reconciling harmful intimacies with the environment

As I get more intimate with the environment — with nature and all they birth and beckon — I gain a better understanding of just how vulnerable I am to everything around me. How the whimsies of the winds or the tides or the soils beneath my feet could very well spell my final moments in an instant. The beauty and the pleasures that come with forming relationships with the environment are not without risk — injury, disease, and death are all ever-present possibilities, and only through creating and cultivating my relationships with the environment have I gained a deeper understanding of just how present these risks are.

Society and the norms it’s established currently seek to mitigate these risks — to control as many factors as possible to make our lives as “safe” as possible. After all, there’s comfort in safety. We aggressively use artificial soaps and hand-sanitizers, prune trees of their limbs and fruits before they might even have a chance to fall, spread pesticides and poisons to prevent any communing with undesired insects, and cull entire communities of wolves and foxes and bears to prevent any scares or threats as they search for diminishing foods on the lands we stole from them.

We manipulate every part of the environment we can, constructing a manufactured “better”.

All living things undergo processes and relations of give and take. To live is to inevitably take — be it space, nutrients, or other resources or relations. However, not all taking is equal. There is a distinct difference between the way a coral head takes up space upon a substrate to construct verdant reefs and the way a developer takes up space along a coastline to develop high-rise luxury vacation rentals to ‘experience’ the beauty of nature on their own pampered terms. When we take, we might ask ourselves, on occasion, some questions such as what we are taking, how much are we taking, or who might we be taking from. But, rarely, do we interrogate ourselves as to why — truly why — are we taking? For what purpose? With what intent or motives?

When I reflect on the many modes we manipulate the environment, a clear underlying motive becomes unearthed — comfort. Comfort not through developing and cultivating reciprocal and nuanced relationships, but through the perceived security that comes through domination and control. But a tree pruned too excessively will never yield its most bountiful fruits, and a bird confined to their cage will never sing their brightest songs — relationships predicated on and maintained by domination, even if for the simple motive of ‘comfort’, will never reach their full generative potential.

By piecemealing the environment into what we want to experience, what’s within our comfort and that which we don’t, we not only damage the environment in the process, but also restrict our fundamental human experience. We cordon off the ‘acceptable’ relations with the environment — those that fit within the bounds of what’s comfortable — and tell ourselves that anything outside these bounds is unacceptable and dangerous. This permeates to our core as we grow older until our very imagination about the extent and intimacy of the relationships we can form with the environment is constrained and truncated. We eventually lose the ability to relate to a tree with the boundless love that one would relate to a grandparent, to listen to the birds with the focus that one would listen to a close friend, to feed the reef fish with the tender care that one would feed their own children.

Like any good risk, with the potential harms that come from forming relationships with the environment also come bounties beyond what many of us can even imagine. By embracing all that come with these relationships, we can better understand the rhythms and the reasonings of the environment, and therein mitigate dangers not through domination and manipulation but through communicating and relating. Despite all the risks and dangers that can come with relinquishing control over the environment, the rewards that come with pleasurefully surrendering to the uncertainties of the environment will provide a sustenance that feeds our full selves, our communities, and a complete human experience.

Boricua/Taíno via LBC | PhD student in NREM, UH Manoa | B.S. & M.S. in Earth Systems, Stanford ’17 | financially support at$Fisky