We Need to Let Nature Triumph

What is rewilding? Learn how you can give power back to the natural world.

Adventure stories love to portray outdoorsy people as rugged, risk-taking heroes, disregarding life and limb for the sake of overcoming nature. I am no such hero. As a naturally cautious individual and professional-grade “worry wart,” I took the Scout motto “Be Prepared” to heart. So it came as a bit of a shock when my fellow students and I climbed up into the clouds hanging low over a Scottish “hill,” and I quickly learned that my Midwestern concept of that word left me woefully unprepared. A shadowy slope loomed out of the fog ahead. And once that slope was conquered, another. And another. Soon enough the long-sleeved shirt, sweatpants, and hiking shoes that had felt like overkill on a relatively warm winter’s day far below were an insufficient match for the ankle- to knee-deep snow covering the hilltop — particularly when the slope became so steep that I could no longer walk but had to plunge my hands into the snow and begin to climb. 

Once fellow hikers, decked out in what looked like much more appropriate gear, passed us on their way down the hill, the other American study abroad students and I started to ask our experienced British compatriots whether we could make it to the top and back down safely. We were used to state and national parks with well-marked trails, not the Scottish highlands where the “right to roam” was law of the land. After a brief discussion near the peak, the group turned around and sledded back down the hill on our ill-clothed butts. We were greeted with incredible views of Loch Lomond as we broke out of the cloud cover, breathing a sigh of relief. 

Nature as Awe-Inspiring and Terrible 

Despite spending plenty of time outdoors as a child and adolescent, I was not used to thinking of nature as something inherently dangerous. This was a result of my relative privilege, as a middle-to-upper class citizen of an industrialized country. Nature as I knew it was mostly beautiful, serene, and well-supervised, not something with immense power over my life. I was not totally sheltered — I engaged in plenty of high-adrenaline outdoor activities under close adult supervision in Scouts. But it wasn’t until my Scottish hill-walking adventure that I began to understand just how much reverence and respect nature was due. 

Nowadays, the threatening power of nature is all around us. Thick wildfire smoke blots out the sun on a regular basis, hurricanes slam into the coasts with greater frequency, and deadly heat waves break records day-after-day. But these threats tend to produce existential terror at our own power, not reverential awe at a reality larger and more powerful than ourselves. This dread can easily lead to “doomerism” — the belief that efforts to mitigate the worst effects of climate change are ultimately futile. We are quick to believe that nature is entirely predictable and under our control, whether for our salvation or destruction. The fact of the matter is that, regardless of humanity’s fate, nature herself will continue along under different guises as she always has through the many mass extinction events that have occurred upon this Earth. 

Rewilding the Earth

Effectively combating the climate crisis requires giving up this overblown sense of control and rewilding the Earth. To think of this crisis as one of establishing control over the climate and restoring an equal balance between human industry and the natural world is a grave mistake. Those of us who are relatively wealthy residents of industrialized countries need to recognize our dependence on nature and allow ourselves to be threatened by it. Parts of our planet must be given power over us, to thwart our endeavors. Rewilding is both a physical act of conservation and also a mental act of cultivating wonder and awe at the natural world. 

What does this rewilding process look like in practice? Of course, funding, advocating, and voting for conservation policies at the global, national, and local levels is of paramount importance. Yet we can engage in many everyday activities that increase our awareness of our dependence on nature and give power back to the natural world:  

  • Tend a personal or community garden. Although some methods of gardening emphasize control over nature, others — particularly those that draw on indigenous knowledge systems — emphasize cooperating with the natural interdependence among different plant species. In either case, gardening involves exposing our human effort to threats from the environment. 
  • Learn how to recognize human impacts in nature. Study which species are native to your area and which are invasive. Find out which bodies of water are human-made and how others have been shaped by human activity. Research the history of your local park system. If our only concept of nature is one unknowingly shaped by human hands then it cannot serve as an appropriate guide to the process of rewilding. 
  • Safely test the limits of your abilities. See whether you can make it to the top of the wall at a nearby climbing gym, how long of a trail you can hike, or if you can find your way around an unfamiliar park without consulting your GPS. These practices can both highlight the limits of our individual power over nature, and also give us immense satisfaction when we do achieve something we were previously unable to do. 

Finally, our attempts to promote rewilding of the Earth must not come at the expense of the poor and oppressed. No one needs to remind the poor of the terrorful power of nature. Already, the devastating impacts of climate change disproportionately fall on those with the fewest resources to protect themselves and who are least responsible for carbon emissions. Accepting our share of that risk is an act of solidarity — a recognition of our shared humanity. 

Rewriting the Story 

If I were writing a traditional story of heroic adventure, after encountering such adversity on our climb up the hill we would have persevered and finally arrived at the peak. And following the predictable fashion of such stories, the clouds would have miraculously cleared away at that exact moment and rewarded us with a gorgeous view of the lowlands below. These stories of humanity’s victory over nature are appealing, but they ultimately impart the wrong lessons. Instead, we must place ourselves in a position where nature has a chance to triumph over our striving. 

Be in the know with Grotto