NATURE ON DEMAND? A Leading Ecopsychologist Compares Real Nature With Tech Nature

About the Author

Patricia Hasbach, Ph.D. is a private practitioner/owner of Northwest Ecotherapy in Eugene, Oregon; a faculty member at Lewis & Clark College; and a consultant and trainer on various topics related to the human-nature relationship. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and popular magazines, and she is the co-author of two books published by MIT Press: Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species (2012) and The Rediscover of the Wild (2013).

Standing at my neighbor’s kitchen window, I am mesmerized by the tiny bird hovering at the glass feeder filled with pink tinted sugar water.  LaRue tells me it’s a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and she shows me its picture in her well-worn copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds. I was five years old.

Later that spring, she gave me a hummingbird feeder for my birthday and persuaded my parents to hang it outside one of our kitchen windows. That winter we added a seed feeder in the backyard and hung a suet ball in an orange mesh bag from a bare tree branch to attract other bird species.  Having no children of her own, LaRue left me all of her bird books and field guides when she died – I was 11 years old.

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Google+
  • Buffer

Ushered into my life by a gentle woman and a tiny flying jewel, my birding interests have continued for five decades.

A recent article in the New York Times by Diane Ackerman describes her wonder at observing a nest of Great Blue Heron in Sapsucker Woods. She describes the lush habitat of the area, the antics of the five chicks, and the exhausting relay of their parents. Then she reveals she and her birding friends are not really at Sapsucker Woods.  The birders – all 1.5 million of them – are in the woods virtually via two live webcams focused on the Great Blue Heron nest.

Curious, I checked to see whether there were other such webcams spying 24/7 on a hummingbird nest. Sure enough there were several, and I clicked on one in Irvine, CA that was focused on the nest of a Channel Island  Allen’s Hummingbird.  I was joined by 406 other viewers as I watched two tiny gray balls of fluff, still and sleeping.  The screen was surrounded by Ads by Google for Live Mealworms for Sale for $9.95.

The hummingbird species continues to appear in my life in a variety of venues since that early, memorable introduction. When I embarked on a 3-day solo fast in a Utah desert, a hummingbird confirmed I had picked a good campsite – at least that is how I interpreted its hovering in front of me at eye level for what seemed like several seconds as I contemplated if this was the site to settle in. I remember that the dry, silent air amplified the whiz of the bird’s wings reminding me of the whirl of a helicopter blade. In contrast, the hot, moist, heavy air that I experienced on another trip in the Costa Rica lowlands, seemed to slow the birds’ flight as it slowed my breath, allowing moments of feeling them brush against my body as they darted between multiple feeders stationed in my friend’s backyard.

With virtual birding, there is no need to apply bug spray, no torrential downpours to contend with, no early morning walks before coffee, no sensing the movement of bird wings. Ackerman reports she could have tuned into any number of species cams including a tarantula-cam or meerkat-cam or naked mole rat-cam. Millions do. Like the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, nature comes to us on a two dimensional flat screen in high resolution. Convenient. Efficient. Nature on Demand.

Does it matter that we’re replacing our experience of real nature with technological nature?

Robert Michael Pyle worries about the extinction of experience, a term he coined to refer to the loss of intimate experience with the natural world. Richard Louv describes our children’s lack of unstructured outdoor play and time to just “be” in nature as nature deficit disorder. And Peter Kahn raises concern about the shifting baseline of what we consider a healthy environment and our relationship to it as environmental generational amnesia.

What if the nature our children encounter becomes more virtual than real?

What if my early experience of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird had been via a web cam? Would my connection to the species felt less personal? Would I still be birding today?  Would I have brought the experience of birding to my daughter’s childhood? Would a found hummingbird nest sit on her bedroom desk as a treasured relic of her past?

My daughter moved to Kenya a few months ago. I smiled when I saw she had packed her binoculars and a Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa. I imagine LaRue would have smiled too.


Photo by Karen Landen: Female Anna’s hummingbird on Columbine

Other reading

Going on a Techno-Fast: Taking a Break from the Electronic World

“Vitamin N” and the American Academy of Pediatrics


  1. Robert Michael Pyle

    Beautiful, Patricia–thank you for that!

  2. Thanks for this beautiful, personal sharing, and for the timely question you raise. For me, the essence of it rests in your Costa Rica experience; no pixelated hummingbird’s ever going to brush against you or fan you with its wings!

  3. Very true. As a person who has been involved in bringing data to education and the world ‘anyplace/anytime’, I know the value of having access to information. But, as a life-long outdoorsman; growing up in rural Indiana – on one of the finest creeks in the state – I also know the value of ‘touching life in person’. Like you in your story, I have enjoyed over five decades of enjoyment in and with the outdoors. The experiences I lived – in real-time – have traveled across my sands of time, in tact and as vibrant as they day each was made.

    There is NO REPLACEMENT for facing life – in all it’s variations – with ALL of our five senses in REAL TIME.The sense of LOSS is lost when we view life from the clinically sensitized shield of technology. In the same way a monocultured diet is unhealthy, so is a monocultured learning platform. Humans MUST experience life – in REAL TIME – to truly understand it… and our fellow life-forms with whom we share planet earth. Without this contact, we loose a most important trait of civility: compassion.

    There is no turning back – with regards to access to technology. Kids love it and it loves them. Access to instant information is wonderful. I live inside that bubble daily. But I walk away regularly to decompress, to reconnect, but even more because I LOVE being outdoors.

    What we are so desperately in need of is quite simple. So simple in fact, many have tossed it aside as either assumed or ‘taken for granted’. We, as a society, hunger for a return to ‘BALANCE’. Such a change in direction does seek EVERYONE to ‘buy in’, but it begins with each person taking the plunge to reset their own ‘balance button’. Over time, working together for one common goal, we can again return to a, natural balance.

    + Natural Balance is apart and devoid of special interests, monetary rewards, ownership and politics.
    + Natural Balance reaches equilibrium when WE; as taught when little kids of the ’50s/’60s — STOP. LOOK. LISTEN.

    Those three simple actions force us to realize: It’s NOT about us. Sure, in our world of political correctness, this is a tall-order. But, it can be done, one person/family/group/region/state/country.. at-a-time.

    Just as in nature, balance is not a ‘reach it and go on’ event. Balance takes work. It takes constant vigilance. It becomes our focus. And this, is the reason we have lost our balance.
    We have changed (some would say: lost) our focus: our way.

    I suffer from MCS: Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. Regaining ‘natural balance’ is not a ‘buzz word’ for me. It IS my life, now. Nothing medicine offered could control the ravages of our chemically toxic world on my body. But, when I finally began the process to reset my ‘balance button’, my world began to change for the better. I can now return to a more ‘normal’ living, But I can NEVER return to the path the led me to MCS, unless I want to become a poster-child for idiocy…! To remain healthy and viable, I MUST remain ‘naturally balanced’.

    In the same manner, we as a society, must return to our Natural state of Balance. Otherwise, we will also end-up in dire calamity.

    As I said in a post on Richard Louv’s FB post yesterday,
    “We are ‘off-track’. As yet, we’ve not torn down the terminal and melted down the train. But there are those already constructing the blast furnaces and assembling the wrecking crews. Let’s hope … we find our senses — before we loose our sensibility.”

    I’m very grateful to LaRue – whom I have no idea whom she is other than through your story . But I know she was a true Heritagekeeper and her effect upon you has been invaluable: to you and to those whom you reach.

  4. I too have the same fear. Just because we can view nature while indoors doesn’t mean that it should replace the real thing. I am thankful for the technology and believe It’s a wonderful addition to the experiences if used correctly (i.e. to increase curiosity). I do struggle with trying to live in the faith that others think so as well- Thank you Patricia!

  5. Patricia,

    Great article and thanks, especially, for sharing the story of your mentor. Having someone mentor a child into their relationship with nature may be as critical a factor as ensuring that the relationship is experiential, rather than just virtual.

    In my opinion, virtual nature experiences are only problematic when they are instead of, rather than in addition to, the real thing. More problematic if marketed as a fitting or even preferred substitute (as more educational, or more safe, etc.). I believe virtual nature experiences can serve as a wonderful gateway to inspire the curiosity and desire for the real thing, if positioned that way by the medium and/or under the tutelage of a mentor. I thrived on virtual nature experiences as a child. They were called “The Wonderful World of Disney” and became even better when we got our first color TV when I was 10. These experiences had a mentoring effect in that I wanted to see the real thing for myself – and did.

    I’ll concede that the technology can have a more scintillating effect today. As a kid I didn’t have near as many choices for distraction: no PCs, no smartphones, no gaming systems (does Monopoly count?). But that can work to our advantage. The access kids have to virtual nature experiences today is stunning. Web-cams, those awesome nature video series out now, Google Sky Maps, etc. present both challenges – and opportunities – in our efforts to mentor kids into a loving and enduring relationship with nature.




  1. Social Media – Friend or Foe? | Seeking Sustainability - [...] A quick online search revealed a number of possible negative consequences from overuse of social media.  Of greatest concern…
  2. Monday thought of the week: real nature v. tech nature | - [...] Patricia Hasbach, “Nature on Demand? A Leading Ecopsychologist Compares Real Nature With Tech Nature,” The New Nature Movement/C&NN (August…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


You're just two clicks away from
receiving C&NN News & Updates

Share This