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What is a tree to you – an ‘it’ or a ‘you’?

(This post supplements Chapter 12 of Connect with Nature). I was delighted to discover that not far from my suburban home there is a healthy colony of koalas, the cuddly marsupials that are among Australia’s most photogenic but endangered animals. The image of a mother koala and her young was taken by the renowned nature photographer and author, Joel Sartore.

Joel Sartore has set out to photograph every species of animal currently housed in the world’s zoos. With portraits of over 10,000 species already taken, he is well on the way to completing his 25-year project, Photo Ark. His driving quest is to create a photo archive of global diversity with the hope that his portraits will stir in people a deep empathy with animals and an active desire to protect them from extinction.

He is undertaking the project against the background of the calamitous species loss almost everywhere on Earth. It has been estimated that unless massive remedial action is taken, half the animal species currently inhabiting the planet, including koalas, will be gone by the end of the century.

Sartore’s portraits are both beautiful and moving. He tries to take his shots with the animal looking directly into the lens, so creating the impression that the animal is making eye contact and forming a connection with the viewer.

While we are genetically programmed to pay attention to animals, we are more attracted to, and more empathic with, species that have similar features and/or behaviours to us (the ‘similarity principle’).

There are many physical and behavioural differences separating our species from others, but the main features of the human face (especially the eyes) have their counterparts in mammals, birds and other members of the animal kingdom. By focussing on the faces of his animal subjects, Sartore is making use of the similarity principle.

There is still much to learn about the specific attributes that attract us to animals. Beautiful form, colour and movement are obvious candidates. Superior size, strength and physical skill relative to ourselves are others. But arguably the strongest candidates are those features that contribute to the ‘cuteness’ factor.

Cuteness is thought to be bound up with the ‘baby schema’, a set of features including large head, round face, high forehead, large eyes and small nose and mouth. In combination, these features automatically trigger bonding, nurturing, protective and empathic behaviour in both adults and children. Animals displaying these features, are the ones most likely to be patted, cuddled, protected and chosen as pets.

To be a member of a popular species is to be a ‘charismatic’ animal and more likely to receive favourable attention and conservation funding. As my blogging colleague, Josh Goss, remarked in one of his recent posts, this is not a bad thing even though some of the most charismatic animals are apex predators and potentially dangerous to humans, wolves and bears for example. Such predators typically play a vital role in their ecosystems. For that reason alone, protecting them makes good ecological sense.

But ‘uncharismatic’ creatures warrant our protection just as much, says Josh, because they are also integral to the well-being of their ecosystems. In his post, Josh refers to a bill, currently before the United States legislature, that would explicitly protect certain ugly and uncharismatic species, including the mucous covered hellbender salamander or ‘snot otter’ (pictured).

It is telling that laws need to be passed to protect species from the potential shallowness of human regard. The grim fact is that we humans struggle to see other species as beings – as alive as we are, occupying an integral place in the web of life as we do, capable of relationships as we are, and linked, like us, with every other life form in one unfolding whole.

When another creature is regarded as a being, we relate to it as we would to another person, or as a ‘you’. We embrace the creature in ‘I-you’ terms, much as we would a friend or a pet, for example. In contrast, if the creature is viewed as an object, we are relating to it as an ‘it’. Instead of a personal ‘I-you’ bond, we have an impersonal ‘I-it’ connection of the kind we might have with material objects in our environment. The sad history of humanity’s devastating impact on the natural world signals that humans commonly and inappropriately relate to other life forms as objects rather than beings.

The distinction between the I-it and I-you (or thou) modes of connection with others was first proposed by the Jewish theologian/philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965). In the I-it mode, says Buber, we experience the other but in the I-you mode we have an encounter. In experience, the ‘other’ is viewed as a thing or object to be used, known or put to some purpose. We see it as a collection of impersonal qualities and quantities. But in encounter, we form a relationship with the ‘other’. We join with the other; we give to the other; we share with the other; we feel with the other; we participate with the other; we value and respect the other.

Buber proposes that many of the problems, crises and dysfunctional situations facing humanity today arise because I-it connections (experience) are dominating or excluding more valid or appropriate I-you relationships (encounter). I-it connections are not necessarily or intrinsically bad, far from it. They are vital to our survival as human beings. Through them we learn how the world works and how we can make it work better for us. But as Buber observed, I-it modes of connecting dominate and undermine the quality of modern life. We live in a world of its, he says, where it is easy to feel alienated and lonely and where our well-being is jeopardised.

The dominance of I-it connections is also detrimental to the well-being of other creatures. According to the similarity principle, we are more likely to have an I-you relationship with a (charismatic) koala and an I-it engagement with an (uncharismatic) hellbender salamander. It is a safe bet, then, that the plight of the koala (facing extinction) is more likely to attract conservation resources and efforts than the hellbender salamander (endangered in some regions).

An aim of my book Connect with Nature is to motivate and assist people to form an I-you relationship with the natural world’s plants, animals and other life forms. Such a relationship is best formed by spending time in nature in ways that suit our individual needs, capabilities and circumstances. The book shows that there are ways of doing this for virtually everyone and that having I-you rather than I-it relationships with our fellow creatures and the environments they inhabit is enormously beneficial for them and us alike.

I am confident that Peter Wohlleben, forest ecologist and author of The Hidden Life of Trees has an I-you connection with nature. He does not relate to trees as inanimate ‘its’. He is convinced by a wealth of scientific evidence that trees are ‘living beings’ that ‘feel’, remember, communicate, co-operate and form nurturing communities. In these very important ways, trees are like us. He acknowledges that it is much easier for most of us to see animals as beings rather than objects. The ‘aliveness’ of animals is readily observed. But as Wohlleben reveals trees and indeed all plants (and fungi) have ‘hidden lives’ that are every bit as vital as our own.

Published on May 23, 2023


Les Higgins

Dr. Les Higgins is a deeply nature connected person. He has experienced the life-enhancing power of nature directly and extensively, mainly through bushwalking, trekking and gardening. An enthusiastic and experienced bushwalker, he is a life member of the Yarrawood Bushwalking Club, which he helped establish in 1982.

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