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The Five Paths to The Love for Nature

By James A. Swan, Ph.D

"Nature is prime: it is there at birth; society is next; it is only a shaper of Nature; and a function moreover, of what it shapes; whereas Nature is as deep and, finally inscrutable as being itself."

Joseph Campbell, The Flight of The Wild Gander (1)
Around Earth Day 1970, when I was working with people who were developing the new fields of environmental education and environmental psychology, at that time a greater percentage of the population was participating in outdoor sports, and the most serious environmental problems of that time were environmental pollution. People needed to understand the basics of ecology and the seriousness of the problems that were not being addressed, and they needed to know what kind of action was needed to get them solved. The more basic question of how does on develop love of nature was not given much attention.
Not long after I completed my dissertation, I chanced to meet psychologist Abraham Maslow, who revolutionized our understanding of the limits of modern psychology when he realized that most of our theories of human behavior were based on studies of rats, chimpanzees, pigeons, and mentally disturbed people, but the potentials of human mental healthiness were virtually unexplored, and so he began to study people who seemed to be performing at levels of healthiness far above average that he called "self-actualizers.” (2)
I explained to him that I wanted to study how people realize the value of nature and if it would lead them to practice conservation. Maslow told me that surveys would help, but if I wanted to understand what moved people to develop a passionate love for nature and be conservationists, I should look for people who are sincerely dedicated to ecological balance, both famous and unknown, living and dead, and find what forces moved them to feel this way. He added that in his studies he had found that a common quality of self-actualizing people was the love of nature, for we are, after all, part of nature.
Inspired by Maslow, reading biographies, interviewing people, doing some surveys and reviewing research, I came to see that there appear to be five paths that lead to one developing a love for nature that results in a person also becoming a truly ardent conservationist. It's true that by seriously following one path, one comes to discover others, but they all ultimately lead to one common end -- a life-inspiring love for nature that anchors one's perceptions of the world around them. These conclusions are supported by many other researchers in environmental education and psychology.

The Five Paths

1. Becoming Well-Informed from Books and Media
Reading books and magazines, listening to radio, watching television and reading the Internet, taking classes and attending lectures is how we are taught in school as well as being part of the Information Age. At first I found few ardent conservationists who had primarily followed the path of the scholar. But as time has passed more and more people have said they have followed this route or at least it got them started. This is one consequence of living in the Information Age when people spend a lot of time indoors. It also associated with a very important development in environmental education – Environmental Literacy. Everyone should know the basic principles of ecology. It’s the balance to having the personal experience to fully ground ourselves in nature, and know what is right and true. As electronic environmental storytelling increases, this should definitely aid everyone becoming ecologically literate.
A problem with this path, which I will describe in more detail in a later chapter, is that a lot of the educating of people about nature and conservation being done is based on fear, anger and guilt, and in time, that will result in many people backing away from news about the environment, or becoming more radical in their efforts to “save the earth,” which may also decrease support for environmental conservation in general.
Before I could say “yes,” he reached into my backpack was pawing around. Wouldn’t you know it, he found two extra shells from a previous hunt that had somehow got stuck under gear way in the bottom of the pack.
2. Serving a Sense of Social Justice
Many people who join the environmental movement see ecological problems as one more example of injustices inherent in the socio-political system. People who are initially drawn into ecology activism may not be ardent naturalists, and they may spend little time in natural areas, but nonetheless they are ready to involve themselves into ecological battles as for them it is the right thing to do for a just society. A number of entertainers have become interested in ecology through this path. And of course, ultimately, such advocacy will lead people to get outdoors. The trick here is to make sure that the cause is just and there is a solution to the problem.
3. Recovery from Illness
A number of people including Teddy Roosevelt discovered the healing powers of nature when they sought out natural areas to escape from dysfunctional families and abusive relationships. John Muir spent most of his childhood in Scotland escaping from a tyrannical father. Naturalist and writer Ernest Thompson Seton, like Muir, retreated to the woods as a boy to avoid an abusive father. Nature writer John Burroughs escaped an unhappy marriage by retreating to the woods to reflect and write.
When actor Robert Redford was ten years old, recovering from a mild case of polio, his mother took him to Yosemite National Park. Redford was swept up in the splendor of the valley. "I said to myself, 'That's it -- I want to be a part of that.' I started right then. I spent more time outdoors. I started to hike. I went to Yosemite to work, and I learned to climb there."
Joseph Campbell, as a child suffered from asthma, which did not respond well to treatment. When he was about 13 his parents sent him off to spend some time in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, hoping for a "nature cure." One day Campbell went for a walk and saw a great blue heron hunting for food in a pond. The scene, he said, was "arresting," and in that moment an awareness of nature as a force in his life was born.
Soon thereafter Campbell met naturalist Elmer Gregor, who had written several books about American Indians, and knew Indian sign language. Gregor soon became Campbell's first "guru."
Nature was a powerful healing force in Campbell’s life. For five years during the Great Depression, Joseph Campbell retreated to the woods, first at Woodstock, New York, and then Carmel, California. During this time he mapped out common themes in the world’s mythologies that led to his classic book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces that describes the archetypal hero's journey. This book is a primary inspiration for George Lucas' "Star Wars" film series, and many other Hollywood films.
The hero's journey, Campbell said, begins with a departure from normal reality and surrendering to forces beyond oneself. The initial decision to embark on the journey he called, "the Call," which seems to come from a force beyond normal rational reality. Accepting the call, the hero learns to act in accordance with what seems to be a greater guiding force, boldly taking on a new path in life and its challenges in a common pattern – the hero’s journey -- until one finally re-emerges a changed person. Nature is frequently a trigger for "The Call."
Clearly one who person who combined self-healing with a hero’s journey was Theodore Roosevelt. Born in New York City on October 27, 1858, Teddy Roosevelt's early education was primarily private tutoring, because in his own words, "I was a sickly, delicate boy, who suffered much from asthma." Walks in Central Park seemed to ease his congestion, and initiated the young future president into the joys of nature as an inspirational and healing force. His interest in nature took a quantum leap forward when, walking up Broadway one day, he came upon a market displaying a dead seal. "That seal filled me with every possible feeling of romance and adventure," Roosevelt exclaimed. He begged his father to get the skull for him, which he did. Again we see the pattern of some type of extraordinary emotional experience launching one’s lifelong love for nature and commitment to conservation.
With that seal skull Roosevelt began a collection of skulls, skeletons, and stuffed skins that was to become the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History,” some of which is preserved at the Smithsonian Institution. He later said that if the call to politics had not come he would have chosen to become a naturalist.
Complete relief finally came when he was sent to Europe for a "nature cure" at a spa in the Alps, followed by an African hunting safari.
Forever after, Roosevelt regularly took vacations to health spas, such as Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and/or to adventurous hunting and fishing spots to regenerate. For example, when his first wife, Alice, and his mother died within hours on the same day in February of l884, Roosevelt retreated to his ranch in the Badlands of South Dakota for nearly two years until he remarried, returned east and re-entered public life.
The entries in his journals in South Dakota document the typical pattern of emotional regeneration that occurs from a retreat to nature. At first, Roosevelt was heavy with grief and tried to busy himself with cattle ranching and hunting, expressing his emotions primarily in letters to friends and channeling his feelings into action. His philosophy, in his own words, emerged as, "Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough."
As time passed and the spirit of the prairie entrained him with sunrises, the scent of sage brush, and moods of the winds, Roosevelt found peace of mind and inspiration from nature. He became interested in local affairs, helping form a stockman's association, and became a deputy sheriff. These experiences enabled him to regain his health and vigor, which ultimately led him to the White House.
To repay his debt to nature for enabling him to heal his physical and emotional wounds, during the years of his presidency Roosevelt created five national parks (Crater Lake, Wind Cave, Platte, Sully Hill, and Mesa Verde); four wildlife refuges in Oklahoma, Arizona, Montana, and Washington; 51 wildlife refuges; set aside millions of acres of timber in National Forests; launched the modern conservation movement; and established the buffalo herd in Yellowstone National Park. Following the passage of the 1906 National Monuments Act, which he championed, Roosevelt set aside 16 national monuments. And he and Gifford Pinchot launched the Conservation Movement.
4. Seeking Personal Health and Fitness
A fourth path to ecological advocacy comes from an awareness of how health and fitness are linked to ecological quality. What is good for nature is generally good for your own nature. People on this path, such as the Rodale family, include physicians such as Andrew Weil and Elson Haas, and others who feel strongly about the need to buy and eat organic foods, get more exercise, and live and work in clean and safe environments. This is a rapidly growing path leading people to as some say, believe in the value of “What is good for nature is good for me, and vice versa.”
5. Emotional Bonding with Nature
Most dedicated ecologists seem to trace their passion for nature to one or both: early positive encounters with nature in childhood involving intense beauty and wonder; and/or later, in adulthood, extraordinary moments in nature filled with personal insight, creative inspiration, discoveries in nature and personal healing.
Psychoanalytic theory supports the importance of early emotional experiences in forming patterns of thought, behavior and even character. Clearly, one person who would agree with the importance of early experience in developing an ecological conscience is musician Pete Seeger, another great storyteller of the 20th century, who became a leader in fighting pollution of the Hudson River with his sailing ship, the sloop Clearwater and the annual Great Hudson River Revival music festival, as well as a catalyst for environmental action all over the world. Pete traced his childhood roots of love for nature to many long hours spent playing cowboys and Indians in the woods.
British broadcaster and documentary filmmaker David Attenborough, who has given us the "Life On Earth, "The Living Planet," and many other outstanding natural history series and documentaries, spent much of his childhood collecting fossils, stones and specimens. He later got a degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge University.
Both David Brower and Loren Eisley traced the origins of their fondness for nature to helping ailing parents stay in touch with the world. Brower's mother went blind and he had to become her "eyes." Eisley's mother was deaf, and as a result he developed a kind of sensory communication with her "which might have been conducted by the man-apes of the early ice age."
In his autobiography Dreams, Memories, Reflections, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung reports some of his very vivid early memories that had life-long vitality and meaning to him. As a young child, lying in a pram, in the shadow of a tree on a warm summer day, the sky blue, and the golden sunlight darting through the green leaves. The Alps bathed in the golden-red alpenglow light at sundown; and pleasant memories of water that were a life-long association. Meredith Sabini has compiled an outstanding selection of Carl Jung's nature quotes in The Earth Has a Soul: The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung.
Like the Desert Fathers in the Christian tradition, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Burroughs all felt that being alone in nature provided deep spiritual inspiration.
Undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau spoke with deep reverence of the transformational moment in his life when he made the first underwater descent with his invention, the aqualung.
Rachel Carson's mother taught her at home, spending many long hours studying nature first-hand. Later as an adult she found that retreating alone to seacoasts, such as Cape Cod, she would slip into a rapture about nature. Drawing on this inspiration, she wrote the award-winning book The Sea Around Us, and coined the term "a sense of wonder." This love for nature later moved her to pen her classic warning about the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring.
Ardent wilderness advocate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas linked his intense love for the outdoors to a moment in his youth. His father had died very unexpectedly, and as a teenager standing beside his father's grave in the high prairie of eastern Washington State, Douglas felt a deep emptiness. He looked up at nearby snow-capped Mount Adams and suddenly realized that his second father would be the mountain.
James Lovelock, the renegade British scientist who invented the gas chromatograph that made possible the detection of minute quantities of pesticides, also conceived the "Gaia Hypothesis" that the earth is alive. Lovelock, who wrote the “Foreword” for my book Sacred Places, told me that during the time he was working on his book, Gaia: A New Look At Life, he would periodically hike to the summit of a nearby mountain, Brentor, where an old church, St. Michael de la Rupe, is located. After sitting in the church for a time, he would return home and find continued inspiration to formulate the Gaia Hypothesis.
Keith Fraser grew up along San Francisco Bay, fishing for flounders and striped bass. After college he came back home, played semi-pro baseball for a decade and eventually became the baseball coach at San Rafael High School. A friend invited Fraser to go fishing on the bay. They were hoping for stripers, but suddenly Fraser hooked and landed a 98 pound sturgeon.
Keith caught "sturgeon fever." Sturgeon number two tipped the scales at 148 pounds and towed his boat halfway across the bay. And then sturgeon number three, and four... He discovered that at certain times of the year; especially the winter months when the water is high and muddy and the herring come in from the ocean to spawn in the shallow waters of San Francisco Bay, the bottom literally crawls with giant white sturgeon as big as telephone poles. The key to success in hooking a sturgeon, Fraser discovered, is live bait. Soon he began an after-school bait business, and he launched perhaps the world's most successful sturgeon fishing bait and guiding service.
His passion for sturgeon fishing got Keith out on the bay almost daily, and he did not like what he was seeing. Water quality was declining. In 1980, Keith called together a group of friends around his breakfast table, and United Anglers of California was born. Today, UAC is the largest citizen conservation organization in California.

My conclusions about the importance of emotional bonding with nature as being a principal catalyst to forming what Aldo Leopold called the “ecological conscience” are supported by research by a number of researchers who have studied many people who are lovers of nature, and found that they trace their feelings to "Significant Life Experiences,” that seem best expressed as ultimately feelings of love, wonder and awe for nature. (3) Time for a couple stories.
This research has additionally been confirmed by researchers at Cornell University reported in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2015. A survey of conservation activity conducted among rural landowners in Upstate New York found that all other factors being equal, bird watchers are about five times as likely, and hunters about four times as likely, as non-recreationists to engage in wildlife and habitat conservation actions to enhance land for wildlife, donate to conservation organizations, and advocate for wildlife. (4)
The Birth of Conservation
On a foggy February morning in 1905 Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester in the Teddy Roosevelt administration slowly rode his horse named "Jim" through Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. President Theodore Roosevelt had asked Pinchot to come up with a single uniting policy directive that could be used to guide resource management for a wide variety of issues including fisheries, wildlife, forestry, public grazing lands, mining and mineral leasing, oil drilling, park lands, and so on. Despite his unique training in forestry in Europe (there were no college degrees in forestry in the US in those days), and his life-long love for nature, Pinchot found the magnitude and complexity of the assignment was overwhelming. He was burdened and in a state of depression as he and Jim meandered along in the damp, cold fog.
Enveloped by the spirit of the wooded ravine and bubbling Rock Creek, Pinchot fell “into a swoon” and found he suddenly mentally descended down a long tube. At the other end, in his mind's eye he popped out into a tropical jungle. In a flash of insight he recalled that in India such large districts were called "conservancies" and they were managed for the good of everyone. This revelation, he writes in his autobiography, was like a light at the end of a long dark tunnel. Then words came to mind -- "the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time." Pinchot dug his heels into Jim's flanks and raced back to the White House.
Pinchot rushed into the Oval Office to relate his experience to President Roosevelt, who became so excited that he called a special cabinet meeting that evening. During that session it was Secretary McGee who coined the word conservation to describe a new over-arching natural resource policy of the Roosevelt Administration, which was defined as: "The wise use of natural resources for the greatest number of people for the longest time." (5)
It was not that Pinchot was unconcerned about natural resources before this time, but rather that his noetic insight suddenly made clear a principle that could unify action on many fronts and establish a practical public policy concept that could serve as a standard for all natural resources management.
Gifford Pinchot continued working with Teddy Roosevelt for the duration of his Presidency, laying the foundation for the conservation movement in federal agencies and state governments and setting aside millions of acres of wildlands for perpetuity. Roosevelt often said that it was Pinchot's brains coupled his determination that enabled them to accomplish so much.
An avid outdoorsman and naturalist, Gifford Pinchot founded the Society of American Foresters in 1900. Later he also founded the National Conservation Association and was its President from 1910 to 1925. He served two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania and laid out the model for what later became the TVA. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington and Gifford Pinchot State Park in Pennsylvania are named in his honor, as is the largest redwood tree in Muir Woods National Monument, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in California.
Gifford Pinchot's revelation in Rock Creek Park is something that another key leader in the conservation movement, Aldo Leopold, understood well.
On January 11, 1887, Rand Aldo Leopold was born in a house along the banks of the Mississippi River in Burlington, Missouri. Like Gifford Pinchot, 20 years his senior, Aldo's family was well-to-do, and they encouraged him to enjoy nature, hunting and fishing, as his father and brothers enjoyed. Leopold's family also spent summers in Michigan's Les Cheneaux Islands in Lake Huron, where today there is an Aldo Leopold Preserve on Marquette Island. Like Pinchot and Roosevelt, from an early age Aldo loved to identify and catalog different species of wild birds, animals and fish. By the time he went off to prep school, his nickname was “The Naturalist.”
After completing high school, Aldo Leopold attended Yale University, one of the nation's first forestry schools in a program that Gifford Pinchot had donated money to. After graduation, Leopold's first job was as a Ranger in the Apache National Forest in Arizona. He later transferred to the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, and then to the Grand Canyon, where he wrote the first fish and game management manual for the Forest Service.
In 1924 he accepted the position of Associate Director of the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. As a result of his continuing advocacy of the use of science in managing wildlife, in 1933 Leopold was appointed Professor of Game Management in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the first professorship of wildlife management in the US. Aldo Leopold, thus, is rightfully called "The Father of Wildlife Management."
Aldo’s work in the Southwest led to the creation of the nation’s first wilderness area in Gila National Forest. In 1935 Leopold was one of the founders of the Wilderness Society.
Aldo Leopold wrote perhaps the most important book in modern times about conservation, A Sand County Almanac. The book begins with his perceptive reflections on the changing moods of nature during a year. From that foundation, he then launched into a critique of the conservation movement, as well as describing a number of concepts like the "Land Ethic" and the "Ecological Conscience" that are the foundation of sound environmental management.
A Sand County Almanac came out a year after his death. At first it did not sell well. Some two decades later, as the surge of support for environmental action grew in the 1960's, the book became a best-seller. Today it has sold well over two million copies and is published in over 20 languages. There is a growing movement in communities across America for citizens of all ages to step up and publicly read passages from Leopold's book.
Leopold saw that the root of conservation ultimately is not so much rooted in politics and science as a love for the natural world. Pinchot's concept of "conservation" gave us a unifying political and economic focus by which to move forward. Aldo Leopold's concept of the “Land Ethic" tells us what we need to cultivate in the human mind to make conservation happen. The “Land Ethic” leads one to know that “… a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong otherwise,” is a modern scientific philosophy. (6)
I asked Aldo Leopold’s biographer, Curt Meine, if Aldo ever had any special experiences in nature akin to Pinchot’s. Meine said that he was not aware of any specific experiences but he called attention to a passage in A Sand County Almanac where Leopold writes:
"What value has wildlife from the standpoint of morals and religion? I heard of a boy once who was brought up an atheist. He changed his mind when he saw that there were a hundred-odd species of warblers, each bedecked like to the rainbow, and each performing yearly sundry thousands of miles of migration about which scientists wrote wisely but did not understand. No 'fortuitous concourse of elements' working blindly through any number of millions of years could account for why warblers are so beautiful. No mechanistic theory, even bolstered by mutations, has ever quite answered for the colors of the cerulean warbler, or the vespers of the wood thrush, or the swansong, or goose music. I dare say this boy's convictions would be harder to shake than those of many inductive theologians. There are yet many boys to be born who, like Isaiah, may see, and know and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the Lord hath done this. (7)"
Meine observes: "At one point I asked Aldo's brother, Frederick, who was still alive in the early 1990s, if he thought Aldo might have been describing himself in that passage. Frederick thought it was likely.”(8)

The real substance of conservation lies not in the physical projects of government, but in the mental processes of its citizens.

- Aldo Leopold

Growing the Conservation Ethic
Ideas are like seeds blown on the wind. Many vanish and never amount to anything. Others take root and change the world. Research has shown that if 20% of a culture accepts an idea then that concept will take hold and endure, shaping minds and souls for some time to come. Gifford Pinchot's "Conservation" became a standard for a global mass movement. Aldo Leopold's "Land Ethic," has grown slowly, yet it is one of the most important organizing and energizing environmental conservation concepts in modern times.
The basic concepts of our relationship with nature expressed by Pinchot and Leopold, and many others, are not new. What is important about both "Conservation" and "The Land Ethic" is that they are appropriate to the modern times; when most people spend most of their lives indoors linked to electronic screens that are a global communication network.
The experiences of Pinchot and Leopold, – one dramatic and immediate, the other a more gradual process enriched with periodic special moments – illustrate how the Fifth Path works. Regardless how the path of experiences takes place, both are equal and most likely to create positive lasting results.

“Experience it and you will know.”

- Idris Shah

Suggetion: If there is a window nearby, go over and quietly gaze outdoors. Gazing at a natural scene is a great way to release tension. Now focus on some details of what you see and hear. What is the sky like? What is the weather like? What will the weather be like? Speculate about the weather forecast without running to the computer to check. What kinds of plants can you see? Any birds or animals?
  • 1) Joseph Campbell, The Flight of The Wild Gander: Explorations In The Mythological Dimension. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1969.
  • 2) Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature Viking Press, 1971.
  • 3) Thomas Tanner, "Significant Life Experiences: A New Research Area in Environmental Education," Journal of Environmental Education, Vol. XI, No. 4 (Summer 1980), pp. 20-24. Also see: A. Sia, H. Hungerford, and A. Tomera, "Selected Predictors of Environmental Behavior," Department of Curriculum Instruction and Media, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, 1984. www.ntnu.no/documents/10458/19133135/Chawla1.pdf
  • 4) Are wildlife recreationists conservationists? Linking hunting, birdwatching, and pro-environmental behavior. Caren Cooper, Lincoln Larson, Ashley Dayer, Richard Stedman, and Daniel Decker. Journal of Wildlife Management. 2015. DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.855
  • 5) Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, Cary, NC: Oxford U. Press, 1949, p.240.
  • 6) Ibid
  • 7) Curt Meine, (1988). Aldo Leopold: His life and work. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. & Personal Communication, 7/19/2009
  • 8) Curt Meine, Personal Communication, 7/19/2009