‘... and to the heart inspires vernal delight and joy ...’
- John Milton,
For John Milton, 17th century English civil servant and immortalised poet, humankind began its epic journey in a spring garden - a garden that was the genesis and ideal of the natural world that hosts our human enterprise. Certainly, people are inherently sons and daughters of the soil - of the ‘dust’ that sustains and nourishes us physically and psychologically, and in which we will all ultimately lie. At this exceptional time, when human sociability is best expressed in physical isolation, let’s find in nature – as Milton’s Adam found in the garden of Eden - the solitude that is sometimes our best society.
In his magnum opus of 1890, The Principles of Psychology, William James distinguished between two types of attention: the effortless ‘involuntary attention’ we give to things that are inherently fascinating, and the ‘voluntary attention’ that must constantly fend off distraction. A century later, the psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan used this seminal distinction as a springboard for their groundbreaking research into the relationship between natural environments and the human psyche, and by extension, our orientation, interrelatedness and productivity. The following reflections owe much to the research of Rachel & Stephen Kaplan as laid out in their treatise The Experience of Nature, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
With the passing centuries of the human saga, a chasm has developed - and continues to grow - between what is important to us within our societies, and what is interesting to us. The biblical Adam’s first undertaking in the Garden of Eden was to give names to the incredible succession of bizarre creatures that his creator, surely with some mirth, presented to him: fluffy, feathery and fantastic. Because, generally speaking, life is now less inherently interesting than it was for Adam when he confronted his first giraffe, humankind must now attend to its matters of importance whilst batting away more appealing distractions. Even in comparatively recent times, such as those celebrated by the 19th century English novelist and rural enthusiast Thomas Hardy, people undertook a variety of work tasks in a day. Not so in modern society, where specialisation compels us to spend many hours focused on specific tasks that stretch our ‘voluntary attention’ – or as Kaplan & Kaplan term it: ‘directed attention’. This attentional stretch exhausts us mentally, making us less competent, less cooperative and rash.
An enduringly popular activity among mentally fatigued individuals is sleep; however, this has a limited application. Rest for mental exhaustion must be available during wakefulness as well. The notion of ‘getting away from it all’ is familiar to everyone who has experienced mental fatigue. The conceived escape is to a situation that makes minimal demands on our ‘directed attention’. With trips to the coast, the mountains or even to Turnbull’s not an option at the present time, we must find our escapes closer to home. Courtesy of evolution, natural environments – including gardens, balcony pots, window boxes, window views, and on-screen nature experiences - are effortlessly engaging for human beings. While many of nature’s fascinating objects are dramatic, those closest to home are usually less so. ‘Soft’ nature fascinations - such as sunsets, scents and songbirds - induce reflection that addresses our internal noise, and which lead us to contemplation of our actions, possibilities, goals and priorities.
Nature’s sensory objects contribute only partly to our enchantment with the natural world. Much human fascination is derived from engagement with processes, especially processes that involve elements of uncertainty and mystery (witness the enduring appeal of gambling and thrillers). In our interaction with nature, whether this aligns with observatory, domesticating, predatory or survival interests, we can immerse ourselves in a consumingly satisfying journey of discovery. These journeys satisfy the human love of learning, which is keenest when it takes the form of a gradual experience rather than direct instruction. In our comprehension of nature, our management of it or triumph over it, humans can enjoy the satisfaction of achievement and pride; but perhaps more satisfying than these is the sense of oneness we can all feel with the natural world – a oneness that speaks to us, and tells us who we are.
Whilst we attune to the challenges and charity of these trying times, let’s not fail to attune also to the restorative dimensions of Milton’s ‘vernal delights’, for within them is paradise found.