The sense of touch is underrated. Sure, it gets credit as a way of discovering and exploring—that is to say, as a receiver of sensation. What we may not appreciate, though, is that, of all our senses, only touch is always a conversation. You can usually see, hear or smell something pretty much anonymously—without its being involved in any way. But when you touch something, it touches you.
For this reason, touch may indeed be the most powerful of all our basic senses, one that can, all by itself, communicate. Cultivating touch as both receiver and giver of information not only allows us to explore, communicate and express emotion, it also helps us better appreciate Nature and our place in it. There are countless opportunities to put this into practice—if we just learn to recognize them.
Of all our senses, only touch is always a conversation; when you touch something,
it touches you.
The problem is that, for some of us—I’ll presume to speak for those of us of northern European descent who grew up during the late 20th century—touch was seen as a sort of taboo. I remember well the dilemma of being a child—whose every instinct calls for touching—and constantly being admonished, “Don’t touch!” We grew up terrified that we’d break something, spill something or leave a mark.
And it wasn’t just curious touch; touching as a way of expressing affection also seemed to be frowned upon. I seldom witnessed my parents touching each other, and, while I’m sure they must have held me as a baby, taken my hand while crossing the street and certainly kissed me good night, it was otherwise a pretty hands-off existence. So, with few role models, I’ve had to learn the value of touch for myself.
LIFE AND LIMB
In our neighborhood there’s a stately old cottonwood tree. At first glance, you wouldn’t say there’s anything exceptional about it. But I noticed one day that, as cottonwoods often do, this tree actually has more than one trunk. In fact, there are five distinct trunks, each about the same size—probably ten or twelve feet in circumference—evenly spaced in a circle.
The massive columns, just a few inches apart at the ground, lean slightly outward, leaving just enough room for me to step into their midst. I like to stand in that living enclosure and touch the coarse bark. Then I lean back against one of the trunks and focus my awareness on just that place, that moment. When I do that, I feel something extraordinary.
I imagine its five trunks as fingers, gently holding me in their knowing grasp.
Maybe it’s just a sense of peace, of being in the moment, but I believe there’s something more. I think what I feel is the spirit of that tree, its acknowledgment, its welcome. It’s as if, through my touch, by my deep awareness of its venerable “being,” it too can sense my presence, my spirit. I imagine its five trunks as gnarly, wrinkled fingers, gently holding me in their knowing grasp.
Does the idea of communicating by touch with an inanimate object seem illogical? I certainly can’t prove that my overtures to that cottonwood were reciprocated. But don’t let that stop you from trying. The trick is, first of all, to be open to the dialog. You have to believe that a tree just might have something to say to you.
Second—and this is even harder for most people—you have to believe it is saying something to you. Now let’s be reasonable; a tree can’t talk. But it does have being and thus, I believe, a spirit. And spirits have no trouble at all communicating. I know this.
TOUCHED BY WHALES
Now if you just can’t see yourself communing with a tree, maybe you’ll find it easier to grasp this example of the power of touch. A few years ago Sally and I took an incredible natural history cruise. The 95-foot Searcher sails from San Diego down the Pacific Coast of Mexico to Cabo San Lucas and then up into the Sea of Cortez.
On the way, we anchored for a full day in Laguna San Ignacio, a secluded bay in which Pacific gray whale cows give birth to their calves and nurture them until they’re strong enough for the epic 6,000-mile annual migration to their arctic feeding grounds.
For some reason—no one knows for sure why—the mother whales in San Ignacio (and nowhere else that’s been observed) regularly approach small rowboat-sized pangas full of people, nudging their babies toward their awestruck human visitors’ outstretched hands. This scene repeated itself many times while we were there, the 50-foot cows sometimes actually swimming under their 20-foot calves, lifting them up and “presenting” them to us so we could touch them.
A mother swam under our one-ton panga and
lifted it gently out of the water as if to remind us
who was in charge.
One of the calves Sally was petting opened its fishy-smelling mouth and seemed to love it when she rubbed its baleen, the hairy, boney plates this type of whale uses to filter krill out of seawater.
The mother would usually back up a few yards and wait, watching intently, sometimes even lifting an eye out of the water for the best view. Once, a mother swam under our one-ton panga and lifted it gently out of the water a few inches as if to remind us who was in charge of the meeting.
If you've never believed in communication by touch between creatures that might seem to have nothing to say to each other, you’d believe in it after visiting Laguna San Ignacio.
A TOUCH OF RESTRAINT
As with so many other aspects of our presence on earth, the power of touch can be used for good or for ill. And too often we’re unaware of which it is. For example, when we see an interesting flower, a bird’s egg or a brilliant coral, our immediate impulse is to touch it. (That exploring impulse is at the heart of my work here on One Man’s Wonder and in my new book, Under the Wild Ginger)
Without those rules, naturalists found, we were loving Nature to death.
But as innocent as that childlike instinct is, a room full of children can cause a lot of damage. That’s why, in a Costa Rican cloud forest, a Mexican coral reef or a Minnesota state park, there have to be strict rules against our touching the stars of the show. Without those rules, naturalists found, we were loving Nature to death.
So I encourage you to touch. Touch your friends and loved ones. Touch your pets. Oh, and don’t forget trees. Think of it not just as receiving sensation, but giving it as well. And by all means be aware of the effects of your actions.
Depending on where you are, realize that your ill-placed touch may be repeated by thousands of other people. In those places that are easily accessible to lots of humans, better let your eyes and your heart do the touching.