Nature, explained.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” So said American “Father of National Parks” John Muir in 1938. He had a unique and powerful way of describing nature and this particuilar piece of advice comes across as practical, mystical, exciting and impossible–all at once. But inspiring nonetheless. Whenever I discover something or someone holding a key to that “way through” I want to share it. The Nature of Nature: Why We Need The Wild by Enric Sala (National Geographic, 2020), are that thing and person.

To be honest, I had this book for quite awhile before I finally read it. (My guy gave it to me as a gift two Christmases ago.) Why did I procrastinate? Because I was afraid. I’ve just been so weary of reading books, email newsletters, news reports, etc., all well-meaning and filled with top-notch research, about our environmental crisis. Some offer hope. Some even point to actions that have actually helped. But the general consensus is that we’re in a very bad place (of our own making) and, chances are, any future actions will probably be too little and too late. I’m tired of being overwhelmed and frustrated. I was afraid this book was just going to make me sad. Some more.

But it didn’t.

A woodland portrait
Bruce Peninsula, 2018

Mr. Sala, a marine biologist, conservationist, National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence and founder of the Pristine Seas project, has written a book that speaks to both your heart and your head. Written in a clear, concise style that’s still personal and engaging, the book fulfills a couple of very tall orders and does so elegantly. First, he explains how nature works. Yup, the whole crazy/beautiful interconnected shebang–animals, humans, plants, soil, climate and, refreshingly (because so often I find books on nature only covering things terrestrial) oceans and the critters in them as well. This is the part that will most likely touch your heart. But he doesn’t stop there.

Sunset over Pacific Ocean
Northern California, November, 2017.

Sala is clear that his intent is to help us understand this wondrous process so that we’re in a better position to also appreciate why we need to protect it. Then he segues into answering “Why we need the wild” which is also the subtitle of the book. He does this with breathtaking pragmatism. Through his work with a variety of fellow researchers and scientists, he proves that conserving nature makes economic sense. This is crucial because, he reminds us, when you’re trying to convince a country to protect a portion of their land or marine area, the best way to grab a government leader’s attention is to talk money–as in how much their citizens will benefit from protecting rather than decimating nature.

The last chapter of his book, also entitled “Why we need the wild“, he asks this question:

Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the ruins of the Parthenon, to name a few… These places are part of our identity as a civilization. They are global tourist destinations and, for many, sites of sacred devotion. Shouldn’t the natural world be all of that, too: part of our identity, revered destinations, sacred sites?

Enric Sala, The Nature of Nature, 2020

The inner, jaded me surfaced. All those places he listed are manmade. We seem to have no problem standing in awe of magnificent things of our own making, I thought. Whether spiritual, such as Angkor Wat, or decidedly secular, like the Great Wall of China, we can be very impressed by our own achievements as a species and equally shocked, outraged and inspired to raise all kinds of money if any of these “wonders of the world” are damaged.

But, “[t]he truth is,” Sala writes, “we need forests more than we need cathedrals.”

Wildflowers in spring
Bruce Peninsula in April, 2019.

The Nature Of Nature is a beautiful reflection of Sala’s own transformation from academic to activist. In his words, he got tired of writing the obituary of the ocean. Now he very actively helps protect it and, with this book, spreads the word that conservation is not only the right thing to do, it’s very do-able.

I wanted to know more about those success stories so I did a quick Google search and found:

And then I reminded myself about that American idea of creating national parks; an idea that has spread to many different countries. There’s now more than a quarter million designated protected areas worldwide in 248 countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. One of those places is the U.S.’s own Yellowstone national park. Not all protected areas are on land, either. Mr. Sala’s Pristine Seas project is responsible for 24 marine reserves created and over six million square kilometres protected.

Enric Sala’s book is testament to his ability to get the job done. He takes complicated issues and brings to them clarity, positiveness and practicality. What you’ll take away from The Nature Of Nature will be sobering enough, but you’ll also discover people and initiatives that are successfully tackling and solving the issues of protecting our planet. And that is something to feel good about.

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