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The natural world

Photographer and travel writer Andy Wasley describes the wonder and sense of belonging a humanist can find in nature

We humanists know that we must treasure the one life we have. As a photographer and travel writer specialising in outdoor pursuits, I think it’s particularly important that we also treasure the one planet we have. Just as we should try to live ethically good lives, we should try to live environmentally sound lives: to enjoy our limited time on this planet responsibly, and to make sure that the generations that follow us can enjoy a clean, thriving, and habitable Earth. Humanism plays an important part in how and why I try to do that.

I count myself lucky to have a job that takes me into the great outdoors. I write about world travel, and lately my focus has been on treks, trails, and adventures: climbing a Japanese volcano, walking England’s toughest long-distance footpath, or crossing Scotland’s wildest terrain. I am never happier than when I’m braving the elements to set up a mountaintop photograph, or writing my travel journal in the warmth of a bothy or the rain-lashed chaos of my tent. I find it hard to imagine settling for a life that didn’t include these experiences. I love my work, and I love the fact that it brings me close to nature.

Scottish deer on a mountaintop

A love of nature is not unique to humanism. Many religious people believe they have a duty to protect what they see as their god’s (or gods’) creation. I find creation myths fascinating and sometimes beautiful, but none comes close to the real story of how we came to be. That story – of the Big Bang and ancient stars, of the birth of our solar system and billions of years of geology and survival here on Earth – has the great strength of being true. It has taken centuries of ingenuity, discovery, and reason for humanity to write it. It satisfies our need to understand our place in the universe, while its unanswered questions fuel our curiosity and sharpen our hunger for knowledge. And for many of us, it drives our love of the natural world.

Genetics and geology provide humanists with a deep appreciation for natural beauty without any need for a creator. Recently I walked across Knoydart – a wild and remote part of Scotland – and found myself thinking about natural history while pausing for breath after a steep mountain climb. Those rugged mountains and glens are the product of billions of years of volcanism and glaciation. The eagle soaring overhead shares a common ancestor with me – as does the stag gazing at me from the hillside, the beetle crawling at my feet, and the moss that soaks my boots. As humanists we don’t need ‘spiritual’ experiences to feel connected with everything around us – we’re a part of nature, not apart from it.

Perhaps this is why the natural world has such a compelling power to enrich our lives. It’s well-known that time spent in the great outdoors can have positive effects on mental health. It encourages us to be active, to pull ourselves away from everyday drudgery – even, if we can bear it, to look up from our phone screens. Even a local park or back garden offers us a chance to feel close to nature as we listen to birdsong, enjoy the sweet smell of spring blossom, or watch the butterflies’ waltz. As humanists we know we have only one life: this certainty should push us to pull our boots on and explore the world. Every second we have is fleeting and precious, so why let time go to waste?

A butterfly on a flower

A solid appreciation of our transience and of our place in nature compels humanists to protect the environment. It does us no good to know that we are damaging our world if we don’t do anything about it; to be a humanist is to know that an ethically good life is defined as much by action as by reason. In our own lives, my husband and I are trying to do everything we can to limit our impact on the environment: by reducing our dependence on single-use plastics, eliminating meat from our diets, growing our own vegetables, and limiting our wastage of food, water, and energy. These are small changes, but as humanists we consider it important that we do what little we can. This matters to me because I make my living in the natural world and am privileged to see, record, and write about its glories. But it also matters to me as a humanist, because humanism is inseparable from my appreciation of the environment, and from my need to protect it. Humanist values call all of us to care for nature: we shouldn’t live the one life we have at the expense of the one planet we have.

Photo Credit: Andy Wasley
© Humanists UK
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