The natural world is obviously important, even essential. We rely on nature for our very existence. Therefore, it might be assumed that nature holds the same significance, value, or meaning for everyone. However, this is not the case. In fact, for different people, nature holds very different meanings. Two different meanings divide people roughly into two main groups. The first group views nature as primarily valuable for producing wood for houses, oil for heating, crops for food, that is, products that sustain our physical existence. The second group views nature as being primarily valuable for its beauty, its fascinating complexity, and for how it can effect us spiritually. We might refer to these two groups as differing as to whether they see nature primarily in terms of nature's instrumental or of its intrinsic value.
Within the group emphasizing nature's intrinsic value, there are further divisions-between those who emphasize the sacred in nature and those who do not. It might be assumed that most religious people emphasize the sacred in nature, but that has not always been the case. Through the centuries, there have been many religious people who have treated nature as simply ours to exploit.
Furthermore, those who find the sacred in nature also constitute a diverse and complex group. There are religious as well as nonreligious people in this group. There are those who feel we humans are a part of nature (that we are "human animals") and those who feel we are not (who admire nature from afar, so to speak). However, the common bond of finding the sacred in nature outweighs the differences. An example of someone who, early on, found the sacred in nature is the world-renowned biologist, Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall is famous for her studies of chimpanzees.
Throughout most of her life, Goodall has used religious and spiritual language to describe her experience of nature. For example, in Reason for Hope, A Spiritual Journey, she says, "the forest-any forest- is, for me, the most spiritual place" (Goodall, 1998, p. 268) and then goes on to compare a forest to a cathedral. She says that when she walks through a forest, she feels a spiritual presence and feels that everything is connected through the power of God.
Early on, Jane Goodall was encouraged to form a personal connection with nature-by her mother especially. She used to climb up into her favorite tree, which she called "Beech," and "feel the lifeblood of Beech, coursing below the rough bark." It was this early connection with nature, coupled with her family's relaxed but strong religious faith that led to Goodall's developing a spiritual connection to nature.
Goodall's finding the sacred in nature makes her one among many. Among those many are those who see nature as sacred because a sacred hand made it. That is, they feel that nature is sacred because God made it. Trees and flowers are, for them, works of God, and so, for them, to cultivate a connection to a tree or a flower is to cultivate a connection to God. Others feel, in nature, something spiritual but not especially religious. They may feel so because, in nature, they feel most at home. Much of today's talk among conservationists (as when the earth is referred to as Mother Earth) has this quality of speaking about nature as a spiritual home.
In summary, there are two main ways of viewing nature and its value or meaning. There is the view that emphasizes nature being primarily an instrumental value, something that benefits all of us by meeting our physical needs. Then there is the view that emphasizes nature being primarily an intrinsic value, something that can benefit us by meeting our spiritual needs.
Throughout history, the first view has been the dominant view. However, recently, and partly as a result of the ecological crisis, there has been a shift toward the second view of nature as an intrinsic value, one emphasizing that in nature we can find the sacred.