Nature as Wallpaper
by Thomas J. Elpel
Nature exists as little more than wallpaper in most people's lives. In the modern world we are surrounded by pretty green foliage with a few flowers for splashes of color, plus birds chirping pleasantly nearby and manicured ponds with ducks looking for breadcrumbs. It is all very quaint, but who really pays much attention to wallpaper?
At best, we are sometimes so taken with the scene of a rainbow after a storm or a butterfly visiting a flower that we pause for a moment to admire the walls of our world, but that is about as far as it goes. Some inspired individuals appreciate the scenery enough to seek out narrow wilderness paths where they can get a completely unobstructed view of the walls. But very few people ever make it beyond the paper.
The real world, as people experience it, is the world of people and culture. It is a world that we have built and it has real substance and action--buildings, cars, movies, parties, song and dance, and an endless stream of newsworthy events. With so much going on, why would anyone ever stop to investigate mere wallpaper?
Nature remains a two-dimensional pretty picture in our lives, only rarely broken by the magnificent buck that unexpectedly comes crashing through the walls to stand in front of us. For a second the world takes on an undeniable three-dimensional aspect, hinting that there is more beyond the walls. But the moment passes as quickly as it came, and nature returns to its two-dimensional normality. We look at our watches and continue on, eager to keep our appointments in the real world. But what might happen if we stopped to investigate the wallpaper?
When you learn the names of a few wildflowers and birds and rocks, then you will simply pay more attention to them. You will recognize the flowers and trees when you pass on the street or in the woods. No longer will you be able to ignore them as mere splashes of color on the walls, but as something you are familiar with, like seeing an old friend. The natural world becomes a bit more interesting, if only because you know something about it.
It is when you stop to say "hello" to this old friend that you begin to notice more of the wallpaper. "Who is this?" you wonder, and "Who is that?" Soon you may find yourself making herbal tea from some of those wildflowers, or adding edible greens to your salad.
But there is so much more to explore. Try learning to start a fire-by-friction using wood from the local trees, or making pots from clay you have dug up by the side of the road. Go camping without a sleeping bag or tent and make a warm shelter from the available sticks and grasses and bark. Make your own moccasins from animal skins you have tanned, and walk quietly through the woods feeling the earth beneath your feet. Catch a fish with your bare hands, or run down a mountainside just for the fun of it. The more you discover the natural world, the more you become a part of it.
The gap that separates people from nature is both immense and imaginary. It can take decades to bridge the gap, to truly know and feel that you are one with the earth. But in due time you may just wander off the beaten path and right into the wallpaper, meeting friends and neighbors as you go, until you are immersed knee-deep in a swamp-- catching bugs, following the birds to their hiding spots, and wondering what in the heck that unusual plant is just a little farther over there.
Years later you may find yourself in a meadow of wildflowers and wildlife-- even if it is just an vacant lot in the city-- surrounded by friends you have seemingly always known, only to look back and realize how far you have come. There in the distance is what you once called the real world, the world of people and culture. But now it seems like a house of smoke and mirrors, a place with bright lights and loud sounds, full of self-importance but empty of substance. The real world, you have discovered, was in the wallpaper all along.
Adapted from Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills. A slightly different version is also used as the Foreword in Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99.
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