People’s relationship with nature has dramatically shifted in the transition to a post-industrial society. In an urban environment, the overwhelming influence of industry and technology on our everyday lives challenges our physical connection to nature. With so many digital and urban distractions, it becomes increasingly difficult to be present to ourselves and the world around us. As a result, such inattention to the natural signals of our bodies and that which surrounds us has also disconnected us from reality.

The way I see it, this disconnect began with England’s eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution, which introduced technology and mass production to the Western world. With the urbanization that followed, our industrial reality was gradually isolated from nature. This isolation is necessary to avoid facing the environmental destruction required for the maintenance and growth of industrial civilization: companies cut giant swaths of forest to process into products, and power plants sacrifice air quality to power factories and cities. Therefore, with every technological and industrial advancement, we step farther away from existing in a reality where nature has a place. 

This incompatibility between industrial society and nature demonstrates the inevitable physical disconnect from nature for those living in urban environments. At home, we exist within a manmade enclosure of material things. Outside, our shoes hit the pavement, and we walk between rows of brick and stucco boxes, a horizon of skyrise buildings beyond us. Maybe we travel outside in a car, where the sounds of birds are subdued behind a closed window, and we turn on the AC instead of feeling the breeze. If we’re walking, maybe we wear earbuds so that by the tenth song, we reach our destination. 

This industrial reality, where technology constantly intrudes upon our senses, alienates us from a natural reality and changes how we experience the world. For instance, listening to music while walking filters out parts of the world. You cannot hear your footsteps, the rustling of leaves, or people’s voices because you are auditorily detached from the world. 

This sensory stimulation even warps your perception of time. An article by Jonathan Berger in Nautilus called “How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time” explains that time is conceived as a “continuum” — something continuous that changes gradually — but is perceived in separate units, such as seconds or minutes, that when joined come to form something greater. 

Berger explains that music does not align with these units we perceive as time: “[Music creates] a separate, quasi-independent concept of time, able to distort or negate ‘clock-time.’ This other time creates a parallel temporal world in which we are prone to lose ourselves, or at least to lose all semblance of objective time.” 

The “objective time” Berger refers to is the “clock time” we measure in units but feel as a continuum. The fact that time is a social construct does not negate the reality it represents. Reality is cyclical: the sun rises and sets, the seasons change, and we change and develop too. To be grounded in “objective time” is to be present and attentive to the changes and cycles that exist in the natural world, including ourselves. 

Having a proper sense of time is important for our connection to nature because it grounds us in reality. Chris Gabriel of the YouTube channel MemeAnalysis has a video called “Touch Grass: How the Internet Distorts Time” which analyzes the meme ‘touch grass’ in light of the digital age where people spend much of their time online. Gabriel explains how digital reality has become a more “natural” environment than nature itself. They argue that the idea we must remind ourselves to “go outside and touch grass” exemplifies this by making nature a “novel” experience. 

Yet touching grass cannot by itself reestablish our relationship with nature because it remains an activity isolated from ‘real life.’ Gabriel compares this, or even a day of nature hiking, to “turning on the nature channel” rather than really experiencing nature. Instead, Gabriel says nature must be experienced cyclically rather than statically. This means we must experience nature as it changes rather than as voyeurs visiting a single ‘picture’ of nature by touching grass once in a while. 

Nature’s cycles are best portrayed with seasonal change. Like time, seasonal change is a continuum, and it is important to pay attention to nature’s continuums to connect with yourself and the external world. However, cyclical change does not happen online, where we enter what Gabriel describes as “a state of hypnosis” during which time passes unnoticed. Indeed, it is common when we emerge from scrolling through social media, watching Netflix, or playing video games that we feel as though more time has passed than it actually did. 

This hypnosis not only warps our sense of time but our sense of self too. For example, I’ve seen people eating mindlessly while indulging in media entertainment. I believe that if our mindless actions begin to violate the needs and limits of our bodies, this may illustrate our disconnect with our physical existences. Through this disconnect, we may suffer self-neglect. 

Our attention to the passage of time coincides with our experience of cyclical change, both of which relate to our relationship with nature. Nature is cyclical, and so are we. There is a time we wake up and fall asleep; hormones follow cycles that can influence people’s emotional and physical habits; summer tends to positively influence our moods, while winter is negatively influential. Gabriel proposes that connecting to nature and understanding its cycles can help us better understand ourselves and our tendencies and needs. This is because we are profoundly influenced by and similar to nature and its continuums. 

From personal experience, I write best when I watch nature change! Last spring and summer, I was acutely aware of the moon’s phases. Unintentionally, I tracked the moon’s daily changes each time I went outside and found myself writing much more about the world outside myself. I became less consumed by my inner world and more self-aware and observant of my surroundings when I allowed nature a prominent role in my life. 

While we cannot escape civilization, we can easily incorporate habits that bring us closer to nature while removing those that alienate us further. While walking to class, listen to the world instead of music. Pay attention to the buds on trees or how your hands flush in the heat. Open your window in the morning, or watch the plant in your room grow and then decay. Or, as Gabriel suggests: touch grass, but touch it every day.