There’s the old maxim that you must know something to love it. And we’ve certainly heard that regarding nature: that if we don’t expose people—particularly the next generation—to the outdoors and the biodiversity that resides there, they won’t be or become good stewards of the environment.
Sadly, however, we know that there’s a lot of inequality in access to green spaces and natural areas. City parks certainly help those in urban locations to experience the outdoors and wildlife, but, still, the exposure problem remains.
But now we have some good news. New research challenges that common conservation belief. Researchers have found that you can develop strong connections with nature despite having little knowledge of local biodiversity.
What’s in a name?
A recent study, published in the journal People and Nature and led by researchers at institutions in Brazil and the United Kingdom, examined the psychological attachment to nature among nonindigenous farmers living in an area of the Brazilian Amazon that’s experiencing deforestation.
In the 1970s, the study authors explain, the Brazilian government began a campaign of deforestation to better connect the region to the surrounding areas and “consolidate Brazil’s geopolitical claim to the Amazon.” Prior to the campaign, mostly indigenous people lived in the vicinity. After the development of the Transamazon Highway in southeastern Brazil, however, the area became predominantly a farming community, including migrant farmers who were not from Amazonia.
Wanting to learn about that community’s “psychological nature connection”—defined as the extent to which a person self-identifies with nature—the researchers interviewed 227 nonindigenous farmers. Since indigenous farmers are considered to hold traditional ecological knowledge (knowledge that is accumulated and culturally transmitted over generations), native famers were excluded.
Migrant farmers, the scientists hypothesized, may lack the cultural and historical familiarity of the area, but could still develop local ecological knowledge based on their own experiences with nature and peer learning. The question was whether an understanding of the biodiversity they interacted with would influence their overall appreciation for nature. In other words, do you really need to know the name of different species to care about them?
Cognitive connections—but not always contact
The researchers identified about 40 sites near the highway and chose participants who were either male or female heads of household; who had a mix of education levels, ranging from no formal schooling to completion of some higher education; who were small, medium or large landowners; and who ranged in age between 18 and 75.
To assess the respondents’ ecological knowledge, researchers asked them to identify photographs of 19 birds. Thirteen of the birds didn’t live in forested areas, while the rest of them did. The scientists also played the bird calls of several forest and nonforest birds, to see if participants could recognize the species by sound. To account for the fact that participants might not know a bird’s species but could recognize it by another name, the researchers also graded the participant’s knowledge of the bird’s family and genus.
The scientists found that the participants could often identify birds by image and sound, but not by the species’ names. Overall, they could name 46 percent to 61 percent of nonforest birds (those that have adapted to farmland and are widespread in Brazil, such as chicken species) and 12 percent to 15 percent of forest species (those that live only in the Amazon forests) at the genus level.
Cultural and demographic factors played a role in participants’ responses. For example, bigger bird species that did not require special equipment, such as binoculars, were recognized more often; and men were 2.33 times likelier to identify nonforest birds than women.
Next, the researchers used a two-pronged approach to test the participants’ connection to nature. The first was the cognitive nature connection, which tests the extent to which someone believes that he or she is a part of nature.
This perception was tested by using seven Venn diagrams containing two progressively overlapping circles representing “self” and “nature.” Participants were asked to identify which one best represented their relationship with nature.
The second part of the approach concerned the participants’ affective or emotional nature connection. Scientists asked the participants five questions aimed at capturing feelings of awe, caring, love and psychological well-being that were derived from being in nature.
Despite recognizing fewer than half of the forest bird species in the survey, most of the farmers expressed views that indicated high levels of emotional and cognitive connections to nature—and possibly a desire to protect it.
Complexity and context
This study is the first of its kind to be carried out in the Global South and is significant because previous, similar studies in the United States and Europe (the industrialized nations in the Global North) indicated that knowledge of biodiversity enhances connection with nature.
In the deforested and climate-change-challenged Amazon rain forest, farmers—like the ones in this study—are key conservationist actors. Therefore, understanding their motivations and sentiments is vital.
The researchers concluded that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to encouraging nature conservation. The relationship between ecological knowledge and a connection to nature is complex and most probably context specific. But it appears that having a knowledge of local biodiversity, thankfully, is not necessary to relate to nature.
The scientists did point out, however, that farmers might have difficulty protecting species without some knowledge. Because many of the farmers struggled to identify birds commonly found in the Amazon, they may fail to realize the value of forests as irreplaceable habitats for those animals and many others.
An inextinguishable inheritance
This research makes a lot of sense to me, because I think it’s something you’ve always felt intuitively. You know it when you enjoy a quick inhalation of a blossom, yet you’re unable to identify the flower’s taxon. However, scientific literature hasn’t always supported this concept.
I can give you an example from my own life. My mother grew up in a rural area and knew the common names of most of the local plants. Raised in a more urban setting, I could identify very few animals or flowers. Yet, the first time I stepped into a fern and old-growth forest, I knew in my heart that I was home.
I’m not suggesting that we abandon our efforts to give children and others the most access we can to green spaces. We know that being in nature has significant health benefits and increases learning in children.
But I think when it comes to nature, you don’t need to be an expert to appreciate it. You don’t even have to physically be there. Nature speaks to something innate in us; something ancient—yet still alight and alive.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,