Biophilia in Michigan

The love of the living world is built into human nature, and it's good to be reminded again and again.

My daughter Sarah, 21, who cares for nature as much as anyone I know, took me under her wing today-as usual, to my benefit. I said at every choice point, "I am placing myself in your very capable hands," and she led me into the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, known to the citizens of that marvelous town as "the Arb."

I was there to attend a concert her older brother gave last night, exquisite renditions of blues songs by the great and near-great of that tradition, and his own as well. I have to say that when he dedicated one of his mother's favorite songs to her memory, I barely kept my composure. We stayed up talking long into the night.

But today Sarah took my hand and led me into a world apart. I would have called it a semi-wilderness (having seen a lot of full-scale wildness) but Sarah is taking a course on land-use law in environmental studies, and it turns out "wilderness" is now a technical legal term, and the Arb is a carefully managed but still slightly wild place. Whatever you call it, the Arb is varied, changing, grand, beautiful, and calming.

We first climbed through young-to-middle-aged mixed forest with stunning yellows, oranges, and occasional reds mingling with evergreens. Pines, oaks and maples dominate, but birches and hickory grow among them, and the meadows are still green this time of year. We went down the bank to the river, sat on the damp leaves, and listened to the murmur.

Climbing back up, we passed a dense stand of sumac with conical, frizzy purple blossoms Sarah planned to make tea from. We let some other walkers and a few runners pass us, taking the path at our leisure, and Sarah soon led me to another trail through a great field of yellow grass taller than either of us.

This was transporting, like being at sea but just beneath the waves, bouncing below and occasionally above them like dolphins at their ease. We came to a crossroads and Sarah threw her head back and her arms out to embrace the sky, the air, the whole natural world, and, like the dancer she is, swirled in a motion of grace and happy reverence.

At her urging, we climbed another, taller hill through multicolored woods, with the rolling landscape falling away behind us until we reached a ridge with a pair of empty benches. The view was all she had promised and more. It is not just seascapes and icy mountain ranges that compel our admiration, but also green vistas of lush land.

This view undulated out and down across pleasant meadows ending several hundred yards away in another red-and-yellow-and-green forest. As we talked I remembered E.O. Wilson's Biophilia, a small book with a very big message. Ed has coined or popularized other words—sociobiology, which spawned and named a field of research, and consilience, the "jumping together" of apparently disparate domains of human knowledge to make something fresh and new.

But biophilia, meaning love of the living world, is the coinage I admire most. He said in his book with that title that there is a view all humans are naturally drawn to, because it recalls the most serene and promising sight we saw throughout our evolution. Our ancestors, hunters and gatherers all, would be walking through the African savannah, and would come to place where the vista was green, soft, flat or gently curved in waves, ending in the distance in a line of trees; ideally there would be a body of water.

Only the latter was missing from the scene before us now, and since we had just sat peacefully by the river, we knew it was there below and behind the trees. We could see it in our minds' eye and almost hear it murmuring. For ten or fifteen minutes I felt as if I understood our remotest ancestors, even the ones not yet fully human, as if I could get inside their limited minds and less limited hearts, to grasp the fear that must have dogged them most of their lives, and the great calming power of those vistas, full of beauty, life, and hope for a better day.

Arb, of course, comes from Latin for tree, and also from herb, the spice of life. But I have to think that the arboretum's nickname also contains an echo of orb, meaning circle, globe, or world, because it is a whole world of inviting, inspiring life, more than a little wildness interrupting a busy urban sprawl, and a balm to the human spirit weighed down with daily cares.

Walking home, we talked about the earth as a family farm, and the need to take care of the planet itself the way a thoughtful city and university have taken care of the Arb. So it inspired us to think not only about the beauty of that park but of the far vaster yet still vulnerable wild places beyond. The Arb stands in for the whole natural world and reminds us of our wider obligations. If we ever neglect such spaces, we do so at our peril.

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