Scientists Unlocking Secrets (again)

I’m currently reading an article in the Guardian outlining some “groundbreaking research” by scientists into just why being in the forest makes humans so happy. You can check it out here.


I have to admit, as soon as I read the title, I felt a plume of scorn rising up within me. 

“This is exactly what’s wrong with the world,” I heard myself thinking.

There is something so colossally arrogant about humanity’s attempt to explain everything by using the scientific method. I appreciate the Guardian’s attempt to add validity to ecological awareness in the world; I really do. But it falls far short of truthful understanding and deep nuance, to place a scientific label on the mysteries of Nature.

For me, the problem is how science is glorified as “discovering” things that have been evident since time immemorial. When they succeed in proving the benefits or uses of some ancient thing like a forest (or even a clitoris), scientific experiments are held up as showing something new, unknown and beneficial. It’s like the facts weren’t really true or present, until the fancy scientists figured out a way to make them so. 

And even then, it’s all for our sake, so we can feel better.

The thing is, the forest itself is unimaginably older than humanity. (Try reading Richard Power’s 502-page tome, The Overstory, for a detailed depiction of exactly how small, unintelligent and insignificant we are in comparison to trees.) Our attempts to categorize, measure and explain the force and presence of a forest are like an eyebrow hair writing a dissertation on the functions of the whole endocrine system. It’s paltry; it’s ignorant. It doesn’t promote deep connection, only a facsimile of that.

Here are a few phrases that make me choke from “‘I’m glowing’: scientists are unlocking secrets of why forests make us happy”:

“Research project aims to discover how age, size and shape of woodlands affect people’s happiness and wellbeing.”

In the above, I sense once again this motive to develop classification systems that describe exact qualities which help humans. There’s no interest in addressing the whole forest as a magnificent Being in and unto itself – a complex and layered mystery that makes us happy precisely because it cannot be measured or explained. It’s a numinous phenomenon – numinous meaning spiritual, mystical and sacred. Maybe that is what makes us feel so awesome.

Along with that, the research project’s anthropocentric approach (regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals) leaves a lot to be desired. Who cares if forests make ushappy? They existed long before us, for the sake of their own selves and the health of the entire planet. I mean, it’s nice that we enjoy them. But our enjoyment – and our categorization of our enjoyment – does not make them more valuable. 

The pioneering professor of the project, Miles Richardson, has this to say about his work: “The whole project is about creating design tools so we can create the best treescape for 50 years’ time. Is the best way to do it with densely packed plantations of trees in regimented rows? Is that more beneficial to your wellbeing than a less linear approach?” 

Although I respect his concern for how to manage forests (and I’m sure he has a lot more to say about that, on his own terms), I regard Richardson’s intentions as highly myopic, reflecting the general small-mindedness of humans when it comes to respecting and communing with Nature. I reject his emphasis on humans creating treescapes as any kind of solution to environmental disconnection and apathy. Richardson’s main purpose is to manage Nature in order to specifically benefit human well-being, and this ignores the entire point of ecological awareness and interconnection.

According to Richardson, “The excitement is finding out what these solutions are and getting people involved in designing and developing and running them.”

Humans have meddled enough with treescapes. We’ve assaulted forests on a mass level akin to biological warfare for several centuries running, and now we’re trying to figure out how to bring something back for our own good? How about agitating for policies that leave forests alone and let them grow as wild as possible, so they can do what they want? After which, humans can vicariously and humbly enjoy them with mysterious gratefulness in our hearts – and stop trying to explain and codify everything for our own selfish benefit.

Also cringeworthy in the article: “Richardson believes that in the near future, ‘AI and digital assistance will do the legwork with connecting people with nature’.” 

It’s a total oxymoron that Artificial Intelligence could hold any place in helping humanity deeply appreciate the subtle powers of spending time in Nature. As if using some kind of device is not a stark interruption to our entire experience of wilderness. 

This is what’s wrong with our whole species’ approach to the environment. Ever since the Enlightenment, somehow we’ve assumed that our interference and knowledge-building are actually bettering the environment around us. That our proving how things work is essential to the goodness of things. But in reality, our attempts to explain and control Nature have resulted in a verifiable disconnection from our own wild human nature.

I wish scientists would start developing tools to measure and explain our own insensitive ignorance to the complex nuances of Nature, so that we could finally begin to diminish our own influence rather than glorifying it.

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