Walking down the street a couple of days ago I passed a child, maybe eight years old, asking his father a series of “why” questions. The last one I heard was “Why do we have jungles?”. If the question seemed impertinent, the answer was flat out depressing. The father mumbled something about oxygenating the atmosphere. This exchange bothered me in a way that was somewhat overwhelming, and I had to make a deliberate effort to walk on without intervening. I kept my mouth shut, but I haven´t stopped thinking about why those words affected me so much.
The crudeness of the question is excused by the tender age of the questioner. However, there are several things which I find disconcerting, if not alarming, about this exchange. I acknowledge that I am not justified in considering this random episode as representative of the current attitudes of parents and children. Even so, it saddened me. Even if they are the exception and not the rule, the distance and coldness evident in both question and answer, imply an alienation from nature which I find depressing.
Lets start with the word “have”. The notion of ownership over an ecosystem is something I simply cannot fathom. If the question were in regards to ownership of property, it would be different. But the answer clearly establishes that was not the case. This “having” somehow implies that the jungle is at our disposal, and subject to our whims. And while this way of thinking is widespread among adults, witnessing this mindset in a mere child was shocking.
If the question had been “why are there jungles?”, and the child had been 3 or 4 years old, it would have been a cute moment of learning. But that word “have” on the lips of an 8 year old reveals a worrisome lack not just of familiarity, but of appreciation and wonder. As a child, forests are to be explored and discovered, they are for playing and marvelling. I would not wish to discourage this boy´s curiosity. Quite the contrary, it is good that he asks questions. But the jungle should not need to be justified, particularly to a child.
Perhaps I was particularly sensitive that day, but the question sounded dangerously close to a scornful “what good is it?”- as if nature had no intrinsic value, independent of human use. Sometimes it seems to me the whole world suffers from a nearsightedness where only the most practical and efficient is valued- that which provides the greatest profit in the shortest time. But I´ve always thought this to be a disease of grown-ups, not children.
And that is why the father´s answer, though technically correct, was also splendidly incomplete, cold and unimaginative.
I had to bite my tongue to keep from telling them both, “The question you should be asking is, why do we have cities? Why asphalt? Why cars, and factories and television? Why isn´t the jungle enough?”
Instead I´d like to tell them today, if by some miracle they should happen across this rant, that the jungle is home to monkeys, toucans, jaguars and countless other creatures. That from jungles we get such fruits as bananas, mangos, guava, soursop, papaya, and even vanilla and chocolate. That from jungle plants we get countless medicines to treat everything from diarrhea to cancer. That in the jungle we find orchids, which are the most beautiful flowers I know. That in the jungle its not just the birds that sing, but also the frogs, and the free concert they offer daily is the sweetest music I´ve ever heard. And yes, jungles produce a lot of the oxygen we breathe. But jungles are much more than all that. They are Life itself in its most glorious expression- exuberant, diverse, thriving, beautiful, frightening, dangerous and miraculous.
Why do we have jungles? Because we need them, and not just as a source of raw materials, but as a spiritual school and source of strength, patience, awareness and other virtues. In recent years there has been talk of a Nature Deficit Disorder in regards to the scientific fact that a childhood alienated from nature (one in which children do not play outdoors and explore their environment) results in impaired creativity, lower self-esteem and confidence, less ability to focus, and lower problem solving skills, as well as greater rates of depression, anxiety, obesity and nearsightedness, among other effects.
So, why do we have jungles? Because God loves us, deeply and intensely. Or if religious imagery makes you uncomfortable, because Nature is infinitely wise, generous, elegant and playful.
And that is why we wish to preserve 100 hectares of jungle and mangrove in Akumal as a small Ecological Reserve. Please, if you have not signed our petition yet, do so now, and invite your friends to do the same.
David Nuñez is a biologist, photographer and author of several books on the Wildlife of the Mexican Caribbean, as well as a founding member of Mexiconservación.