Urban human-nature resonance for sustainability transformation


Meeting nature at eye level -
an explorative walk through the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle in Merano

Who hasn't experienced this? It's a balmy summer evening, you happen to meet a few old friends and get lost in exciting conversation until the wee hours of the morning. This spontaneous evening and the encounters felt light and invigorating. Another evening, your favourite band is playing and although you've been looking forward to the concert for months, the spark doesn't quite want to fly. The crowds are annoying, the music is too loud and even your favourite song doesn't touch you. Whether a party will be fun or a conversation will inspire us can hardly be forced. These everyday phenomena can be interpreted by Hartmut Rosa's resonance theory in such a way that resonance is uncontrollable and cannot be forced at will. However, we can shape our relationships to the world in such a way that moments of resonance can arise. An important aspect of this is that all entities involved in a relationship can speak with their own voice – that is, the world is also to some extent unavailable. In the example mentioned at the beginning, this could perhaps mean that I don't go to the concert of my favourite band with the preconceived expectation that this will be the best evening of my life. Instead, I simply let the music, the concert-goers and the room take effect on me.  It could also be that if I listen to myself beforehand, my body says that it would prefer a cosy evening at home today. So I could recover from an exhausting week, although my mind says I should redeem my already purchased concert ticket. So I let the concert and its setting or my body speak with its own voice.

In our project focusing on human-nature relationships, the prerequisite "to speak with our own voice" means that we give ourselves and nature a voice in equal measure. We neither see ourselves as standing above nature nor do we merge completely with her. Rather, we meet nature at eye level and treat her as an independent, animate being that has just as much right to a fulfilled life as we humans do. Such a positive vision of how we can shape our relationship with nature is what we call human-nature partnership. The concept of human-nature partnership is not new. In environmental philosophy there are several theoretical treatises on what can be understood by it. The focus is on the principle that humans and nature regard each other as equal members of a society. A 2011 study found that Western European respondents actually support the vision of such a relationship. The idea that we humans dominate nature is rather rejected in this study. But aren't our daily actions based primarily on the paradigm of domination and exploitation of nature when, for example, we breed, cage and kill animals for our hunger for meat, even though this is not usually necessary in our culture?

When it comes to romantic partnership relationships within our species, there are many books with advice, as well as guidebooks on how we can shape our working relationships collegially. Our institute's mission statement also states, for example, that our collaboration is characterized by "(...) inspiring, motivating and collaborative work environment, and an organisational culture characterised by openness, trust, appreciation, creativity and learning." Aspects such as appreciation or a sense of community are also important for a human-nature partnership. However, it is important that we not only formally define these goals, but also fill them with life and that we engage in partnership relationships in our lives every day. But how can we express and realize an appreciative relationship with nature as a companion in our daily activities?

I don't just ask myself this question when I'm at work. It also flashed in my mind during my summer vacation, when I took a trip to the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle in Merano, South Tyrol. In this colourful botanical garden surrounded by mountains, visitors can explore 80 different garden landscapes on two hectares. Our senses allow us to perceive the voice of the gardens through scents and colours. Or we learn through our minds many exciting facts and connections about the gardens during our visit. Without having planned it, these many impressions of this visit on a sultry afternoon in August condensed into the question: How can I walk through the different gardens in the attitude of a human-nature partnership? And what do I learn for my daily interactions with nature? In the sense of a communicative interweaving with all the plant-, animal- and stone-beings living in the gardens, I got numerous information on different levels: physically, mentally and through the heart. In this essay, I try to give a few impressions of my visit informed by three characteristics of a human-nature partnership:


Human-nature partnership
1) is concrete, 2) is based on giving and taking and
3) is characterized by compassion and deep listening.


The Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle in Merano

Human-nature partnership is concrete – an embodied approach

Wouter T. de Groot provides an important basic work on the subject of human-nature partnership. In his 1992 treatise, he developed the idea of partnership ethics in the context of human-nature relationships. An important pillar of this ethic is that nature and our relationship to her are concrete and tangible. By this he means that in order to have a partnership relationship we must physically engage with nature. In this regard, the quality of the relationship depends on the intensity and temporal scope of our engagement with nature. That is, it is not enough to just watch nature documentaries on television or read about nature. Rather, it is important that we go out and physically experience nature. But we have to make time for that. However, we do that less and less in our modern society. Scientists use the term extinction of experience to warn that in our modern society, especially children, we come into less and less physical contact with nature. This development not only has a negative impact on our health and well-being, but also increases the risk that our attitude towards nature is less positive and that we are less willing to commit ourselves to nature through sustainable behaviour. To foster physical experiences with nature to enable moments of resonance, however, it is not a matter of seeking out nature on vacation as a passive resonance oasis in the sense of exotic wilderness or romantic mountain scenery with the aim to recover from our stressful everyday lives. Rather, our modern society is confronted with the challenge that we have less and less interaction with nature in our accelerated daily lives. You can think for yourself: How often are you in nature in a normal working week and how often do you consciously interact with her? The aspect of time was also addressed in the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle. Especially this quote by Ernst Frestl I found very valuable as a stimulus for further reflection: "The most modern form of human poverty is not having time.”


Time in an accelerated society – installation in the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle

During my summer vacation, I personally noticed how good it feels to sit less in front of the computer and be outside in nature most of the time. However, as described above, a nature partnership is not only about taking time for each other, but also about the intensity of our contact. I took this thought as inspiration to explore the gardens barefoot. When I was a child, I spent a lot of time barefoot in nature. But with the time I had probably forgotten how beautiful it is to feel the ground directly under the feet. Through direct contact with our feet, we not only perceive the different textures of the ground much better, be it artificial surfaces, angular stones, cool water or soft grass. Walking barefoot grounds us, which is why it is also called earthing or grounding. Especially in a job where you are most time engaging with your head, this grounding can be very beneficial. In fact, walking barefoot is healthy for our psyche and our body. It enhances our relationship with nature by connecting us to the earth's surface through electrons, which boosts our energy exchange with the earth. Walking barefoot improves our oxygen supply and can reduce pain and inflammation. In fact, through this concrete physical relationship, nature provides us a lot of benefits. But a partnership is not just about taking. Therefore, I will look at how giving can also look in a human-nature partnership in the next section.


Barefoot in the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle

Human-nature partnership is based on giving and taking – a cognitive explanation

According to Wouter T. de Groot, reciprocity is a central value for a human-nature partnership. In this context, giving and taking underscores the need for us not only to take from nature, but also to give something back. Thus, in the sense of a good partnership at eye level, it is ensured that humans and nature can thrive and live a good life equally. The fact that we take more than we give back due to our current way of living and economic activities is vividly illustrated by the so-called Earth Overshoot Day. This day shows when we humans have used up all the ecological resources that nature provides us with within a year. In Germany, we have already reached this day in 2023 on May 4.

We can learn from nature herself what giving and taking in the sense of a human-nature partnership can look like. I found inspiration in the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle when I learned there about the cooperation between leaf-cutting ants and fungi. Leaf-cutting ants are native to tropical Central or South America. Unlike the species native to our region, these are not hunter-gatherers. Rather, leaf-cutting ants are farmers who live in a symbiotic relationship with fungi. The ants cultivate and feed the fungus with plant parts and take care that garbage and pathogens do not harm the fungus. The fungus, which is nurtured and cared for by the ants, processes the plant parts, which are then available to the ants as food.


Giving and taking between leaf-cutting ants and a fungus

This interconnectedness of giving and taking, which promotes the well-being of all living beings, can be applied to the concept of Planetary Health. Planetary health stands for the close interconnectedness of our individual human health with a healthy Earth. For example, we need clean air to breathe or healthy habitats to prevent the transmission of zoonotic diseases. To draw attention to the urgency that our resource-intensive lifestyles pose a serious threat to the health of our planet and thus to humanity, the German Advisory Council on Global Change issued a report in 2023 calls society as well as policymakers to pay more attention to this connection. A concrete example of how we can align our human-nature partnership in terms of planetary health on giving and taking is through our daily diet. A Planetary Health Diet focuses on a strong reduction of animal and sugary foods and recommends doubling the consumption of fruits and vegetables as well as legumes and nuts. This type of diet is not only good for us, but also good for the planet, as we use fewer resources and save animal lives. If we then also grow our own vegetables and fruits, as is also suggested in the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle, we can at the same time nourish our physical human-nature partnership and connect not only our feet but also our hands to the soil.


A natural garden for a Planetary Health Diet

Human-nature partnership is characterized by compassion and deep listening – an exploration with the heart

To experience individual resonance with nature, we must be open. Open to be touched by her and to hear nature speak with her own voice. Compassion towards the entity with which we connect and whose voice we truly want to hear are therefore important leverage points for resonance. This is not, in the sense of narcissistic empathy, about projecting our own desires and thoughts onto nature in order to find ourselves in it. Rather, we should practice listening to nature in an unintentional and deep way. Even during my walk in the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle, I reacted with empathy during some sections and inevitably had the desire to listen deeply to more-than-human nature. This happened especially when I encountered animals that were caged so that we humans can observe them without them having the opportunity to avoid our curious glances.

For example, a lizard in a terrarium or birds in an aviary could be observed. On the one hand, it could be questioned to what extent we humans have the right to rob other creatures of their freedom by imprisoning them. On the other hand, we can look at this situation from the point of view of compassion. In her book "Entangled Empathy", scientist and activist Lori Gruen argues that we should be less lost in debates about animal rights. Rather, we should shape our relationship with animals in a way that is empathetic to them, taking into account their needs, interests and desires. The birds or the lizard may not be able to literally tell me what their needs are. But if I compare their lack of freedom with a romantic partnership relationship, it would be unhealthy if we deprive our partners of their physical freedom. Zoos can therefore be seen as prisons for animals and there is scientific research on how this confinement makes animals sick and die prematurely. With recent studies questioning that zoos contribute to species conservation or education, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is calling for the abolition of such facilities.


Is it the lizard's desire to live in this terrarium?

It was not only in contemplating the animals that I practiced compassion. The vision to explore human-nature partnership in the botanical garden with the heart, let me also become attentive to plants. I tried to listen to Wollemia nobilis. A conifer that was thought to have died out with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and was accidentally rediscovered in Australia in 1994. What can this tree tell us about what s/he has already experienced and felt? What can we learn from his/her million-year-old history? Also, this compassion made me wonder if the plants I was drawn to really wanted me to touch them. Touch is an essential way we can communicate with each other. Touch can be healing. But when we touch someone against their will, touch can also be invasive and hurtful. Cats or dogs can directly express when they don't want to be touched by growling, scratching or biting. Plants usually cannot do this. All these examples of how I established a relationship with plants with my heart are not purely mind-driven forms of communication. Rather, a spiritual relationship with nature and plant beings emerged. Exploring this can go hand in hand with scientific methods. Plant biologist Monica Gagliano provides an inspiring approach to this. Her book "Thus Spoke the Plant - A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants" contains a collection of stories that she has written together with and in the name of plants.


A Wollemia nobilias planted in 2006 – a conifer that lived with the dinosaurs

Remembering the essentials: love, gratitude and humility

All these impressions I share in this essay are only a fraction of what I learned, saw and felt that afternoon. When I wrote this essay, the visit to the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle was already a few weeks ago. What remained above all as a memory of that excursion was my conscious awareness of the inspiration, intuition and inherent ecological wisdom that we all carry within us. We just need to remember again how to let their voice resonate and be heard. I would like to thank all nature beings for this special day and hope that this essay makes – in the sense of giving and taking – a small contribution that we humans meet again lovingly and with respect with you, nature, as a companion at eye level. Besides all the important questions and tasks to foster sustainable transformations, we should also practice humility and remember that we are only a drop in the sea.


Love – a cornerstone for a healthy partnership

Author: Martina Artmann

If you have any comments or question on the essay, feel warmly invited to contact the author  (m.artmannioer@ioer.de).





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