exaltation, sources of selfless inspiration, fully as much as we need to deflate egocentric hubris. An appeal to what is highest in us is always the best way—perhaps it is the only effective way—to combat what is lowest in us.

I have come to appreciate the value of always trying to look at things from opposite vantage points. And so I seek to recognize not only the crimes committed against nature by my own culture, but also the essential strengths it brings for the future. Failure is often the essential preparation for success. It is no accident that many of the promising developments for preserving the health of indigenous cultures—for example, programs to introduce appropriate, small-scale technologies—have received their impetus and technical basis from Westerners who developed a love for the cultures at risk. Helena Norberg-Hodge and her marvelous work in Ladakh come to mind (Norberg-Hodge 1992). Such individuals pursue their work only because, thanks to their powers of detachment, they can stand outside their own culture, recognize its tyrannical aspects, and value what they find in an altogether different culture. This ability will more and more be demanded of all people in all cultures. And it is a gift arising in good part from the history of the West.

We must accept our needful things wherever we find them. We urgently need the wisdom of traditional cultures, a wisdom rapidly disappearing from earth. But we will fail in preserving this wisdom if we scorn the gifts that happened to come down to us through a culture whose whole purpose was, it sometimes seems, to destroy tradition—but also to free us from the tyranny of tradition. Today, we can preserve a tradition only by standing with one part of ourselves outside it—and, by that very act, modifying it. It is this detached yet responsible part of ourselves I have been trying to fortify with these remarks.


Abram, David (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Random House.

Coleridge, S. T. (1848). Hints Towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life. London: John Churchill. Available in reprint from UMI Books on Demand,

McKibben, Bill (1999). "It's Mostly Us Now." Orion (Autumn), p. 25.

Norberg-Hodge, Helena (1992). Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2002). "Ecological Conversation: Wildness, Anthropocentrism, and Deep Ecology." NetFuture #127.

van den Berg, Jan Hendrik (1975). The Changing Nature of Man. New York: Dell Publishing Company.

Original source: In Context #8 (Fall, 2002, pp. 19-22); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: Love and Detachment

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