The disconnect of seeking respite in nature

Studies have shown the therapeutic effects of nature, from “forest bathing” to urban greenways, and even nature-themed images or wallpaper in hospital rooms to speed recovery. A lot of us go out into nature for respite from the human world. And yet…

Once we start learning about nature, it’s pretty grim. Parasitoids, predation, epizootic diseases. The sometimes terrible ways that members of the same species treat each other. Living on the edge of starvation, most offspring die before reproductive age. Nature is anything but serene and peaceful.

Does knowing about this diminish nature’s therapeutic effect for you, or have you found ways to resolve that cognitive dissonance?


Not at all. It’s a dose of reality. It washes away the lies that we are told, and that we tell ourselves. We’re not special, we’re just another taxon. Meat machines. And look what such things can achieve?

Nature, red in tooth and claw.



Death and pain are a part of the world, whether you’re in nature or in manmade spaces. “Nature” is part of the human world anyway, and many of the spaces we think of as natural are or were human-managed in the recent past.

I don’t find anything dissonant about natural spaces providing people with therapeutic effects in spite of these aspects existing within them, because I don’t think an illusion of a space free of pain is what’s providing the effect. I think we respond to the myriad stimuli natural spaces provide.


Not at all! I love nature in all of it’s (sometimes very grim) glory, and for me the complexity makes me enjoy it all the more. The dark parts of nature don’t detract from the peacefulness of just going out and walking in the woods. Though I am a vulture culture hobbyist too, so maybe i don’t quite count as much, haha.


That seems pretty applicable outside of ‘nature’, too, honestly. People hurt each other often, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes out of malice. At least in the wilderness if something harms you, it’s more likely to be in defense or out of necessity rather than carelessness or cruelty.

As for the rest, most of us are just visitors in nature. Why should we worry about nature’s harshness when we will eventually go back to our normal existence in our controlled environments? We can reap the benefit of those relatively short visits to untamed places (and even then, only as untamed as you can find in today’s world) without suffering the consequences that might otherwise be inevitable if we lived in it every day the way other creatures do.


No, the suffering that exists in nature is not something that bothers me personally.

I might find some aspects of it tragic, and other parts rather gross (looking at you, parasites), but that is my own personal human perspective. When I found a caterpillar covered in parasitoid wasp cocoons a couple of weeks ago, it was a very cool experience for me as I had really only ever read about it before and seen photos, and here was this thing before my very eyes.

I know that for some people my subjective assessment of the caterpillar above might come across as a little callous, but what happened to that caterpillar is just a fact of life. The caterpillar is not human and does not have a human’s experience or awareness of life. Of course it suffered in its own way, but it would be exhausting for me to try to prevent any and all forms of suffering in the natural world even if I had the power to do so.

Another problem arises: what makes me, the human, the arbiter of what should and shouldn’t be “right” or “wrong” in the natural world? Why should the parasitoid wasp be the subject of my judgement? After all, these are the ones that help to keep caterpillar populations from exploding and chowing down every plant. And of course, the parasitoids get a taste of their own medicine: the hyperparasitoids that come in and eat them.

That said, I am biased when it comes to humans. I absolutely do think that all people should have the right to a life free of disease, parasites, etc. That is why I support the extinction of Guinea worm and other diseases, even though objectively we are just another animal and there is nothing about us that makes us any more special than the rest of nature when it comes to parasites and diseases. We just happened to be the main ones for those particular species of disease/parasite, just as how plants are affected by pathogens. As a human, I do think we as humans would be better off without those, especially here in Africa. I think that places like Africa and South America would be a lot better off economically and socially without the tropical diseases afflicting those regions, as then medical expenses would be much lower, and trade and tourism can help lift those out of poverty. As it stands, those diseases may have acted as natural population controls for the longest time but that effect doesn’t apply any more and we’re better off without them.

Conversely, the rise in autoimmune diseases and allergies may be rising precisely because of the efforts we’ve made to separate ourselves away from nature (urban living etc) and eliminate any and all parasites from our immediate environment. As babies and young children, we need to be exposed to natural environments - playing with sand, experiencing the prickliness of grass, feeling out the texture of the bark on tree trunks, hearing birdsong, etc. If we do not get exposed to the potential microorganisms from that close contact, we run a higher risk of developing allergies and autoimmune diseases later on as the body’s defences misidentifies threats and attacks itself or the harmless cause of the allergy.

Which brings me to my main point: as a species we evolved in the natural world, and our physiology and psychology reflects that. I do find that I am happier when I am out in nature, exploring and experiencing the world with my senses. I complete myself when I allow nature to come into my consciousness and thus my world: I am richer and my life is fuller for having shared space with the beings that live on this same planet: boisterous birds, colourful insects, shy reptiles, dignified plants, etc. I am made for and by nature, and am incomplete without it. The suffering that is in nature meets its counterpart in the beautiful cooperation and partnerships that is rife in nature: the multitude of relationships between plants and a whole array of organisms, from birds and insects as pollinators, to the fungi forming associations with the roots in the soil, to us and other animals spreading seeds - all for food. The amazing working partnerships that exist between disparate animal species, such as coyotes and badgers hunting together, to cleaner wrasse, to birds and mammals of unrelated species that warn each other of potential danger. And of course, multicellular life wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation of the mitochondrial bacterium and the eukaryote cell that surrounds it. Likewise, life on earth would be much ‘simpler’ and less ‘diverse’ without the green chloroplasts embedded within the cells of plants and algae.

That is why I love nature.


When you come to the forest and just sit down and feel the moment, there’s little to none of gore or violence, so in that aspect no knowledge of that kind can spoil the moment


People gotta stop treating all parts of nature as variations of humans, then the dissonance goes away.

Perhaps seeking respite in nature is precisely the avoidance of other human engagement and the complexities and effort involved in it. Surrounded by things that just ‘are.’


Observe carefully, one phenomenon, that of finding relief in being in nature, arises from sensory perception, the other, that relating to the trophic relationships between organisms, arises from the thoughts of your mind, not from your direct perception.

In you, as well as in nature, in the relationship between your cells, there are phenomena of apoptosis, as well as the elimination of cell groups at the expense of other groups, phenomena necessary for the survival of your body: this is usually not perceived as a problem, because you do not identify with individual cells, but with the organism as a whole.

Likewise, your view of nature can change, if you consider individuals of every species - who like any individual are doomed to cease, to die, in one way or another - or the drive produced by these relationships, which it is the one that allowed, through the dance of life and death, the appearance and evolution of the single species and, consequently, of the beauty that you can perceive in natural places.

So, the best way to relate with natural areas is to communicate with nature, of which you yourself are a part, using its language, which is different from that of words-and-thoughts.

It is enough to immerse yourself in what you are feeling in the present moment, look around until you discover something, a plant, an animal, a ray of light, a smell, a stone, a color, to which you are naturally attracted.

Approach it, always observing whether the sensation of attraction continues or disappears; if it disappears, look for something else, if it continues, mentally ask permission to get in touch with what attracted you.

If the attraction persists, after your request, it means that in that moment, through the direct perception of that attraction, “you” and “nature” return to being a unity, and that flow of perception has the possibility to produce a real mental and also physical regeneration, like the water of a pond which, suddenly, returns to be part of a stream and, as it flows, regains its original nature.


I don’t really find parasitoids/predators grim, I find them fascinating. Did I feel a little pang for this caterpillar? Sure, but it was coupled with the fascination of watching the yellowjacket hunt.

I agree with this statement for a different reason. As Aldo Leopold famously wrote, "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Where someone else sees a pretty flower and a nostalgic childhood memory, I see the invasive Japanese Honeysuckle. Someone else might see a nice woodlot with fairly big trees, but I see a scarcely diverse understory resulting from the suppression of natural fire regimes. The more I learn about nature, the less concerned I am with the grimness of natural processes (predation, parasitism, natural disease) and the more I am with “unnatural” processes (invasives, overdevelopment, climate change).

In an attempt to not be too depressing, I’d also like to point out that ecological knowledge also brings me joy where others might find it lacking. Where others see a “dangerous snake”, I see my lifer Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. Where others see a mosquito breeding ground, I see a vernal pool where Spotted Salamanders also breed.


We live in the ‘Information Age’. Many (if not most) choose (or are persuaded to choose) near-instant virtual experiences which filters and simplifies data to fit comfortable narratives.

If instead you choose to be a naturalist, you change your informational infrastructure.

Natural reality isn’t nearly so comfortable as the digital, nor as instant. And it does not follow our human scripts–despite a lot of human effort.

But that’s what keeps it real, fresh and so richly engaging.


Salamanders eat mosquitoes? Rely on them as a food source?

They breed in the same vernal pools, sal larvae eat mosquito larvae and other vernal inverts


There are three reasons that this type of knowledge does not diminish nature’s therapeutic effect for me:

  1. I make a conscious effort not to judge nature by human morality. Parasites, the ways that members of the same species interact, diseases… sure they can be considered tragic, but they can’t properly be called “bad” or “evil” except from a human perspective and nature exists on a much larger scale. Recognizing the amorality of a lot of these actions also helps me accept them in a way that I wouldn’t with humans alone: a person killing a mouse has a very different connotation than, say, a hawk killing a mouse. Not to say the previous situation is inherently wrong (pest control can be important for various reasons) but there’s certainly a different thought process there. Meanwhile, the hawk probably doesn’t think much about the mouse – it’s just hungry.

  2. I happen to have a strong interest in philosophy. The eastern concept of Yin Yang particularly applies to this kind of question, because in every “positive” there can be “negative” and vice versa. When I taught field trips to students, we often came across moments of predation on the trails that elicited pity from the students, “oh, how sad for that poor lizard being eaten by that snake!”. I would remind them that if the snake doesn’t eat then it too will die. Whether the lizard is eaten or not, one animal will die – and who are we to say the lizard deserves to live more?

  3. This last one breaks the mold a little bit but I feel it’s necessary to point out that nature can be calming for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with knowledge. I feel that, at least for myself, the main reason being in nature is so therapeutic is because I’m surrounded by stimuli that my body is built to interpret. Human communities, despite being built by us, are sort of overwhelming from a sensory standpoint. We’re still evolutionarily built to live in nature. Our brains are built to understand things moving past us at running speed, not driving speed. Our ears are built to hear animal sounds and wind through plants, not the constant noise of urban areas. Grim or not, nature is what we’re built for and I will likely always find it therapeutic for that reason alone.


Death in nature only brings further life, who would I be to blissfully ignore how the world around me works, even if it can be grim and macabre to a human perspective. A century old tree gives rise to a host of bugs and fungi when it falls, parasitoids of beautiful forms and colors burst out from a caterpillar, a dead mouse becomes a feast for bugs of all sorts, like a celebration of life in the face of death if you wanna get artsy and poetic about it
Needless, anthropogenic death though is sad and wasteful (birds dying from potentially preventable window collisions, or bowfishers leaving decades old buffalo and gar to rot on the banks)


Knowing it does not diminish nature’s therapeutic effect for us but witnessing certain animal activities can diminish our enjoyment in that moment. For example, a mallard drake trying to mate with an already coupled hen can create a loud and chaotic scene that diminishes our enjoyment at that moment or that day. But knowing that exists doesn’t permanently influence nature’s effects on us.

This resonates with us. We have PTSD and human, especially mechanistic, noises where we live are frequent and disturbing for us: land traffic, helicopters going to the hospital, construction equipment, delivery vehicles backing up, testing tornado sirens, fireworks, etc. The grocery store is so overwhelming to our senses—people, choices, so much happening—that we go only a handful of times per year.

Also, for us, being around humans is just taxing. We have to be alone sometimes to feel safe or have a chance at rest or peace during the day. Going into nature to use our senses in the present moment is one of the only activities that can occasionally keep us out of the trauma of the past and flashbacks and the almost ceaseless fear and worry about the fictitious future we create.

Getting into a prairie when we need open space to breathe or in woods, even a pine plantation, when we need to feel held by nature, or watching the creek trickle, or walking on a frozen lake can soothe us, mostly when we’re alone. We can still get scared by nature (dry leaves blowing in the fall, Pileated Woodpecker calling close to us, accidentally spooking a Ruffed Grouse). And we still go to try to have a chance at peace.


For me the sheer vastness of nature is what I find soothing, the knowledge that I am just a blip on the timeline.

Every evening, the pups and I sit on a stone ledge in the garden and look at the sunset. There are these black birds, I do not know what they are but I call them commuter birds because in the mornings, at sunrise, they fly toward the shore and in the evenings away from it, and these birds fly overhead in groups of three or four. And I know that when I am gone the same sun will continue to rise and set, the birds will not notice, and I just love that. The world will go on, just as it did after my mother died, and her mother. I am a small bit of something vast.

One day, sad because both the Hamelia patens and Solanum erianthum had grown too tall for me to see the tops of anymore, I had an idea to bring a small stepladder. And when I climbed up, it was like finding a whole secret hidden floor of the garden that had been hidden from view. I found that comforting, too, that no matter how small my garden may be, I will never really truly explore it all.


I don’t mean to sound cynical, but the plight of animals being killed by the natural threats in their environment doesn’t affect me, it’s simply not my problem. Similar scenarios only stimulate my curiosity and wonder for nature and ecosystems.
What does affect me in a profoundly negative way is seeing large amounts of habitat being turned into dumpsters, quarries, roads, monocultures or tacky villas, not only because something I deeply value is being destroyed, but also because it’s my own species’ doing.


An excellent point. As we study to understand ourselves and the universe we live in, we are just beginning to see the impact of this truth in terms of our own and the planet’s, future.

The more we recognise in nature around us, the more we read in a hedgerow or woodland edge, the more we name and attach a story to, the more we seek and the more we see. The more deeply we understand habits and habitats, inter-relationships, life cycles and struggles to reproduce and survive, the more intensely we are are immersed in seeing it all. By delving into the detail - whether it’s high brow biology or popular folklore - the more we are giving a flower, a bird or a piece of moss the power to silence the noise of everyday life: work, money, politics, our health, our relationships, our loss, our ambition, of being stuck re-living the past or rehearsing the future. What can possibly be more therapeutic than being so mesmerised by an ant or a bird call that for a moment nothing else matters? And in all that seeing we learn a fundamental truth of nature: the gore and beauty are one and the same – the compulsion to survive that leads to parasites eating a caterpillar from within is the same compulsion that creates the iridescent scales of the butterfly’s wing. Isn’t it wonderful?