Do We Need Time in Nature in Order to Form a Rightly-ordered Society? Discussion Group Resources

(For a full list of topics and resources, go here).

By Anna Mussmann
Topic Introduction
In Aldous Huxley’s dystopic novel Brave New World, government childcare workers bring a group of eight-month-old babies into a room. There, the children are shown large bowls of beautiful roses and copies of colorful picture books. As soon as they begin to play with these enticing objects, they are blasted by loud noises and given electric shocks. The goal is to condition them to hate both reading and nature.
Huxley envisioned a world in which the working classes ignore the natural world around them. Modern Americans avoid nature, too. Electric shocks are not required. We are so disconnected from it we don’t even recognize the gap between our official appreciation for the idea of nature and our day-to-day lives.
Even though “Over three-quarters of adults rate contact with nature as very or extremely important for their physical health and emotional outlook,” over half of us spend only 5 hours or fewer outdoors each week and “report being satisfied with this amount.” Even though the average American reports believing they could survive in the wilderness for 16 days, the same survey respondents couldn’t identify trees or tell the difference between poisonous and edible berries.
Nature has become like a celebrity we feel we know. Incidentally, did you know the Oxford Junior Dictionary has dropped words like “dandelion” and “acorn” to make room for more relevant terms? This separation from nature is a huge change in the human experience.
Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton argued that “The natural thing would be that man should live with the natural things, trees and water and animals. . . . But for us who live in cities Nature is not natural. Nature is supernatural. Just as monks watched and strove to get a glimpse of heaven, so we watch and strive to get a glimpse of earth. This is unreasonable; it is even comic.”
What happens to people who lack experience with what would, historically, have been the “normal” world? In Huxley’s dystopia, contemplation and meaningful human relationships are taboo. Is our separation from nature leading us in the same direction?
A lot of the current conversation about “getting back to nature” focuses on statistics and measurable results. We’re told that time outdoors correlates with better mental health, faster healing from illness, improved cognition, etc. Yet what about our ability to love each other? Do we need time in the natural world for rightly-ordered, vibrant community?

"The Picnic" by Thomas Cole (public domain image).


A Walk in the Mall or Park? For Moms and Daughters, a Stroll in the Park is Best.” It’s interesting to see scientists investigating the hypothesis that even a brief walk in nature could improve “family cohesion.”

Once More to the Lake.” E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) always seems to write at just the right, leisurely pace. He conveys the joy of returning to a particular lake and links it with a sense of history and identity.

In “Manual Manhood,” C. R. Wiley makes several points that I think can be applied far more broadly. He is talking about manual labor rather than time in nature, per se, but I think we could see manual labor as a way of experiencing the natural world in a very natural way.
Alternative Reading (in case you want to add or substitute)

 Romans 1:18-28 is relevant here, as well.

Discussion Questions


1.      What do you think of the study described in “A Walk in the Woods?” It may not be the most scientifically-rigorous study ever conducted, but do you find the results surprising or plausible?


2.      It’s interesting that the scientists expected to see increased attention translate into better family cohesion. Do you think a lack of attention is a significant issue in a lack of family cohesion for most people? Do you find that time in nature improves your own ability to pay attention?


3.      What do you think are the biggest obstacles preventing modern Americans from knowing and spending time in the natural world? How does this change or hurt us as individuals?


4.      What are your thoughts on the E. B. White essay? Does it make you want to return to specific places from your childhood? If so, where would you go?


5.      Does White seemed moved more by simple nostalgia about his childhood, or by a sense of place based on nature? Is this place meaningful just because it’s familiar, or also because it’s something natural? When you think about places from your childhood, are your strongest memories of manmade/indoor locations or outdoor spaces? What do you remember about these places? Have you had a chance to go back to them?

6.      In White’s essay, the lake and the dragonflies are the same as he remembers: it’s the manmade things that have changed. Do humans need continuity of place over generations? Do we need nature for that?


7.      What is your overall response to the C. R. Wiley article?


8.      Wiley says, “There is a connection between working with your hands and manhood. That shouldn’t surprise. Plato implied as much. The further you get from handiwork, the less significant the differences between the sexes tend to be. Our bodies and the tasks they perform, he observed, are sexed. But according to Plato, the minds that animate them might as well be gender-fluid.” Thoughts?


9.      Later, Wiley adds, “Our bodies are given as either male or female. And the two sexes are full of meaning, like pages of text. But the texts must be read and their meanings drawn out.” What can we “read” from the pages of our bodies? Does spending time in the natural world help us understand the purposes and true nature of our bodies? How so? Have you experienced this?


10.  Wiley is talking about physical labor, but what are other ways we experience our bodies by living in the natural world?


11.  Can recreational activities like gardening, camping, or hiking give us some of the benefits of the labor Wiley talks about, or does their nature as recreation change how we experience them?


12.  If we want to spend time “in nature,” what does that mean? What is nature? The Grand Canyon counts, but what about gardens, lawns, and parks? Is it all equally helpful, or not?


13.  Are there ways in which you would like to make time in nature a larger part of life for you and your family?

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