Boyd Varty: What Wisdom Can We Gain From Nature? South African writer and conservationist Boyd Varty has spent his entire life among wild animals. He describes how he discovers "new old ways" by observing the natural world.
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What Wisdom Can We Gain From Nature?

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What Wisdom Can We Gain From Nature?

What Wisdom Can We Gain From Nature?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So if wisdom isn't tied to a particular time in our lives, could it be tied to a particular place?

BOYD VARTY: People get a huge worry about the value in the world if they're not busy and doing something and being productive. But in nature, everything is just so uniquely itself.

RAZ: Writer and conservationist Boyd Varty grew up in South Africa.

VARTY: I grew up in a remarkable place called Londolozi Game Reserve.

RAZ: Londolozi is a wildlife game reserve that's been in Boyd's family for generations.

VARTY: And so I grew up spending hours and hours and hours out in nature observing animals. And there's a pace to the natural world and a genius to the natural world that arises out of that state of being.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VARTY: You know, you'll watch lions lie for 18 hours in deep rest. And just watching them - you learn about the power of rest. And then, just as the temperature starts to shift, they feel the change on their body. And out of that deep rest comes an intensity of movement.

And so they're in that rhythm, you know? And then they hunt with a ferocity and a focus. And they're extremely efficient. But they're never resting, thinking about being efficient or being really efficient, wishing they were resting. They're always where they are.

And that, to me, is the essence of wisdom, really - to be where you are and to allow action to arise out of that being. That's the natural world.

RAZ: Boyd is now in his early 30s. But he didn't always recognize how special it was to grow up where he did. In fact, what came to shape his ideas about wisdom, people and the natural world happened when Boyd was very young, when one particular visitor came to the game reserve.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VARTY: When I was 9 years old, President Mandela came to stay with my family.

RAZ: Boyd picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VARTY: He had just been released from his 27 years of incarceration and was in a period of readjustment to sudden global icon status. Members of the African National Congress thought that in The Bush, he would have time to rest and recuperate away from the public eye. And it's true that lions tend to be a very good deterrent to press and paparazzi.

(LAUGHTER)

VARTY: But it was a defining time for me as a young boy. I would take him breakfast in bed. And then in an old tracksuit and slippers, he would go for a walk around the garden.

At night, I would sit with my family around the snowy, bunny-eared TV and watch images of that same quiet man from the garden surrounded by hundreds and thousands of people as scenes from his release were broadcast nightly.

He was bringing peace to a divided and violent South Africa - one man with an unbelievable sense of his humanity. Mandela said often that the gift of prison was the ability to go within and to think - to create in himself the things he most wanted for South Africa - peace, reconciliation, harmony.

Through this act of immense openheartedness, he was to become the embodiment of what, in South Africa, we call Ubuntu. Ubuntu - I am because of you, or people are not people without other people. It's not a new idea or value, but it's one that I certainly think, at these times, is worth building on.

In fact, it is said that in the collective consciousness of Africa, we get to experience the deepest parts of our own humanity through our interactions with others. In a more collective society, we realize from the inside that our own well-being is deeply tied to the well-being of others.

Danger is shared. Pain is shared. Joy is shared. Achievement is shared. Houses are shared. Food is shared. Ubuntu asks us to open our hearts and to share.

Ubuntu - the root of the word is a Zulu word. It's often described as - I am because of you or we can't be deeply human in a vacuum. And I've extended that to say that it is not only through people but through our interactions with all sentient beings on the planet that we feel our humanness.

When you live in a village, naturally, you live close to nature. And the natural world around affects the way you are. It creates extended family. It creates shared community. And it creates a sense of belonging to something. And I think that a lot of the anxiety disorders and depression that we see in the world are actually an undiagnosed homesickness for a sense of belonging.

And that sense of belonging means to each other - to what it means to be human, what it means to be a part of the natural world. And the goal is to be so present that that humanity - whatever we are met by in other people - a compassion to be with that arises. And that brings us to a deeper part of ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Boyd tells a story in his TED Talk that gets at this idea. And it's about a female baby elephant who passed through his family's game reserve named Elvis. And they called her Elvis because when she walked...

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VARTY: She walked like she was doing the Elvis the Pelvis dance. She was born with very badly deformed back legs and pelvis. When I first saw her, I thought she would be dead in a matter of days. And yet, for the next five years, she returned in the winter months.

And we would be so excited to be out in The Bush and to come across this unusual trek. And we would drop whatever we were doing, and we would follow. And then we would come around the corner. And there she would be with her herd.

And then one day, we came across them at this small waterhole. It was sort of a hollow in the ground. And I watched as the matriarch drank. And then she turned in that beautiful slow motion of elephants. And she began to make her way up the steep bank. The rest of the herd turned - shoo - and began to follow.

And I watched young Elvis begin to psych herself up for the hill. She had a full go at it. And halfway up, her legs gave way and she fell backwards. She attempted it a second time. And again, halfway up, she fell backwards. And on the third attempt, an amazing thing happened. Halfway up the bank, a young teenage elephant came in behind her. And he propped his trunk underneath her, and he began to shovel her up the bank.

And it occurred to me that the rest of the herd was, in fact, looking after this young elephant. The next day, I watched again as the matriarch broke a branch. And she would put it in her mouth. And then she would break a second one and drop it on the ground. And a consensus developed between all of us who were guiding people in that area that that herd was, in fact, moving slower to accommodate that elephant.

What, all of the sudden, the herd taught me caused me to expand my definition of Ubuntu. And I believe that in the cathedral of the wild, we get to see the most beautiful parts of ourselves reflected back at us. And it is not only through other people that we get to experience our humanity but through all the creatures that live on this planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Wow. It's such a beautiful story. I mean, just thinking about how the herd was - you know, was looking out for this elephant. I mean, it just makes you think that, you know - it's like this idea is intertwined in everything around us.

VARTY: Yeah. And it doesn't always show up in, you know, ways that we would consider harmonious. You know, sometimes the Ubuntu in nature is the swiftness in which an injured animal is taken out of suffering by another animal. But there's an elegance to nature. And there is a way that everything is holding everything else.

You know, my definition of harmony is - everything is uniquely itself. And by being uniquely itself - a part of a greater unfolding. And that is what all the ancient cultures knew - you know, this intricate connection. And when you live in a relationship with that, you start to know yourself as a part of.

Within that is a kind of oneness and a felt oneness between all things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Boyd Varty - He's the author of a book called "Cathedral Of The Wild." You can check out his full talk at ted.npr.org. Can I ask you one more question?

VARTY: Yeah, absolutely.

RAZ: Looking ahead into your 40s or, like, 50s, what advice would you give to your future self?

VARTY: I would say I would love my older self to not be in the story of how it should have been but to live in deep acceptance with how it is.

I think the only time we can really be unhappy is when the way we think it should be and the way it is are different - so to keep finding the ways that the way that life is right now is full and full of joy and full of everything you need.

RAZ: Boyd Varty. More ideas about becoming wise in just a minute. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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