Solace of Nature

A nature path near Lake Wingra in Madison, Wisconsin.

A nature path near Lake Wingra in Madison, Wisconsin. Anne Strainchamps (TTBOOK)

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Original Air Date: 
May 09, 2020

Rustling of leaves, sploshing of water, birds calling, bees buzzing. Wherever you live — city or country, East coast, West coast, or in between — we share common, contemplative experiences on our walks outside. In this hour, we assemble a sonic guide to finding solace in nature.

a view of the Manhattan skyline from the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens.

One of the greatest walkers of our time, William Helmreich — known for exploring every street in New York City — was an early casualty of COVID-19. But composer David Rothenberg got to walk with him one last time, around wetlands in Queens.

Site of Thoreau's Hut, Concord, Mass.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life." Those famous lines from Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" have inspired generations of people — including his biographer, Laura Dassow Walls.

A path near Lake Wingra in Madison, Wisconsin.

Any hiker has to wonder about the trails they walk on. Who made them? And why does the trail follow this particular route? Robert Moor has traveled around the world exploring animal and fossil trails, and he's investigated ancient roads and neural networks. He says paths embody a deep wisdom.

Dangerous Ideas

Magician Nate Staniforth has a dangerous idea for you. Tonight, after dark, go outside and look up to the sky.

Andreas Weber in the Grunewald Forest in Berlin, Germany.

Andreas Weber is a German biologist and philosopher with a highly unconventional way of describing the natural world, one in which "love" is a foundational principle of biology.

Show Details 📻
May 09, 2020
November 14, 2020
October 23, 2021
May 28, 2022
Author and Professor
Willliam P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English, Notre Dame
Author and Podcaster
Biologist and Philosopher
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:01):

... to the best of our knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Feeling a little cooped up these days? Tired of living life online? Yeah, me too. In fact, you know what? Let's go for a walk. Because sometimes the most reliable place to find solace is in nature. If I stay indoors for too long... maybe it's like this for you... somehow the whole world shrinks just to the size of my house. The rest of the world starts to feel sort of fictional. Like it doesn't even really exist. It gets you out of yourself, coming out here. I think it's the sheer, overwhelming diversity of life. Gazillions of blades of grass and clover and dandelions. And think of the number of birds, the number of insects. The life lived in one tree. We're not used to thinking of trees, let alone dandelions, as other beings, but there is that feeling that you're not alone when you're out here. Anyway, that's one reason I like coming out for a walk. A lot of us are trying to walk more right now. You can have that experience of reconnecting with the natural world almost anywhere. Even in one of the biggest cities in the world.

William Helmreich (01:40):

Oh, if I don't walk 800 miles a year, I'm not myself.

Anne Strainchamps (01:51):

That's William Helmreich, the man famous for exploring every block of New York City on foot and writing about it. He died earlier this year of COVID-19. He was one of the first casualties of the virus. Our friend, David Rothenberg, has been thinking about him a lot. David is a musician and a philosopher who has recorded a series of New York sound walks, including one with William Helmreich.

David Rothenberg (02:15):

William Helmreich, I had known about for years and I really wanted to go on a walk with him. He immediately said no.

William Helmreich (02:26):

I've got a lot to do.

David Rothenberg (02:27):

"I'm too busy. I'm doing it all again. I wrote this book, The New York Nobody Knows, and now I'm doing it borough by borough, so we have The Brooklyn Nobody knows, The Queens Nobody Knows." It requires him to walk every single street again. And he said, "I'm 72. I don't want to run out of time. I got to work every single day on this."

William Helmreich (02:48):

Hey, you want to walk?

David Rothenberg (02:53):


William Helmreich (02:53):

This way? What a nice walk to work.

William Helmreich (02:53):

That's exactly how I talk to people in the street. That's how I start a conversation.

David Rothenberg (02:59):

Because I kept hassling him about it and he finally agreed. We had much more fun than I imagined we would.

William Helmreich (03:07):

My old man took me on trips to keep me interested when I was a little kid. Every Sunday, he sat and he played a game called Last Stop. We'd get on the subway on 113rd Street and we would take the train to the last stop. From there, we would get out and we would walk for a couple of hours. My father gave me something far more precious than presence. He gave me the gift of time. And so I learned to love New York City from the ages of seven to 12 because we played this game. That's [Joe Lewis' 00:03:37] house.

David Rothenberg (03:40):

Nice. It should have a plaque.

David Rothenberg (03:43):

Literally, we went from place to place to place. There were special things to see. And he was also teaching me how to do it. How you're going to walk. How do you engage with people.

David Rothenberg (03:52):

You try and talk to almost everybody. Because some people do this kind of work. They don't want to talk.

William Helmreich (03:59):

No, but my work is people. Without people, what's the city? I will find something to say to somebody. It doesn't matter what type of person they are. Member of the Bloods, an old lady. Because I look harmless. I'm too old to kill anybody and I'm too old to be worth killing. I was walking in the South Bronx and, suddenly... Like I said, I don't look for trouble. Suddenly, there's some Bloods in red jackets. Black guys that are looking at me like, "The hell are you doing here? [inaudible 00:04:29]." So, I made eye contact with them. I smiled. I said, "Hey, you guys. I love those jackets. Where can I get one of those jackets?" The guy looked at me and was stunned. I'm asking for a jacket? I should be slinking around. He says, "You want to get one of these jackets?" He said, "Well, that would depend on who you're with." I said, "I ain't no Crip." I wasn't wearing blue. I said, "Well, I ain't no Crip." He said, "Well, we'll take that under advisement." [crosstalk 00:04:55]. That was the end of that."

David Rothenberg (04:59):

He was describing his days in the '60s, writing a book about the Black Panthers. He was saying they were always trying to kill him. Literally. He'd do into a meeting and someone would put a gun at his head.

William Helmreich (05:11):

And so a guy sticks a gun into my temple.

David Rothenberg (05:13):

You're dead, honky mother (beep). You can beep that out. Beep!

William Helmreich (05:17):

He cocks the trigger and I figured, yes, I'm going to die. I got about one second.

David Rothenberg (05:22):

And then someone would... His friend would say, "It's okay, man. He's with me." "Oh, sorry." And somebody held him upside down out of a window. He talked him out of it. And then a guy later apologized and said, like, "I always hurt the things I love the most. I'm so sorry, Bill."

William Helmreich (05:38):

My life hung by a literal thread.

David Rothenberg (05:42):

My favorite part was this obscure park next to Kennedy Airport.

William Helmreich (05:45):

Welcome to [inaudible 00:05:46].

Automated Voice (05:45):

You have reached your destination.

William Helmreich (05:51):

Have you ever want to find a (beep) isolated place, this is it. I figured a guy like you would appreciate this.

David Rothenberg (06:00):

This is a park on the backside of Kennedy Airport that nobody goes to.

David Rothenberg (06:04):

Look at this. This is [inaudible 00:06:04].

William Helmreich (06:04):

What is that?

David Rothenberg (06:04):

Just this large bird in that tree. Like a big heron.

William Helmreich (06:12):


David Rothenberg (06:13):

Right? That's huge.

William Helmreich (06:17):

That's a [inaudible 00:06:18]

David Rothenberg (06:17):

Probably a great blue heron, but it's very grungy looking.

William Helmreich (06:20):

Look at that beak.

David Rothenberg (06:23):

It just was completely anomalous place. They're working on it. There were these guys fixing it and they were shocked to see anyone there. They thought that we must be up to no good or crazy or something. And then Bill's asking all these questions about it. Is this trail open? Is that one open? What are you doing here? And things like that.

David Rothenberg (06:40):

We saw there was some developments there, yeah.

Speaker 5 (06:43):

This one that we just did a [inaudible 00:06:45]. It just kind of shows the freshwater wetland over here.

William Helmreich (06:49):

Oh, we want to see that. Where's that?

Speaker 5 (06:50):

It's just past this [inaudible 00:06:52].

William Helmreich (06:52):

You see this? If you want to stay healthy, this is what you have to do. You keep walking. My father walked five miles a day until his '80s. He always thought walking was the healthiest thing. And I believe that very, very strongly. Very, very strongly.

Anne Strainchamps (07:21):

William Helmreich died earlier this year of COVID-19. He was a writer and sociologist famous for walking every street in New York, borough by borough, block by block. And that was David Rothenberg, the musician and eco-philosopher with an excerpt from his sound walker podcast.

Anne Strainchamps (07:38):

Have you noticed that there's something about walking? It's just so calming. I think it's something about that bipedal movement and the fact that we're using both sides of our bodies. It's a rhythm that is so old. As old as we are. I live in an ordinary city block. A bunch of houses. Everybody's got lawns. The houses are really close together. And then I walk five minutes and there's this lake. Every time I come down here, I just can't believe I live five minutes from this. Let's see if we can hear the water. That's one of my favorite sounds in the world. The sound of water. I feel like it calls to something in our veins. What are we? 50, 60 percent water? I think our bodies recognize this.

Anne Strainchamps (08:53):

There's another thing I want to say about why I like coming out for a walk like this. Partly just because I want to get away. I want to be alone. Somehow just being in one house with one husband, 24/7... There are times when it kind of makes me want to scream. So, that's another reason I go out for a walk. I think a lot of people have had that reaction to social distancing. And so maybe it's not surprising that there's a new interest in Henry David Thoreau, the hermit of Walden Pond. Thoreau was a complicated man. He was a recluse and also a social activist. Biographer Laura Dassow Walls told Steve Paulson that wasn't always easy.

Laura Dassow Walls (09:36):

How can he walk away from town, away from politics, away from the social storm that's breaking around them to the pond? To nature? It's a real question for him. He's not saying, these two are compatible. I can do the one and I can do the other comfortably. He's challenging himself, saying, how dare I go out into nature when I need to be here on the front lines, fighting against slavery? And he recovers himself to say that he does go out into nature and finds there a kind of symbolic. It's a white water lily, which for him is the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment.

Steve Paulson (10:15):

It's worth pointing out that he was fairly unusual in this regard. I mean, someone who really looked at these drew inspiration from these Eastern spiritual traditions, not just Christianity.

Laura Dassow Walls (10:27):

Yes. He saw Eastern spiritual traditions, of Buddhism and Hinduism most importantly to him, as leaving traditions, not faith traditions, in the deep past or somewhere else. Well, this gets to transcendentalism and-

Steve Paulson (10:43):

Right. And I was going to ask about that. So, he's associated with the transcendental movement. Most famously associated with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. How would you describe the essence of transcendentalism?

Laura Dassow Walls (10:56):

You have to start by putting it in a religious framework, which works very well in this moment, early 19th century, in America, where you've got liberal ministers arguing for religious faith in a modern world. The founding voice of transcendentalism insists that each person has what he calls a likeness to God within us. He'll extend it to say that this divine principle... You can see it in a leaf. You can see it in a creature. We're all creatures of God. We all have this divine principle. But the human being is the one who has the ability to fully cultivate all the latent capacities within and flourish in the world.

Steve Paulson (11:45):

When you say that, it sounds so contemporary.

Laura Dassow Walls (11:48):

It does.

Steve Paulson (11:49):

To use a phrase that's popular these days, spiritual, but not religious. People who don't go to church, but are still deeply spiritual. It sounds like exactly what you described.

Laura Dassow Walls (12:00):

Well, this is when it starts. Emerson was a minister who leaves the church to become a kind of secular prophet for a modern American. Thoreau becomes, first, his disciple and grows up to become a rival and Thoreau refuses to go to church. Now, his family is very religious. They do go to church and they're very critical of their son who does not. But that was exactly the crisis that he faced. He felt that churches were not responding to this deeper inner truth. The churches of the time in his town, for instance, would not condone discussion of slavery or antislavery issues and he felt that was wrong. So, he and, actually, his older sister both refused to enter a church.

Steve Paulson (12:47):

You said that Thoreau had been a disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson, then became his rival. We have to talk about this. It's sort of this fascinating story. So, Emerson was this towering intellectual figure at the time. They lived in the same town. Thoreau lived in his house for a long time. In fact, he kind of looked after Emerson's children. For a while, Emerson was his benefactor. He wants to please Emerson and Emerson thinks he the great student.

Laura Dassow Walls (13:15):

Absolutely. Yes, well, he returns after graduating to his home town and, in the meantime, here's this son of Concord, born and grew up there, and somebody new has moved into town, just down the street. And who is it but this absolutely gigantic intellectual figure, Ralph Waldo Emerson? Whose work he's been reading. There he is, down the street. Of course, Thoreau wants very much to be admitted into this elite intellectual circle that's gathering around Emerson, but he's the son of a pencil maker and doesn't want to enter as a charity case. He wants to enter as an equal. So, he tries to catch Emerson's attention by writing a poem, a very stylish poem that will turn Emerson's head, and that works. Eventually, Emerson opens the circle to him when he says Thoreau should come hear him lecture in Boston. Thoreau walks into Boston, 17 miles, to hear Emerson lecture. And so, from then on, Thoreau is right at the heart of the family circle and becomes Emerson's associate, apprentice... yes, handyman.

Steve Paulson (14:23):

It's worth pointing out that the land on Walden Pond, where Thoreau went to live for two years, was Emerson's land.

Laura Dassow Walls (14:29):

Right. Emerson bought that. The railroad came through. Railroad speculators. He came upon a group of railroad speculators as they were about to purchase that land and develop it. Emerson bought it on the spot and gave Henry permission to build his long dreamed of cabin on the pond. So, of course, Thoreau's goal is not to sound like Emerson. Not to be an imitator. It's kind of like that land on Walden Pond. Emerson creates the conditions for originality, but then Thoreau has to build his own house on it. Having built this physical house, he's building his intellectual house, discovering his own voice as a writer. That means breaking away from Emerson, so there's a real, long period of tension. It's almost... Gosh, if I add it up... at least a decade.

Steve Paulson (15:20):

What did that mean to break away? Did he reject some of Emerson's ideas? Was this a philosophical difference or difference in temperament?

Laura Dassow Walls (15:29):

It's partly a difference in temperament. Thoreau was very passionate, very empathetic, and Emerson had a kind of cool personality. Tended to put people at a difference. Many people experienced this with Emerson, but it drives Thoreau crazy. So, he develops a very crusty oppositional stance to Emerson. The two, they love it. They get along together because they're always arguing. They're always getting each other's goat and this sense of kind of one upping each other. For a while, it becomes tense because Emerson becomes very famous and Emerson is a towering global figure. Thoreau is literally living in his shadow and wants to find his own voice. Finding his way to Walden Pond... As I say, building the house becomes a gesture of building his intellectual house and breaking away.

Steve Paulson (16:22):

To some degree... I mean, my sense is that Thoreau lived out some of the ideas that Emerson talked about.

Laura Dassow Walls (16:28):

Even Emerson agrees that Thoreau lived out some of his own best ideas. The difference between them is Thoreau is in love with the physical world. He's a sensual person who thinks nothing of stripping himself naked and walking into a stream, shocking everybody as he walks downstream naked, because he wants to feel the water on his flesh. That sense of physicality, of literally just loving immersion in the world, and making that a condition of his writing. How can you convey that in print? How can you write? To load your text with all the squishy, muddy, hot, lively details of the world? Thoreau wants to attune himself so exactly to the physical world that this becomes the inspiration for his scientific quest. So, he becomes a proto-ecologist, as we would say today.

Steve Paulson (17:25):

You say at one point in your biography that Thoreau's two years and two months at Walden Pond was an iconic work of performance art.

Laura Dassow Walls (17:34):


Steve Paulson (17:38):

What did you mean?

Laura Dassow Walls (17:40):

He builds the house. The moment he starts cutting trees down on the shore of Walden Pond, people start coming by because he's right by the main road.

Steve Paulson (17:50):

So, he's not isolated-

Laura Dassow Walls (17:52):

No, he's not.

Steve Paulson (17:52):

... living in solitude out in the wilderness. He's just right on the edge of town.

Laura Dassow Walls (17:56):

It is shockingly close to being right on the edge of town and right there where people can see him. One of the things I argue is that he's more conspicuous now than he ever was when he was just another guy on the sidewalks of Concord. Everybody can see him and they walk up to him and they say, "Henry, what are you doing?" And he tells them. The moment that that starts, which is the moment that he starts to swing an ax, he discovers that he has to find a way to communicate answers to these questions. They're real questions and he isn't sure of the answers himself.

Steve Paulson (18:33):

You say no American writer is more place-centered than Henry Thoreau. How so?

Laura Dassow Walls (18:41):

He thought, as any aspiring writer might think, that he could detach himself from his home environment and go somewhere else to practice his craft. So, he goes to New York, tries to break into the New York literary market, and it's a disaster on so many levels. For one thing, nobody in New York is buying writing from an unknown author. And so he starts to long to return, is desperately homesick, and the instance he gets back home, he's out and it's winter and he's chasing a fox and loving it, feeling I am where I am supposed to be. Through the years, you watch the kind of writing that he does. He takes a little notebook with him wherever he goes and he's always taking the pencils that he made with him, making little notes on these pieces of paper that he then takes and writes up in his journal. The journal becomes a foundation for all the great literary works that are still read today. That immersion of writing as you see, as you experience... Everything that he touched with his eyes or with his hands, with his body, became part of his mind. And so, in the later years, he walks out into the landscape and it's all a part of him. People who know the landscape said it's Henry himself spread all around us. We take walks in the woods and Henry is everywhere.

Anne Strainchamps (20:18):

That was Steve Paulson talking with Laura Dassow Walls. Her book is Henry David Thoreau: A Life. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we'll talk about the wisdom of trails. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (21:07):

We're talking about walking outdoors and finding solace in nature. We're on one of my favorite paths. So, last week when I came down here... I hadn't been here for a while and, last week when I came down, there's this new thing. Somebody's built a boardwalk. The lovely thing about a trail, a path, is you just walk. You just get on it and you walk. It's easy to think of all the rest as somehow something you shouldn't set foot in. You just stay on the trail. Stay on the trail, as the signs say in all the national parks, right? You can think about our lives that way. So often, we think stay on the trail. Just stay on the path. Whatever the path of your life is. Tempting to step off into the wilderness. I learned a lot about trails from Robert Moor, who wrote a wonderful book called On Trails: An Exploration. He was through hiking the Appalachian Trail when he started wondering about the paths that he was following. Like, who built them? Why some of them lasted and some of them didn't? He wound up exploring trails all over the world and thinking about their different meanings.

Robert Moor (22:25):

We think of hiking as an aesthetic experience and we often think of it terms of vistas and landscapes. And so when you don't have it, it feels odd. You think, what's the point? Why am I walking if I can't see a view? The moment you really start thinking about it is when the trail goes wrong. It's when something a little bit illogical would happen that you would get intensely frustrated and you would think, who built this and why? Why-

Anne Strainchamps (22:53):

What do you mean?

Robert Moor (22:53):

... did they put this here? A hiking trail was designed to be sustainable. It has to shed water in certain ways. It has to avoid certain places. So, it will sometimes go a place where you as a hiker don't want to go, but the trail builder needs you to go there. Hikers get very, very frustrated by this because hikers, especially through hikers, want to get where they want to go as quickly as possible. They want to follow the path of least resistance. And so that's one of the interesting things about the task of building hiking trials is that you have to convince people to go where they don't necessarily want to go. Oftentimes, hikers won't do it. They'll take a short cut and they'll create what are called desire lines, which cut across the trail.

Anne Strainchamps (23:32):

I love that term. Desire lines. That was the point when you first brought up in the book where I thought, oh, that's such a beautiful metaphor. It made me wonder what's the desire line in my life? Am I following it?

Robert Moor (23:48):

Yeah. It's true. It has a really strong metaphorical resonance for people. Because we are born into the world, I think, with various paths laid out for us. One of the questions is... it's really the deep question of wisdom... is do you follow these paths that are laid out for you or do you start making your own path? One of the things I love about the metaphor of the trail is that it is so applicable because most people have walked on trials. Everybody has walked on some kind of trail, whether it's an urban environment or in the woods, so you know instinctively it's much easier to walk on a trail. It's much harder to strike off into the weeds and the brambles. And so that is something that I thought about constantly while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail is, by following this path that was laid out for me, am I missing something? Or is this actually the best path from Georgia to Maine?

Anne Strainchamps (24:42):

Well, that's interesting because, in our culture, I think we tend to glorify the trail blazers rather than the trail followers. As you explored the metaphor, did you come to think differently?

Robert Moor (24:55):

Well, yeah. I mean, that's a very American way of thinking. If you go back and you read... For example, Thoreau is appalled by the idea of following a trail. He believes everyone should be a trail blazer in life. Of course, Emerson, writing about self-reliance. There are many... There's a long tradition in America of believing that following a trail is kind of shameful. It's kind of cowardly. But, actually, when you look into it, following a trail is also a very original act because every person who follows the trail edits the trail a little bit as they're following it. That's what I find so beautiful about them. It's such a beautiful idea that, as a collective body, we are creating this thing together, which takes us all where we need to go.

Anne Strainchamps (25:37):

You did so much research. What are the most complex trails you uncovered?

Robert Moor (25:44):

Probably ant trails. Because they're made of pheromones... they're not impressed into the earth... they evaporate very quickly, which means that they can change very quickly. What that allows ants to do is to create these networks of incredible efficiency. They can solve problems that we even have problems solving. People have actually studied ants to learn how to better route packages through a shipping network or how to better route information through the Internet.

Anne Strainchamps (26:13):


Robert Moor (26:15):

Yeah, it's true. It's amazing because they are very simple animals and yet, collectively, they're incredibly smart. In a certain sense, that collective intelligence resides in their trails. It's the very structure and makeup of their trails that makes them so smart.

Anne Strainchamps (26:30):

What's so amazing about their trails?

Robert Moor (26:32):

Well, for example, fire ants, which E.O. Wilson has famously studied. They can tell each other not just where food is, but how much food is there by the strength of their trail. And then as the food begins to diminish, the trail will begin to dissipate as well. You have this ever updating map of where all the food is and it's mesmerizing because you think, how could they have... With no central coordination, they're managing to do all this. It's incredible.

Anne Strainchamps (27:01):

Elephants turn out to be amazing virtuoso trail makers.

Robert Moor (27:06):

Yeah, incredible. Probably unparalleled. Because of their size and their intelligence and the incredible power of their sensory organs, they will find paths that we end up building into our roads and our highways. I remember hiking in Tanzania years ago and following elephant trails and just marveling at them, thinking, how do they always find the shallowest crossing across a river? How do they always find the lowest paths through the mountains? You imagine them almost having a kind of telepathy or a God's eye view of the landscape.

Anne Strainchamps (27:41):

They also seem to have evolved to walk trails. Their feet are incredibly light.

Robert Moor (27:48):

They're incredibly soft. They're incredibly sensitive. To the point that their feet are almost like stethoscopes. They can actually feel vibrations through the ground and sense rainstorms many, many miles away. There's a little anecdote. Three rangers who were sleeping had accidentally laid down a tarp in the middle of an elephant trail and woke up the morning and realized that there was an elephant footprint in between where they were lying down. An elephant had actually walked right over them and they hadn't even known it because that's how quiet they are.

Anne Strainchamps (28:22):

Wow. Have you ever been in a pathless wilderness? Tried hiking without a trail?

Robert Moor (28:30):

I have, yeah. Quite a few times, I found myself for certain stretches. But, by far, the most memorable was in Newfoundland. A place called the North Rim Traverse around Western Brook Pond, which is designated as a pathless wilderness. They will never build a trail there. You actually have to pass a navigation test before you can go in. It's a little bit daunting. You have to pass this map and compass test and then give you a little tracking device, which will locate your hopefully still living body if you stop moving. I went there by myself. I had no cellphone. I had no GPS. Just a map and compass. I really wanted to test myself.

Robert Moor (29:08):

To be honest, it was kind of horrifying. I felt very, very uneasy from the first moment I started out because I realized how accustomed I had become to following a trail. There were these trees called tuckamore, which are elephant wood trees. They're very short and very sturdy. They can be a hundred years old and only reach as high as your waist. Because the wind has stunted their growth. So, you had to fight your way through these trees. For three days, I just fought and fought my way across this landscape. I got completely lost. I was miles off track. And then, on the last day, I found my way back to the trail. There was a big cairn, a big, stone cairn, marking where the trail was. And I felt this flood of relief just to be back on a trail. That was, I think, when I really realized the value of a trail.

Anne Strainchamps (29:58):

Robert Moor is the author of On Trails. We talked together about walking. Okay, let's keep going. While we're often down when we're walking along a trail, sometimes you need to look up, too, to the sky. Nate Staniforth has an idea for us.

Nate Staniforth (30:27):

My name is Nate Staniforth. I'm a magician and the author of Here is Real Magic. My dangerous idea requires just a little bit of context. The short version is that you should set your alarm and stay up tonight, go outside, and watch the night sky. You should lose yourself in it. Let me explain why I think this is important. If you are anything like me, it's very easy to get lost in the day to day business of living. I have seen the stars and seen the night sky so many times that it's so easy to just ignore it and take it for granted. But, recently, I walked outside to take the trash can and put it by the street for the truck to take it away in the morning and, for some reason, I stopped and just stood there and looked up at the sky. It just knocked me down. It had been a long time since I'd ever done that deliberately and it just stretched up forever. Immediately, all of the things that I was worried about, I was no longer worried about them. It's like time stood still for a second.

Nate Staniforth (31:59):

It resonated with me so clearly and so powerfully because that's what a magician is trying to do. A magician is trying to take an audience and pull them away from the world for a moment and to give them this moment of genuine awe and wonder. If I can do that with a card trick, that's great. If I can do it with a mind reading illusion, that's great. But if I can do it just by encouraging someone to stop at 9:30 this evening and go outside and look at the sky... I have never looked at it deliberately and not been astonished by it. And so that's my idea. That's my recommendation. It sounds like a cliché until you try it and then it just takes over everything for a few minutes.

Anne Strainchamps (32:56):

That was the magician, Nate Staniforth, author of Here is Real Magic. I'm Anne Strainchamps and it's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (33:27):

Part of the experience of walking is stopping. To let the senses connect with the sounds, the smells, the colors, of the natural world. Adults often have to remind themselves to do this, but it comes pretty naturally to kids. Those early moments of wonder can be formative experiences.

Andreas Weber (33:48):

When I was maybe 12, I was totally in love with amphibians. In the rural area north of Hamburg, there was ponds, which are now long gone. They have been rationalized away, but there were these little ponds in the landscape and I spent days, maybe even weeks, alone traveling to these ponds and just looking if I'd find some beautiful, unknown amphibians. I remember when I, for the first time, didn't only see frogs and toads, but I found a newt. It was late winter, so it was maybe March or something. It was kind of cold. I remember lying on my belly and I couldn't believe the treasure I found. I was watching this animal hanging in the water. They come up and gasp for air and then they just slowly sink down. I was transfixing this animal, this newt. It stared into me and through me and drew me in. I found myself in this other body and found my ecstasy in this simple, relaxed, generous, just being there. I knew that someone this was the hinge of the universe at that moment. It was just revolving around this connection between two beings who are one being in the end.

Anne Strainchamps (35:56):

Andreas Weber grew up to become a biologist and a philosopher. He lives in Berlin. When Steve Paulson was there, they went for a walk.

Steve Paulson (36:10):

Where are we right now?

Andreas Weber (36:12):

We are in the Grunewald Forest, which is a huge forest inside the city of Berlin, about maybe 15 kilometers. I go here when I need closer contact to the more than human world. Sorry.

Steve Paulson (36:32):

It's all right.

Steve Paulson (36:39):

That phone call is a reminder that even when we're in the middle of this forest, civilization is close by. And that's what Andreas is here to remind me. There's no clean line between what's human and what's nature. Andreas Weber is a biologist and philosopher with a very unconventional way of describing the natural world. In fact, he's the first scientist I've ever met who talks about love as a basic principle of biology... it's part of what we calls an erotic ecology... and has very sensory, hands-on understanding of the world. His biology of wonder has won Andreas admirers around the world and brought me here today, deep in the Grunewald forest, with his little poodle, [inaudible 00:37:21], trotting along beside us on a mission to find a tiny oak tree.

Andreas Weber (37:26):

[foreign language 00:37:26] I brought some water because I need to try to bring back to life our little baby oak. Can you see the little stem coming out without any leaves? That's actually a sad story. My wife gave that to me two years ago for my birthday and we planted it together. If you get an oak for a birthday, you need to plant it in a forest. For some reason, during our absence in the last months, somebody or something broke it. It doesn't have any leaves anymore and looks a little bit sad, but it's still green under the bark, so I'm giving water to it. It will take some time.

Steve Paulson (38:14):

Yeah, no. That's totally fine.

Andreas Weber (38:17):

The soil is so dry that the water doesn't sink in rapidly. You'll see this.

Steve Paulson (38:22):

Okay. That's fine.

Andreas Weber (38:23):

I mean, it's a sort of meditation in a way.

Steve Paulson (38:29):

As Andreas sits down in the dirt to water his tree, he tells me something I never would have guessed. His baby oak was almost certainly eaten by wild boars.

Steve Paulson (38:39):

Wait, there are wild boars in this park here?

Andreas Weber (38:42):

Yeah. There are wild boars.

Steve Paulson (38:43):

So, we might see one today?

Andreas Weber (38:45):

Yeah, but it's... They're there, maybe 150 meters there behind you in the forest, and they even come out of the forest into the streets. They're there in the gardens.

Steve Paulson (38:58):

Are there any violent interactions between boars and people?

Andreas Weber (39:02):

No. They're basically peaceful, but sometimes they're impressive. When I started my relationship with my now-wife, often instead of going out and hanging out in bars or whatever, we went to the forest and we put out our picnic blanket and had a glass of wine. And then the wild boars came and the dog sat there, very anxious little poodle. No, but they're around and it's a kind of coexistence. I mean, if we met one, he or she would stare at us from a 20 meters distance and then probably grunt and run off.

Steve Paulson (39:41):

Well, in some ways, that gives it extra meaning. Nature is not just out there. It's where we live.

Andreas Weber (39:47):

Yeah, absolutely.

Steve Paulson (40:00):

When you come out here, you want to commune with the more than human world? From a biologist perspective, what might you be noticing that I don't notice as someone who doesn't have your kind of background?

Andreas Weber (40:15):

I think the first thing is... You're already noticing it because it's a question of just being here and sinking in the surroundings. You feel the wind stirring these birches at the fringe of the forest. And the pines a little bit behind. Maybe you saw these two crows playing in the bigger pine a little bit. Can you hear the wind? Now, it's starting to slightly making the birch leaves rustle. It's like meeting a spirit through its body in a way and being greeted in some way or another because it touches you. It floats around my hair and touches my skin. It's a communion in a way.

Steve Paulson (41:01):

Does the wind feel alive to you?

Andreas Weber (41:05):

Absolutely. Absolutely. Particularly today. It has a very delicate and interesting character right now. No, it feels alive and as a movement in the atmosphere, which comprises us all and which makes all the bodies somehow stir, which is the chamber of exchange between my body and the body of the plant. What I exhale is what they eat and what they breathe out is what I need to breathe in to exist, so it's truly the shared substance of our bodies. Do you feel the wind coming in right now? Can you see that the sky is a little bit darker behind the trees? There's this gust of wind now coming. I can't help to feel that I'm deeply communicating with all these other bodies, which are then in a way part of a larger body of which my body is, again, part.

Steve Paulson (42:05):

One thing that I find so striking about how you describe all of this is it's so sensory. It's obviously partly what you're looking at, but it's also what it feels like. We haven't even talked about how it smells. It's kind of this whole body response to the environment that we're in.

Andreas Weber (42:24):

It is. It is a totally sensual experience. What you're experiencing is a kind of embodied argument for why I'm calling the whole field of interacting bodies erotic ecology. Because it's mediated by your own body, which longs for continuation and for contact with other bodies, which isn't to be confused for sex or something. This is... Oh, let me see. Flowers are already gone. Some St Johns-wort, which is very modest, but you'll always find it here.

Steve Paulson (43:06):

When you say there's this drive to have contact with other beings, do you mean this in a biological sense? In a metaphorical sense?

Andreas Weber (43:15):

I mean it in all possible senses, which are all linked together. Clearly, there is a biological need to be in contact with other beings. Not only in contact, but in intimate exchange as we breathe in what they breathe out and we actually eat them and they eat us. That's a huge metabolism in one huge flesh in a way. On that level, we can't avoid contact. We don't want to avoid it because it's so beautiful. Do you hear the wind which is now even slightly changing direction? Now, it's coming from behind your back in a way. Do you also see that the light where these typically northern German clouds is completely dramatically changing when there's a cloud covering the sun? Just sailing by the sun? It's a pretty interesting day today that you came here, so, good.

Steve Paulson (44:16):

Most scientists would say, okay, these are mechanical processes. Wind is molecules interacting a certain way in the air. You're taking this to a whole different level.

Andreas Weber (44:27):

Yeah, but I mean, they would be right because they surely are mechanical phenomena, but what you say reminds me of a colleague when I was on a seminar on a German North Sea island some years ago. Part of that seminar was a spectacular evening walk when the sun was setting in the west and this flaming, red sky with dark clouds. It was really beautiful North Sea evening. I had breakfast with that colleague the next morning and he told me, "That was so beautiful, but you know, as a scientist, I just... I don't have any explanation, so it's just nothing. It's just completely neutral." That's actually bothering me slightly. I said to him, "No. Science goes wrong there." It's a very dangerous idea to think we are minds... or we have minds and the remainder of the world is just stuff. It's just exactly bringing us where we are to burning Amazon and burning Arctic and all this predicament we're in at the moment. That's the mechanical takeover of the phenomenon of life. It's so important that it's not like you learn in school. Like you learn in school. At least in many schools in Germany, they learn that you're a machine fueled by food. You have an exhaust and out goes burned fuel. It's not true.

Steve Paulson (45:48):

You're really saying we need a revolution in biology. It's sort of the Darwinian view. Or maybe it's a certain interpretation of Darwin. That it's all about competition. That just doesn't cut it anymore.

Andreas Weber (46:01):

That's the basic performance of all of us is not to function mechanically and compete, but to create ourselves from something which flows through us all the time. This creation can only be done in communion with others. That's the kind of magical and enigmatic thing about biology. You need others, which can breathe your breath and give you back something in order to create yourself from this meta which flows through you. This gives a totally different picture from the picture in which tiny machines are competing for resources.

Andreas Weber (46:41):

Beautiful, the wind, isn't it? That was also interesting. That was a raven. There it goes. It's beautiful. It's nice. Can you sit there? Do you want [crosstalk 00:47:11]. You could also sit on this if you want to.

Steve Paulson (47:14):

I'm good here.

Andreas Weber (47:15):

Just get your clothing a little bit dirty. That's erotic ecology.

Steve Paulson (47:22):

There's one other word that I do want to make sure we talk about and that's love. Because that figures prominently in your ecology. Again, I don't think this is just a metaphorical idea for you. How far can we take the idea of love into an ecological understanding?

Andreas Weber (47:41):

I think we need to take it very far into it and, at the same time, we need to carefully understand what love means. I'm going so far to say that ecosystems are love processes. We see in beautiful productivity and that's a manifestation of a love process to my eyes. I'd say that if we go here and feel good, then love is happening. Actually, we are kind of required to reciprocate. We can't just go here. We shouldn't go here and take and then go back. That's one of the reasons I took over the obligation to water some of the plants when they're suffering. To give me the feeling that I'm not only taking something beautiful, but I'm also nourishing something beautiful. That, again, is part of this love relationship.

Steve Paulson (48:34):

One final question. For our listeners, who are inspired by what you've been saying and want some kind of takeaway for their day to day life. How can they experience... have these kind of connections with the natural world?

Andreas Weber (48:51):

We don't need expertise to do this and we don't need a nature preserve to do this. On a more concrete level, I'd say go and sit with a plant and just be there. Even if it might feel weird at the beginning. Continue doing this and it will start to feel really good and resourceful after a while. It's a sort of exercise which is called the sit spot. You can do it everywhere. Even in the middle of a city, you'll find some places where you can be with the wind which brushes through the leaves. To many, this might feel unfamiliar and even disturbing because you're losing time. Sitting 10 minutes there, it's like losing 10 minutes of your day. But on the other hand, you're gaining time because then you have 10 minutes in which you can be in what you always already are, namely a relationship of mutuality with the remainder of the world.

Anne Strainchamps (50:02):

That was Steve Paulson talking with eco philosopher, Andreas Weber, the author of several books including The Biology of Wonder and Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology.

Anne Strainchamps (50:18):

And that's it for this hour. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced from Madison, Wisconsin at Wisconsin Public Radio. This hour was put together by Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Angelo Bautista, and Mark Riechers. Our technical director is Joe Hardtke. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson and I'm Anne Strainchamps. If you would like to get a behind the scenes look at our show and producers, make sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter. You'll find it at Thanks for wondering through these paths with us today.

Automated Voice (50:53):


Last modified: 
May 27, 2022