Nature is my refuge, my inspiration and my home. It’s the closest thing I have to a church. The first thing I want to do when I visit a new country is go for a hike in the wilderness. If I’m having a problem, a walk outside always seems to help.
Here are some life lessons I’ve learned in nature.
10. Humans are vulnerable.
In a world of instant gratification, it’s easy to get used to the idea that we can have and do anything we want. But spend enough time in enough different habitats, and your own limitations are quickly revealed to you.
There are places where humans aren’t meant to go. In extreme heat, in extreme cold, our bodies start to fail us. There are animals we shouldn’t try to control, or possess, because we’re made of muscle and blood like the rest of the prey. And no power in the world can stop a falling branch in a high wind.
9. Patience is a virtue.
In the natural world, nothing comes on demand. Mushrooms don’t sprout until the conditions are right. The day you want to show some falcons to your friends is the day they’re hunting somewhere else. But if you return to the same site a few times, and take the time to observe what is around you, beautiful things will start to reveal themselves.
8. Life is brief and fragile.
Living close to nature, you see your share of death. Sometimes it’s tragic, like the beautiful spotted pardalote that broke its neck flying into my neighbour’s window. Sometimes it’s astoundingly cool, like the goshawk that sometimes uses the open span of my lawn to spot, catch and devour rabbits.
Living close to nature, you also start to see the things that don’t seem to change. The rocks. The water-courses. The trees so big you need three people to encircle them with your arms. And you start to realise that all this was here long before you, and may still be, long after you pass on.
It’s this very brevity and fragility that makes life precious.
7. No one is running the show.
Humans can make significant impacts on nature, for good and for ill, but we don’t control it. It doesn’t control itself. But, you might well ask yourself, if no one is in charge, who put me here? No one. You just arrived. Like an orchid, like a wren, you simply arrived here. There is no plan. There is no grand purpose to existence.
And that means that you have the freedom to decide your purpose for yourself.
6. You and your problems are cosmically miniscule.
When the endless sky arches over you, when nobody can hear your voice for miles, when life blooms around you in glorious colour and song, what does it matter that you had a crappy day at work?
There’s nothing like going outside for putting your own ego into perspective.
5. Animals are smarter than we give them credit for.
This is one of my favourite topics, and I could honestly write about it for pages and pages. It’s getting more and more difficult to determine what makes humans unique. Great apes can speak to us in sign language. Elephants create graveyards and mourn while stroking the bones of their loved ones. Dolphins like to pull goofy faces in the mirror. And when a wild parrot holds a nut in his foot, looks me in the eye and chirps, it’s hard to believe there’s nobody at home behind that focused yellow gaze.
4. There’s always something new to discover.
I’ve been walking the same track near the house I grew up in for ten years. Not once has a walk been the same.
Whether it’s footprints in the clay that show the exact texture of a wallaby’s feet, the sparkle of a thousand rainbows in the sunlit dewdrops on the green-gold grasses, or a new flower coming into season, there’s always a new joy to find.
3. Sometimes you must be cruel to be kind.
In nature, everything is fighting with everything else for dominance. Plants compete for light. Animals compete for territory, and for food.
Introduced species can very easily have an unfair advantage. A feral cat can kill thousands of native reptiles, birds and mammals in a year. In fact, one single domestic cat drove an entire species to extinction in 1894: the Stephen Islands wren. Similarly, an introduced tree can quickly create a monoculture that destroys the foliage of the understorey.
What’s the best thing to do in these situations? Remove the invader. Most people don’t associate killing animals or chopping down trees with saving the environment, but by doing so, it’s possible to improve a habitat and spare the suffering of thousands.
By the same token, if an individual creature is suffering to death in front of you, sometimes finishing it off – or taking it to the vet to be put down – is the best thing you can do.
No big metaphor with this one. This is literally about snakes.
There are five species of snake native to the bush where I grew up. One is mildly venomous. The other four are dangerously venomous. I don’t see them often, but they’re around. Once, I found one writhing in a death-grip with a skink. It was awesome.
If the day is warm enough for skinks, it is warm enough for snakes. Hiking boots and nice heavy footfalls. If it is warm enough for jacky lizards, it is warm enough for snakes. Don’t climb the waterfall.
If it seems too cold for snakes, be careful of the wood pile.
And the most important lesson I’ve learned from nature is…
1. There are no true endings, only constant change.
At the end of the day, as the light dies, there’s a moment when everything is silent. The birds have found roosts. The flowers are closed. It feels like the world has gone dead. But if you wait, you witness a transformation. A frog starts singing in a ditch. A possum wakes up and starts sniffing around for blossoms. The stars come out.
It’s the same with death. A male antechinus (a tiny carnivorous marsupial) goes into a mating frenzy in the breeding season. He works himself up so much that, in a matter of hours, he’s dead from exhaustion. The ants come along and dismantle the body, piece by piece. They use the energy from the meat to live. They make tunnels that aerate the soil. Their waste feeds the soil, which feeds the plants. Their bodies feed the echidnas.
Life goes on. Things that seem to be ending may only be changing, moving or entering a dormant period.
I know a lot of this stuff probably seems nihilistic, but I find it both humbling and comforting. The existence of life on Earth, given the overall harshness and barrenness of the universe at large, is nothing short of miraculous, and any single one of us is fortunate to be here.