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Exclusive Interview with Love Thy Nature Director Sylvie Rokab

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By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Love Thy Nature is an inspiring and eye-opening full-immersion in nature. The full feature documentary narrated by actor Liam Neeson kicked off its national tour on Earth Day this year, with a commercial theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles, to further tour across the USA in over 20 cities.

Emmy-nominated director Sylvie Rokab’s film takes us on an awe-inspiring journey into the beauty and intimacy of our relationship with nature. And while our environmental crisis threatens the very survival of our own species, Love Thy Nature shows how a renewed connection with nature holds the key to a highly advanced new era in human evolution. Interviews with renowned scientists and scholars explore a new cutting edge science – biomimicry – which taps into nature’s four billion years of R&D for some of the most brilliant inventions. In the medical field, doctors are unveiling new findings on the role of nature to heal the body and promote the development of the brain, and the film explores how our very sense of meaning and spirituality  derive from feeling connected to the natural world.

Here in this exclusive interview, Rokab  talks about home destroying hurricanes, iPad childhoods and what it’s like to work with Liam Neeson.

Love Thy Nature

In your film you mention the passage of the Bible where man was encouraged to have “dominion over the Earth.” With The title Love Thy Nature you reinforce the idea that humankind and Mother Nature should coexist as  “neighbours”. To what extent  do you think this idea is resonating in  today’s modern world?

I chose the title Love Thy Nature to convey the sense that loving (our) nature is so critical to our well being – and the well being of our world – that it might as well be a universal truth just like “love thy neighbour.” Also, the double entendre of Love Thy Nature dissolves, as the film takes us to the realisation that our “inner” nature is ultimately just an extension of the “outer nature.” We’re not neighbours, as we seem to believe. Nature is who we are, down to the cellular level. Nature builds us, nourishes us, and breathes us every second of every day. Our inbreath is the “outbreath” of trees and plankton. The water we drink comes from rivers and streams. The food we eat comes from lands, oceans, and other animals (for meat eaters). And now, we have a myriad of new scientific studies that show that a contact with nature makes us healthier, smarter, calmer, more connected, and happier human beings.

So, as a species that came from and evolved on this planet, we are inextricably wired to nature – physically, neurologically, emotionally, and spiritually. And yet, in our increasingly urban and technological world, too many of us have completely lost touch with nature – living in grey cities, working in sterile offices, leading stressful lives, and eating toxic foods. And the height of our experiences can only go as far as our digital screens allow. Technology’s benefits are undeniable. But when we take our immersion into the digital world to an extreme – spending most of our waking hours staring at screens – we’re cutting ourselves off from feeling fully alive, connecting with each other, and having a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives that comes from belonging to something greater than ourselves.

Do you feel people are acknowledging this at all?

They are realising the severity of our nature-deprivation, people all around the world are now pursuing and providing opportunities for nature connection for adults and children – from wilderness adventures and outdoor education to tree planting in grey urban areas. This budding nature-connecting movement has been growing by leaps and bounds. My team and I have even created a map on our website to show people where they can go for nature-connecting activities. When I present Love Thy Nature and do Q&A after the screenings, I feel both excited and humbled to realise how deeply the film resonates with audience members. The number one feedback we receive is the fact that they love seeing an “environmental” film that is inspiring, compassionate (with our mistakes) and which carries a positive hopeful message about our potential as the magnificent species that we are and the future of our planet. My team and I feel gratified at realising that Love Thy Nature is moving people from all walks of life, across age, genders, ethnic groups, nationalities, and belief systems. And when I hear people say that the film inspired them to bring more nature into their lives and the lives of their children, I feel a deep sense of joy at realising that I’m fulfilling my life purpose.

Liam Neeson

Would you say you’re on board with the Gaia Hypothesis?

When the British scientist James Lovelock and the American microbiologist Lynn Margulis developed the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970’s, it was first ignored, and then ridiculed by the scientific community. The Gaia hypothesis proposed that all organisms on Earth are closely integrated to form a single self-regulating complex system that maintains the conditions necessary to sustain life on the planet (such as levels of Oxygen, CO2, Nitrogen, surface temperature, ocean salinity etc).

The scientific community of that time immediately interpreted Gaia as a far-fetched mystical assumption (the fact that the hypothesis was named after a Greek Goddess might have influenced the scientists’ dismissal). Lovelock later made a correction to the original hypothesis – instead of life alone, he claimed that it’s actually the entire Earth system – life plus all its surroundings – that does the self-regulation. But since it was formulated, a number of scientists have created experiments that showed evidence for the Gaia Hypothesis – and it’s now become a field of study within Earth Sciences programs at several universities around the world. In 2005, the Ecological Society of America invited Lovelock to join their fellowship and in 2006, Lovelock earned the Wollaston Medal at the Geological Society of London – for his work.

While there is still a significant amount of study that needs to be done to fully understanding how our planetary systems work, a number of scientists today feel that there is enough evidence for Gaia. So, instead of a Hypothesis, many are now calling it the Gaia Theory.

In your opinion, how will biomimicry influence technology and renewable energies?

As intelligent as we are as a species, our technologies are quite pitiful in comparison to the technologies created by nature. Look at our planes. Those stiff metallic structures gulp an enormous amount of fossil fuels and are very limited in terms of aerodynamics. Compare the flight of our planes with the multidimensional flight of bees or dragonflies, both of which efficiently fly in all directions with multiple wing motions and use “biofuel” acquired from feeding on insects and pollen. Speaking of fossil fuels, we’re digging deep into the Earth’s crust to capture and burn matter that was formed hundreds of millions of years ago – causing pollution and climate imbalance.

Compare this process to how plants capture their energy. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide and water, and in the presence of sunlight – create food (in the form of sugars), and oxygen. There is no pollution and it uses an inexhaustible source of energy: the sun.   Imagine the potential once we crack the code of photosynthesis! When you think of Earth’s 4.5 billion years of R&D, we’re challenged to find any technology that has not already been invented and perfected by organisms on our planet. Nature is as high tech as it gets. Nature is pure genius: it’s sustainable, biodegradable, and – now that there is strong evidence for Gaia – we might even say that nature is self-regulating.

800px-Contrasting_Tree_Types_Coexist_in_a_Forest

Will the Biological Revolution save us?

If we want to survive as a species on this planet, we have no choice but to launch a Biological Revolution – which is simply looking at nature for guidance on how to create our products, processes, and systems in ways that are aligned with (instead of against) the works of the natural world. And the byproduct of the Biological Revolution is the creation of a circular, nature-based economy blossoming with new high tech jobs and industries all around the world.

What do you feel are the hurdles humans will have to overcome to succeed in bringing nature into their lives at work, in schools and in residential buildings?

First, it’s important for people to realise that closeness with nature is critical for their own well being, the well being of their children and their communities. Studies have shown that even just placing a few plants in a room improves people’s moods and makes them kinder and more peaceful. Patients heal faster from surgeries, need fewer pain medications and have fewer complications when they’re taken to a room with a view of nature. There is a reason why apartments that have a view to mountains, parks, or the ocean are significantly more expensive than those that don’t.

Even though we know we need nature intuitively, people need to be reminded. That was my motivation to create Love Thy Nature – in a very subtle but emotional way, the film tickles people’s innate yearning for connection with the natural world. The next challenge is to urge our community leaders – from school principals to city developers and politicians at both local and national levels – to ensure that our cities, buildings, offices, hospitals and schools are designed to include gardens, trees, ponds, living walls, and so on. We can do this! If we were able to ban cigarette smoking from enclosed areas despite the corporate powers that fought otherwise, we can bring nature back – in a new, high tech, and cutting edge way – into our cities, our families, and our lives.

Love Thy Nature photo

While making this movie what comparisons did you make between your childhood and the one of the youngsters of this digital era, regarding being connected to nature?

In retrospect, I realise what a lucky kid I was. I grew up in Rio de Janeiro and was raised by parents who are nature lovers. So, my family and I spent many weekends and holidays exploring beaches and mountains, with lakes, rivers and waterfalls, while awing at beings, from lizards to toucans and monkeys. Nature was my ultimate playground. Toys were nice, but shied in comparison, unless taken outdoors! Discovering new places with my buddies and connecting with living beings felt both exhilarating and awe inspiring. So, when I see children today that are almost exclusively indoors and immersed in the digital world, it brings me both fear and sadness. Fear comes from realising that if we don’t expose these new generations to nature, it will feel like such a foreign land, that its destruction will have no meaning. Sadness comes from seeing nature-deprived children have such limited potential for play, creativity, adventure, and joy – that they become a dim expression of themselves. If they just knew what experiences nature can give them, their little minds would be blown away. So, let’s unleash these kids and have them discover their world!

What do you do on a day to day basis to reconnect with nature?

I start with simple things. In the morning, I roll out of the bed and open my window. A whiff of fresh air and birds’ songs helps me to start the day with a sense of gratitude. A few meditative breaths put me in touch with my inner nature – sensations, thoughts and emotions. Breakfast is a blended concoction of fruits and greens and a jog in my neighbourhood (I live at the edge of the Topanga State Park) has me take in the sky, mountains, trees, and spring blossoms. Like most people, I spend my day on the computer or phone. And it gets pretty intense sometimes with concerns over logistics, deadlines, budgets, and at times, missed expectations. I’m really lucky in that I managed to have an office that faces a park. So, when I take a break, I gaze at the mountains and that helps me put things in perspective. As I’m writing this, the sun has gone down. I’m hearing a delightful croaking symphony right outside my window (it’s mating season for frogs) and the moon is playing tricks on me, going in and out of clouds. I feel deeply grateful for these experiences as they bring joy and balance to my daily life.

800px-Blume_mit_Schmetterling_und_Biene_1uf

Does nature trigger in you that sense of wonder and awe that is described in your film?

Nature can trigger a multitude of feelings: It can evoke intense fear, despair, and pain. I’ve burned my feet on scolding sand; I’ve been bitten by a fire ant, and lived through a category five hurricane that totalled my home. Those experiences taught me some good lessons – how to protect myself and when too late, face pain with courage, and develop resilience. But most of my experiences with nature are pleasurable and at different levels, yes, awe inspiring. Bird songs or crashing waves can feel wonderful. And I love laying in distant places to look up at the sky and remind myself that gravity is the only thing that holds me back from falling into the universe. Even looking at the faces of children laughing when the ocean surf is “out to get them” is a delight. Every day presents us with wondrous events. And every time they occur, we have a choice of whether we want to let them in.

It’s not the first time Liam Neeson has been involved in nature orientated projects. How did he come on board?  

I had a list of favourite actors for the voice of “Sapiens” (as per “Homo Sapiens”), the main character of Love Thy Nature. And in times of contemplation, Liam’s voice always would come to mind. Every time. So, I contacted his voice agent and shared the rough cut of the film. I was elated to hear back with great news. Besides his extraordinary talent, Liam is simply delightful to work with. I have yet to ask him how he likes the final cut.

What has nature taught you, through the making of this movie?

Given that the making and distributing of this film has been a 10 year journey, nature has taught me patience, perseverance, and trust – just like river water – when a rock was on my path, it was a sign that I’m supposed to flow in a different direction and take the path of least resistance.   I just have to keep listening.

All images courtesy of Love thy Nature except forest and flowers images via Wikicommons.

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