The Science Behind Nature – An Essay by Alex MacLean


What is it with nature and us? We live in cities, staring at computer screens and the bricks of the house next door through our windows. We are governed by the unnatural rhythms of alarm clocks and fluorescently lit metro stations. Yet we wistfully read Wuthering Heights and pine after beach vacations and retreats in the wild. So much of our everyday lives are not only removed from nature, but in many cases opposed to it. Yet we recognize how deprived we are because of our unnatural existence. After all, our most memorable moments are spent in nature.

Nature holds a romantic power over us as we recount moments spent around campfires, days on the beach and adventures where time seemed to slow down. This human connection to nature has been explored for centuries in literature and movies, but it is still unclear why we have more vivid memories involving nature than man-made things. What is the science behind nature’s effect on us?

When I was 16, I took a family vacation with my parents to Cape Breton Island, a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia, where my grandparents lived. Every summer we’d take the five-hour drive to Cape North, where rugged cliffs dropped dramatically into the ocean and large sea vistas opened on swerving mountaintops. Tiny villages dotted the coastline where fishermen cast nets into the wild sea and beaches filled with grey and brown rocks lay deserted. A fine mist often covered the road, and off dirt side roads lay rolling hills and valleys with grazing sheep and goats. Whenever we drove to Cape Breton I often felt a change in pace and lifestyle as if we’d just left one world and entered into another with different rules, values and ways of doing things. Everything looked and felt more connected, while also seeming more fragile and melancholy at the same time. The sea was the base for the mountain, but also stretched for as far as the eye could see, creating the illusion of expansiveness, and the bar surrounding the edge of the mountains was a reminder of drivers who’d sped too fast around the turns and lost their lives to the coast below.

In Cape Breton, people’s jobs had been connected to the land for centuries through fishing, farming and coal mining. Survival depended on the weather and the conditions of the sea. Everyone seemed to have respect for nature’s beauty, but also awareness of its power and perils.

On this particular trip, my family decided to take a raft ride down one of the many rivers that ran along one of the mountains near my grandparents’ house. The water was shallow and we figured that after a couple of hours we’d come to the base of the river and call it a day.  My grandfather drove us about ten minutes up the road from his house and we happily took the raft from the car and hopped into the river.

At first, everything about our ride was going well. Sometimes the water would be too shallow to continue riding in the raft so we’d get out and pull the raft along for some distance. This wasn’t particularly taxing for the first hour, but after the second hour, it seemed as if the river had almost dried up and we were pulling the raft along against a current with no end in site. None of us had eaten since breakfast and we were starting to get cranky from hunger. On top of this, in order to avoid twisting our ankles, we had to walk in an excruciatingly careful way on top of the rocks. It seemed that a ten-minute car ride did not exactly equal a two-hour river ride. As we took turns dragging the boat in a state of drudgery and fatigue, I began to feel like I was a character on Deliverance, a cult horror movie involving a rafting trip gone bad, unsure of where I was and suddenly at the mercy of something far beyond my control. By the time we made it to the end of our journey, it was dark and we’d been walking for six hours. I’d never been so happy to see the familiar bridge that curved over the part of the river marking my grandparents’ road and had never eaten dinner in a more thankful manner.

Although the river escapade had taught us a couple of things, such as the necessity of bringing food and actually planning a route, what remained most prevalent to me was that for those six hours we had given up control and were in fact part of something much larger.

Nature elicits  feelings within us that aren’t necessarily experienced without such immersion. We’re connected to nature, at its mercy, possibly closer and more connected to each other in its presence, and cognizant of its vastness. There is likely a science behind this – maybe something to do with natural phenomena prompting a response associated with our primal roots that we have trouble experiencing in everyday modern life.  With no fake lights, chemicals, deadlines, Wi-Fi connections, online bills, job interviews and alarms, something else seems to happen inside of us. We relax, let our ideas flow, and have space to breath, and yes, become more connected to each other.

As a teenager, I used to get upset that my grandmother was always asking about the weather when she called me. After not seeing each other for months, sometimes years, I couldn’t comprehend why the most pressing issue on her mind was the weather. After some extensive thought however, I realized her relationship to seasons and the climate. She had grown up on a farm, where her livelihood was often very heavily dependent on optimal growing conditions. How much food her family would yield and what would happen to the animals was all weather related. Her grandmother, a midwife, would often walk through treacherous conditions in order to deliver babies, and spent hours fighting snowstorms and hail. Even as an adult, if it snowed my grandmother could be trapped in her house for days at a time in her isolated location until the road and driveway were cleared. Even food was harder to get in bad weather conditions. My grandmother had lost family to the ocean and mountains. She had stared out of her window in the fog hoping that sailors could find their way home.

In my self-involved mind, I finally understood that my grades, part-time jobs, money problems, roommates and auditions were not nearly as important in my life as weather was in hers. She wasn’t simply asking the question to fill space, but rather because she did consider it an extremely important part of life. To me, weather seemed like something mundane and inconsequential. Rain and cold were annoying, but most times I didn’t worry about what the weather was doing. I would be thinking about the fact that I needed to call a certain friend or email someone or eat less cheese or go to bed early that night and oftentimes I wouldn’t even realize that it was getting dark or raining.  Weather was simply something that happened. But despite my lack of connection with the weather, there were certain realizations about it that crept into my life.

In the winter, I often felt more introverted and wanted to eat richer foods and go to bed earlier. I didn’t have excess energy to spend on things and often went out less. In the summer I was more motivated to try new things and craved salad. I often felt sad during the transition between summer and fall. Try as I might to avoid it, the weather and seasons did have some sort of pull over me and helped to direct how I lived my life.  Nature had an influence over me and we were linked. My Grandmother in her quiet wisdom understood this.

The weather influences our lives and moods and shapes us as individuals. We like to think that we’re above nature, but we are not and probably never will be. Landscapes will always elicit feelings. We’ll forever feel small next to a large mountain range. Although we may no longer be as connected to where our food is coming from or how rain is impacting the crops, nature still influences us in numerous ways. As hard as we try to distance ourselves from nature in the modern day world, the reality is not only that we can’t, but also that we probably shouldn’t. I’m not aware of the scientific basis for these feelings of connectedness, but my own experiences tells me that these connections mirror the more abstract things which are within us: love, beauty, togetherness, cycles and ability to lose control. The summers I spent in Cape Breton are associated with images of nature that elicit such emotions. These images will forever be engraved in my mind. As I sit within my apartment, staring at a screen and looking at the bricks of the apartment next to me through the window, it’s nice to know that there will always be something bigger and more humane than my city dwelling.


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