The shared experience of natural wonders also seems to bring out our better selves.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

While riding the small ferry to my island home recently, the captain called out to the passengers scattered about the cabin that a pod of killer whales was passing by.

Suddenly everyone was up from their seats and rushing to the windows on the starboard side to get a look. Alongside one window an older gentleman sat quietly, unaware of the announcement. I watched as a young girl rushed towards that window, paused for a moment, then stepped right on the man’s lap to see out the window. Startled at first, the man softened when he saw what the commotion was about. Soon they both hurried out to the stern rail to watch as the whales passed behind the boat.

Experiencing nature with others reminds us that sharing comes naturally, and we’re meant to be communal.

Once the whales were gone, the social chemistry in the cabin had changed. The older gentleman was chatting with one of the younger parents while the young girl was vying for his attention to show him a book she was reading. There was an air of conviviality about the cabin, and I could see how the whale sighting brought the people who observed it a little closer together.

Experiencing the wonders of nature is always enhanced when shared with others. People of all ages and social strata become equal before nature, as we each let our personal facades loosen with an unspoken understanding that we’re all subjects of an overarching natural order. When we witness a marvel of nature we’re reminded of the interdependence of all life, and we are intuitively drawn together.

A shared experience

The shared experience of natural wonders also seems to bring out our better selves. When we feel the excitement of an eagle flying overhead, or get goose bumps from a magnificent vista, we want other people to have the same beautiful experience we are having. It’s a natural tendency to want to include others in the moment. Experiencing nature with others reminds us that sharing comes naturally, and we’re meant to be communal.

A few months ago our family had the good fortune to visit Hawaii, a wonderland of natural attractions. And while each place we visited was even more beautiful than expected, I was surprised by the friendliness and familiarity of strangers who would come up to us to point out special features like hidden waterfalls, quiet pools to swim in, the best trails to access special spots. People seemed to go out of their way to share their discoveries with us.

In the botanical gardens near Hilo on the Big Island, we were amazed by the size and variety of the natural flora. When I shared my enthusiasm with a couple groundskeepers, they asked me to gather my friends and meet them “around the bend” in a few minutes. Once there, we saw a very large outdoor cage with several Macaws. One of the groundskeepers went in the cage and, as two Macaws flew onto his shoulders, he spent the next 20 minutes giving us a “bird show”, impressing us with the intelligence and antics of these stunning birds. I was touched that this man, sensing my appreciation of the gardens, went out of his way to show us his “children”.

While snorkeling at a small cove one day, a stranger on the beach came up to us to tell us about his experience swimming at night with the manta rays, which he described as a spiritual experience. He spoke to us as long lost friends, and gave us his advice as where the best places were to visit. Our impression after he left was that he was still so excited about his swim with the manta rays that he simply had to tell someone about it. He needed to share his profound experience in nature.

A stronger connection

Natural environments, of course, are not the only settings for bringing people together. Sports events, concerts and cultural events can engender similar feelings of community among people. In New York City, where I once lived, a person could strike up a conversation with anyone at any intersection while waiting for the light to change.

The casual familiarity of the city is fleeting compared to the lasting impressions of shared experiences in nature.

But casual familiarity is fleeting compared to the lasting impressions of shared experiences in nature. The trickle of a mountain stream today brings a flood of memories of childhood adventures with friends in the woods of Long Island. When crossing the dunes onto the beach on the west coast, I can feel the touch of my father’s hand walking me to the beach as a child so many years ago.Nature can even bring us closer to people we may never meet.

A few years ago I visited the beautiful Hot Springs Cove on Canada’s rugged west coast. This is a
remote and pristine area, with natural hot pools leading into the sea, and impressive vistas of forested mountains cascading down to the restless Pacific shore. There were a half dozen camping sites tucked away in this magical setting, but none were occupied.

After enjoying a long hot soak in the rocky pools we walked into the forest and came across one of the campsites. There, next to a makeshift fire pit was an unopened bottle of wine. It was left for whoever would come by here next, with an anonymous note “Enjoy this site as we have”.

Standing at that spot with the bottle of wine in hand, my companions and I understood why the former campers were moved to be so generous. The beauty of the place was inspiring, and kindled an inner joy at its discovery. The campers were sharing their joy with us! Without a word of discussion, we set the bottle back in place, unopened, to pass the feeling along. The experience of sharing the joy of this natural refuge was more satisfying than any glass of wine.

Nature is a great equalizer. Rich man or poor man, there’s no difference when experiencing the beauty of nature. When the whale spouts, our instinct is to say to the person in earshot – hey, look at the whale! Even if the person is a total stranger.

So this summer as we head to our National Parks and other favorite destinations in nature, remember that each opportunity to reach out to another person in shared appreciation of the wonders of nature helps to heal the partisan social divide which embroils our politics, and which drives us apart as a community of citizens.

Let nature be our ambassador to peace, mutual understanding and acceptance.

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