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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Awe and Attachment: our connection with nature.

I live not in myself, but I become

Portion of that around me; and to me,

High mountains are a feeling, but the hum

Of human cities torture: I can see

Nothing to loathe in nature, save to be

A link reluctant in a fleshly chain,

Class’d among creatures, when the soul can flee,

And with the sky, the peak, the heaving plain

Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain.

(Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto 3, stanza 72; 1818, quoted in Philip Shaw, Landscape and the Sublime, 2014)

At sunset on Christmas Day I cycled from Rottingdean to Brighton and felt a sense of awe in the immensity of the landscapes I saw: the setting sun on Beacon Hill, the Rampion Windfarm and Worthing shimmering in the last rays of the sun, and the immensity of the moon, and Jupiter and Saturn four days on from he Great Conjunction.

(Rampion Windfarm)

(The moon photographed from Rottingdean)

(Beacon Hill, Rottingdean)

(Worthing from Rottingdean Beach)

(Jupiter and Saturn from Brighton Beach)

(Jupiter and Saturn over the lights of the Rampion wind farm from Brighton Beach)

I reflected on other moments when I felt awe in the last few months, when cycling and photographing during the covid pandemic. I remembered seeing the South Downs in the distance from Lancing beach, the light reflecting from the cliffs, and the distant horizons from Worthing and Goring Gap at low tide; all images of vastness and immensity, that made me feel small and part of something bigger than myself.

(The horizon (Rampion Windfarm) from Worthing. November)

(The cliffs of East Sussex from Goring, November)

(Goring Gap, December)

When I look at the sky, and note the planets and the stars, or look at a distant horizon, or view a distant locality, I am struck, momentarily, by my insignificance. As someone who struggles with anxiety - someone who finds it hard to accurately determine the significance of my thought and actions objectively - this can offer relief from troubling thoughts, but it can also lead to an existential nihilism: I, my community, humanity, are nothing in the face of cosmic size.

The impact of immensity on wellbeing is a contested field:

"... multiple studies have shown that awe experiences are often accompanied by a diminished sense of self (often termed “the small self”), feelings of connectedness with others, and a sense of being in the presence of something greater than oneself. These findings have led David Yaden and others to suggest that awe can be classified not just as an emotion but also as a type of altered state of consciousness called a “self-transcendent experience (STE)”— (Yaden, Haidt, Hood, Vago, & Newberg, 2017). A white paper prepared for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, September 2018

The philosopher Guy Kehane states: "The universe that surrounds us is vast, and we are so very small. When we reflect on the vastness of the universe, our humdrum cosmic location, and the inevitable future demise of humanity, our lives can seem utterly insignificant ... [but] In fact, we might be of immense cosmic significance—though we cannot, at this point, tell whether this is the case." Nous. 2014 Dec; 48(4): 745–772.

Kehane notes the ideas of Blaise Pascal and Frank Ramsey on the significance of immensity:

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed… if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 1670 Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don't feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. Frank Ramsey, The Foundations of Mathematics, 2000.

Whilst it may be important to note the limits of our significance in the universe, in order to temper any inappropriate anxiety we may experience, we are all significant to others, especially to other humans and other animals in our immediate world: we are both significant to other humans in the sense that we are borne in mind by them; and we are important to others in the sense that we have a duty to take up our responsibilities for the welfare of others (human and non human); stemming from the sense of attachment we feel with other people and non-human animals, especially when we are in close proximity to them; we are hard-wired to connect, and this is central to individual, group and community well-being

We believe that there are theoretical arguments and empirical evidence in support of the notion that attachment theory ofers a valuable framework within which to structure the examination of human-animal relationship studies. Rockett, Ben & Carr, Sam. (2014). Animals and Attachment Theory. Society & Animals. 22. 415-433.

Whilst experiencing immensity is a component of my well-being - related to separating myself from pathological anxiety and/or connecting myself to a greater whole - the experience of attachment to people and animals is the wellspring of my wellbeing, and my desire to act to conserve nature. My significance to the small part of the world in which I live is an important motivation for pro-environmental behaviours. The experience of observing an animal and sensing the fragility of its life, or seeing the attachment bonds of non-human animals (even if that connection is an anthropomorphic positive allusion rather than a reality) fills me with warmth; a love that calls me to act for nature.

(The fox cubs in my garden, April)

(A pair of Magpies in Craven Wood - December)

(Three Red-Breasted Mergansers on the Widewater Lagoon, Lancing. December)

(A Black-headed Gull and a Red-breasted Merganser, Widewater Lagoon, December)

(A flock of Lapwings, River Adur, Shoreham, December)

Safeguarding the welfare of animals leads to positive human outcomes, such as companion animals contributing to physical and mental health, healthy farm animals linked to higher productivity and quality, and nature and wildlife strengthening the vitality and resilience of communities. These links show that we need to treat animals better not just for their sake, but also for ours. Therefore, when assessing the success of a policy, a program, or even a country, we need to use alternative indicators of wellbeing beyond economic growth to take into account what really matters to people, and those indicators should include measures that take conservation and animal welfare into consideration, for the benefit of human and animal wellbeing. Measuring What Matters, International Fund for Animal Welfare, 2020.



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