Last year I had the pleasure of visiting Sherwood Forest. I spent a very happy day wandering among its ancient oaks in glorious late autumn sunshine. It was a wonderful experience and a feast for the senses: the fabulous colour of the leaves, the rich woodland smells, and the sounds of leaves falling to the earth, of birdsong and of squirrels rustling around. Nowhere have I seen so many oak trees of such venerable age, of such varied shape and texture and bearing so many of the scars that come from long life: everything from lightning blasts to gaping cavities that look like homes for wood-elves. Basically they were some of the coolest trees I’d ever seen. If you like interesting trees, Sherwood is a good place to go. The Robin Hood legends, etc., are a bonus for those of us who love our history too.
Socrates once said that “the trees teach me nothing”. I respectfully disagree. Trees teach me a good deal. I’ve always loved trees and nature, and this visit reminded me of how valuable nature is. It provides beauty and acts as a source of fascination and perpetual delight. It’s a world of discovery you will never be able to fully explore. Being out in nature restores the mind, exercises the body and refreshes the soul. The RSPB rightly points out that children who spend time in nature are generally happier, healthier and more confident than those who don’t (which is why it’s such a concern that fewer and fewer children are connected to nature in this way), and I believe that’s true for adults as well.
All this is just on an individual level. Being out in nature offers not only immediate benefits to mind and body but also reminds us of the value of nature as a whole and our inter-connectedness with it. We are so completely dependent on nature that it’s easy to forget. Our food production relies on the quality of our soils. It’s been estimated that the services bees render by pollinating commercial plants reach £200m in value each year. That’s a staggering figure, and must be considered in tandem with the fact that bee populations have been in serious decline. If we allowed our pollinating insects to disappear, we’d have to artificially reproduce at great cost everything that they do for free. I could talk about air quality, carbon sequestration, the water cycle, natural resources of wood and earth, etc. The list goes on. Other studies have tried to put numbers on the value of other benefits we derive from nature, be it flood protection and water quality from peat bogs or tree-driven tourism, and although the numbers vary they are also huge. If it were possible to put a price-tag on everything that nature does for us, it would run to trillions. We’re talking silly numbers, ridiculous quantities of zeroes. What would we do without it?
And yet we undervalue it so drastically and so universally in our choices, priorities and mind-sets. Over-late we’re starting to combat climate change, but that’s not the only issue threatening nature. What about bio-diversity loss, what about pollution, what about over-development and the strain of a growing global population? What about the fact that 62 World Heritage sites are now threatened by climate change, according to the IUCN, everything from mountain glaciers to wetlands and coral reefs, and including some of our favourite places and most treasured natural wonders? Nature faces serious threats and serious challenges. Before we can solve some of these problems, we all need to learn to value nature more. Everything else will flow from that.
The value of nature is not just in what it gives us but also in what it is. Nature has value in its own right. Even if it offered nothing to us, nature would be valuable and worth protecting. Kant was right to prize nature for its benefits, but he didn’t seem to appreciate its own intrinsic worth. There is a danger of forgetting this if we go too far in commoditising nature. I look at Genesis and see that God called nature ‘good’ before humans appeared on the scene. Just because He places a higher value on us (‘very good’) doesn’t mean that what came before isn’t valuable. Far from it, we’re called to be stewards of nature – we have the responsibility of looking after it. This applies to individual species, specific habitats, whole ecosystems and the planet as a whole.
By looking after nature we also look after ourselves, and our children and grandchildren after us. We must teach them the value of nature, both in its own right and as humanity’s greatest asset. If we allow them to grow up dis-connected from nature, they won’t value it, and might make decisions and pursue lifestyles that have ruinous consequences. The job of looking after nature will be on-going long after we’re gone, so of far greater impact than anything we can do in our lifetimes is raising up a generation who keep the love and appreciation of nature alive. What we have enjoyed and benefited from should be there for countless generations to come; indeed, they should find it better than we did.
For more beautiful images, from Sherwood Forest and beyond, check out @mjhphotography1 on Instagram or MJH Photography on Facebook.
In writing this blog-post I was obliged to this article by Tristan Moyle at The Conversation called ‘We need a better philosophy of trees”, particularly for the references to Socrates and Kant. I find some of his other ideas interesting too, and so might you.