In the spring of 2012 a pair of robins picked a stepladder leaning against my house on which to build their nest. This had happened before and I was excited about watching this miracle happen again. Back and forth they went gathering mud, sticks and grass in their beaks and placing it on the top rung of the ladder. When enough of the pliable material had been patiently assembled they shaped the nest. Climbing atop the clay-like mixture they used their breast to give the nest a bowl shape. They pressed their breasts into the malleable mixture and their bodies vibrated and rotated and vibrated—amazing!
The robin’s instinctual identities are perfect for their job. Thousands of trips back and forth and finally a cozy but as yet empty nursery. Next came the four chicks, ravenous and robust, bobbing up and down. And ultimately, of course, they took flight. I can never know what the experience of the birds was, but my experience, as they say, was priceless.
I am a part of nature too and I am out everyday walking and watching, sniffing and listening. Take that away from me and I am diminished, I’m sure I would be desolate.
My grandchildren are active in outdoor and indoor sports and have regular experiences outdoors in nature. In the future, the way humanity seems to be trending, their grandchildren may find that identity and the related active lifestyle to be the exception. The following technological development foreshadows such a future. Why is that?
Diane Ackerman relates an experience similar to my story about the robins—but different. “One morning some birder pals and I spend an hour watching two great blue herons feed their five rowdy chicks…. As mom and dad run relays, the chicks clack wildly like wooden castanets, beaks flying, pecking like speed typists. Sibling rivalry is rarely so explicit.”
“The bird sanctuary offers a tapestry of trees, mallards, songbirds, red-tailed hawks, huge pileated woodpeckers and, of course, yellow-belied sapsuckers.” All of us could have had Ackerman’s experience along with the other 1.5 million people watching the great blue heron because, you see, she wasn’t really there in the Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, N.Y.
There were two live webcams affixed near the nest. In the future maybe billions of people will be satisfied with this kind of experience “in nature.” No driving long hours to get there, no mosquitoes, perspiration-soaked clothes or muddy boots.
What will be the effect on our mental health and our identities if our experience of nature is digital flat screen remote viewing rather than “being there?” “Richard Louv writes of widespread ‘nature-deficit disorder’ among children who mainly play indoors—something new in the history of humankind. He sees it leading to attention problems, obesity, depression and lack of creativity. Adults suffer equally. Patients with a view of trees heal faster than those forced to stare at city buildings.”
“In studies conducted by Peter H. Kahn and his colleagues at the University of Washington, workers in windowless offices were given flat screen views of nature. They reaped the benefits of greater health, happiness and efficiency than those without virtual windows. But importantly, they weren’t as happy, healthy or creative as people given real windows with real views of nature.”
In the final analysis, how satisfied we are with our lives depends more on whether we are contained in a healthy narrative with a healthy identity than what the details of our connection with the world of form “out there” are. But it will always be a thrill to find that robin red breast has decided to set up housekeeping in your backyard.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry:
Where Am I? The First Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival