How do I love thee? So begins Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s best-known poem, penned more than 150 years ago to her husband. But let’s pose the question to Nature.
Do we express our passion for Nature as the famed tree huggers of India, who put themselves between their beloved forest and commercial loggers? Do we relate to the classic poster with the image of the Earth and the admonishment: “Love Your Mother”? Does the concept of biophilia, which posits our innate tendency to connect with other life forms, convey our true feelings?
We love chocolate, baseball, spouses, massages, sunsets, and kittens. Surely these are different feelings. Indeed, psychologists, philosophers, and theologians have proposed a catalogue of loves. And so, when it comes to Nature, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
First, we have eros—romantic, carnal love. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer integrated this passionate feeling into his concept of the Will—a fierce and irrational striving to survive and reproduce. But according to the British theologian C.S. Lewis, erotic love is not merely raw sexual desire but a profound synthesis of our rational capacities and our animal tendencies. As for Nature, we can experience profound sensuality when digging barehanded in fertile soil or shuffling barefoot through beach sand. Being engulfed in a steamy, primeval forest or slipping naked into a crystalline lake is a hedonistic pleasure, and such bodily intimacy surely constitutes a feeling of earthly eros.
Ludus has been called playful or uncommitted love. This emotion manifests as the enjoyment that comes from activities such as dancing, flirting, seducing, and teasing. The core of ludus is the experience of pleasure—with no strings attached. Love, it turns out, can simply arise from the fun of being in the natural world. Perhaps there is a place in our lives to engage Nature as a kind of “friend with benefits.” Recreation as love seems enchanting: dance in the forest, flirt with the desert, swim in the ocean, climb a mountain. Who would’ve imagined birding and fishing as forms of lovemaking?
When we think about couples celebrating fiftieth anniversaries, we imagine their sense of pragma—practical love founded on thoughtful caring and considered duty. This feeling develops from one’s long-term, practical interests. Romantic love might persist (the various forms of love are by no means mutually exclusive), but it can also give rise to authentic compatibility, a shared commitment to making a relationship work over decades. Pragma isn’t sexy or exciting, but it has solidity. The natural world provides plenty of opportunities for thrills and peak moments. But there is also, with practice and time, a kind of solace. We become dedicated to making our relationship with Nature work through thick and thin.
Next comes philia, a sense of deeply shared goodwill and mutual benefit. We choose our companions because they are pleasant and dependable. Friends share our values and interests; we are in it together. Can there be a bond of friendship with Nature? I’m dubious that the natural world cares about us (at least if Nature is “out there”; more on that later). However, there is mutuality in our capacity to alter the climate, cause extinctions, and poison the Earth, along with Nature’s ability to respond with fire, flood, and pestilence. We are bound together. While I’m not sure that an armistice amounts to philia, it’s better than hostility.
Perhaps storge or familial love comes closer to our bond with Nature. Conventionally, this fondness is born of the familiarity between parents and children. Storge differs from philia in being asymmetrical; the dependency is unequal. I’d suggest that “love your mother” plays out very differently with Mother Nature because she has far too many children for us to imagine we’re her favorite—or that she has even noticed us. And Nature is increasingly unfamiliar in our urbanizing world, although we remain profoundly dependent. Perhaps at an earlier time we were like affectionate children, but today humanity resembles rebellious adolescents (which isn’t to say that teens can’t love their parents).
Agape has been described as unconditional love or “love of the unlovable.” This unselfish concern for the welfare of another is unlike storge, as it does not depend on familial relations. Such charitable love has been viewed as applying to strangers, lepers, and God, all of which seem unlike us in various ways. But to the extent that we imagine the Divine to be immanent in the world, a pantheistic perspective might well support unselfish love toward Nature. I’ve even found it possible to care deeply for what many people find unlovable—the alien, off-putting, disturbing six-legged life forms that do not return my affection: entomological agape.
Finally, we have philautia or self-love. In excess, this manifests as arrogant pomposity, but a healthy life entails self-worth. Moreover, dignity grounds our relationships to others. As we come to know ourselves in cultivating philautia, we understand that Nature is not only “out there” in the forests and lakes. Nature is also “in here.” We are embodied minds, flesh and blood capable of transcendent thought. Let us love our physicality, our story of evolutionary arrival, and our acceptance of a self that comprises a biotic community. Most of “our” body mass consists of non-human life forms existing in profound communion and inseparable interdependence with their host.
And so maybe philautia is the place to ground an answer to “How do I love thee?” At least being a spiritual biologist, a rational piece of meat, and a moral animal, I am enamored by the idea that I am Nature aware of—and loving—itself.