“All things share the same breath — the beast, the tree, the man, the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”— Chief Seattle, Suquamish
Take a deep breath.
Breathing is our most natural and fundamental bodily function yet it seems many of us have either forgotten how to do it properly, or are prevented from doing so through our own careless actions.
Air, along with water, earth and fire, are considered to be the four fundamental elements necessary to sustain life on earth.
If we think about air, we may think of the atmosphere and our breath, both of which are in constant motion: air is moving around the planet into vortices and currents, creating climate. That same air moves through our bodies through inhalation and exhalation. In order for life to be maintained, balance is essential.
We also have the shape-shifting interplay between elements; air and water may create snow, mist, moisture, hurricanes, typhoons, tropical cyclones or monsoons. Water evaporates, forming clouds that are held by the air. Air may suffocate fire, but it spreads it too.
Air can be soft and caressing or violent and destructive. It may howl, roar, groan, sigh or whisper. Air transports sounds and smells. But it also carries germs and airborne diseases.
The power of air can be harnessed for our own movements: it carries and spreads seeds of plants, it lifts the wings of birds to enable them to take off and migrate long distances. It fills the sails of boats, it moves stagnant waters, and can be transformed into energy through wind turbines.
But the same movements of air can be disrupted in our own bodies, causing stagnation of energy, or shortness of breath, a common symptom of anxiety, fear or other emotional ailments.
In fact, our carelessness of the air is resulting in an ever more visible imbalance between the natural elements, causing floods, fires, hurricanes or droughts. We pollute the air we breathe and we cut down forests, the lungs of our planet, as if the health of the earth and our own health were somehow separate.
Air pollution is in fact the greatest external threat to human health on the planet with the average global citizen losing on average 2.2 years of their lives. A Lancet study of 194 countries, found that car pollution, particularly in urban centres, is resulting in four million new cases of child asthma every year.
Breathing less is not an option. Nor is keeping children indoors. Before Covid forced everyone indoors, one study in the UK found that children spend even less time outside than prisoners. Such findings, together with the growing recognition that playing outdoors is crucial to children’s physical and mental wellbeing and development is leading to movements around the world aiming to bring children, some referred to as the indoor generation, back into contact with nature.
Author Richard Louv who coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ argued the impact on humans of our alienation from nature is leading to “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families and communities.”
But it goes beyond simply our own health or that of our children. If we no longer experience nature, how can we possibly know how to protect it?
Perhaps thinking about air metaphorically can help. Air is space and perspective, for instance when we say ‘get some fresh air.’ Air relates to the mind, the intellect and quickness of thought. Air is also freedom, in Italian, ‘libero come l’aria’ (free like the air). But one can also be too ‘up in the clouds.’
Air has many symbolisms: communications, learning, thinking, imagination, creativity, harmony and travel. It represents movement and change: of the mind and body, a rigid mind or body will snap in the wind, a strong and flexible one will adapt. In some traditions, air is considered to be the mediator between heaven (or sky) and earth, and the belief that the air keeps the sky from falling.
So how do we balance the internal with the external? How do we let nature back into our lives? One example is the Mycelium Youth Network which has developed a climate resilient school programme teaching children skills necessary for climate adaptation. Their Clean Air is a Right project begins with learning different breathing practices in order to learn how to be grounded. The belief is that in order to learn the correct technical skills for challenges that lie ahead, one must first understand how an issue affects people socially, emotionally and culturally.
As Richard Louv said: “[t]he future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
Words, Veronica Yates and illustration Miriam Sugranyes