Connecting with nature through music and art

As an artist and a traveler, I’ve had the great fortune to see culture fueling relationships and meaning all over the world. For decades, I have found joy in the connections between performers and audiences in concert halls and among friends sharing food at the dinner table. I’ve been inspired by meeting strangers, and by learning about and sharing the cultural practices we have built over millennia that continue to shape our everyday lives.

But I have also been worried by signs that we are increasingly struggling to find meaning in these connections. Our relationships with others seem to feature too much distrust and division; our relationship to metaphysical questions seems to become an unnecessary contest between reason and emotion.

On that morning in Moneskatik, though, I was thinking about our relationship with nature. The Wabanaki artists I was working with, and the members of the local community who joined us — scientists, artists, tribal and government leaders — displayed a profound empathy for the natural world and, above all, a strong awareness of our belonging in it. Their sense of stewardship for the earth is a contrast to the dualist vision of humanity and nature we can too frequently fall into, a vision in which we see the nonhuman part of the world as a resource to be sampled, consumed, or tailored to meet the needs of the human project, rather than as an integral part of our existence. If this attitude is taken too far, the consequences for individuals, societies, and the planet are potentially disastrous. But I believe we can find a solution in culture.

Business and politics have their own important roles, but culture is essential: It codes our consciousness, creates some form of order from chaos, connects us to the transcendent, and helps us create narratives that navigate our path forward. The early morning Wabanaki ceremony welcoming the sun was more than an encounter in a beautiful setting; it was an act of culture, a renewal of tradition, an acknowledgment of humanity’s place in — and responsibility to — nature. It was a message of hope.

We have always used literature, art, music, and science to mediate our place in the world around us, not only to understand nature but also to learn ways to be in relationship with it. We create rituals rooted in the cycles of the natural world and our need to navigate its transitions: harvest festivals, New Year’s traditions, and rites of spring. We depict nature in cave paintings of animals, the decoration of Egyptian tombs, and in Japanese textiles, the sound of a nightingale in a piece of music. In creation stories and throughout literature — from the Kalila wa-Dimna, to Aesop’s Fables, to the poetry of Walt Whitman — we have used nature as metaphor to help us understand our place in the world and illuminate human concerns.

The inseparability of our cultural creation and the natural world codes a crucially important truth: humans are a part of nature, not separate from it. When we live with this in mind, many other good things follow. We move from a world dominated by separateness and competition to one that instead recognizes the interdependence of living things and prioritizes coexistence. We make decisions not only on a human time scale but on a natural time scale, and we find ways to accommodate rather than force or exploit nature. I believe that when culture strengthens our empathetic connection to our planet, it’s easier to remember that our senses and emotions are as important as our reason, and that we all have a fundamental connection through the natural world.

Portrait of Yo-Yo Ma.Sarah Mari Shaboyan/for the Boston Globe

I am deeply concerned when I think about the world I will leave behind for my children and grandchildren. Innovations such as instant communications, rapid travel, and large-scale industry — so often the measures of human progress — bring us many benefits, but also detract from our sense of place, reduce our time for reflection, and make change so fast that it outstrips our capability to process it.

Nature is all around us, even in cities and human-made environments, but if we do not recognize this, we cannot feel connected with it. Despite our inborn curiosity about the world, I worry that it has become too easy to stop thinking intentionally about our connection with and place in nature.

Losing this empathetic connection would be bad at any time, but the problem is particularly acute today. As we watch heat waves and wildfires, flooded rivers and melting permafrost, we understand that what is happening to nature is happening to us. Some agricultural practices are exhausting the soil’s delicate balance, and there is an ever-increasing demand for one resource that sustains us all — water. These issues require urgent reconnection with our natural home, not just for our health but to ensure our common survival.

I do not believe that this crisis is without hope. The COVID-19 pandemic led to tragic losses and exposed serious stresses in our society. But we found new forms of connection and created many “wet cement” moments, where people decided to make different choices about their professional and personal lives. I hope that ultimately, this newly released energy and refocused purpose will make it easier for us to address seemingly overwhelming challenges such as this one and those yet to come.

What if we could restore the balance between ourselves and nature? We know that a harmonious relationship with nature contributes to a healthier society. I’ve spent time in Indigenous communities from New Zealand and Peru to Taiwan and Canada, communities that have practiced a reciprocal relationship with the natural world for many, many generations. I’ve come to believe that this mind-set — one that recognizes our part in an interdependent world — is essential if we are to have any chance of leaving a better world to our children.

Sarah Mari Shaboyan/for the Boston Globe

Nature can give us a healthy dose of perspective, bringing a different understanding of time and distance. The astronomers I met at the Paranal Observatory in Chile’s high desert told me that the vastness of the universe taught them to value both the insignificance and the potential impact of their individual actions. Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, I felt something similar in the sweep of “big time” — the millennia and generations that came before me and those to come.

Knowing that the Canyon has existed for millions of years didn’t make my life feel trivial; instead, it let me focus on the present and freed me from worry about personal outcomes. When we allow ourselves to stand in its embrace, the natural world reminds us that even the largest-scale change begins with each of us doing our part, one person building on others’ work and creating something for those who will come next.

Finally, a stronger empathetic connection between humans and the world around us also helps the planet. If we consider our relationship to the natural world as a familial bond (like parent and child, or sibling and sibling), we instinctively take our responsibility to it more seriously. We reject selfishness in favor of nurture, exploitation in favor of regeneration, scarcity in favor of abundance.

How do we restore this balance? Policy and economic investment can and do make important contributions, but there is a complementary power, just as strong: humanity’s oldest tool, culture. Uniquely well suited to help us learn, empathize, and make resolutions, culture gives us ways to imagine and create a symbiotic relationship with nature.

In 2018, I began a journey to ask artists and scientists on six continents how culture can help us imagine and build a better world. I’ve met AI scientists in Montreal, DJs in Beirut, furniture makers in Pittsfield, coders in Sydney, chefs in Lima, and fashion entrepreneurs in Jakarta. When I look back on those experiences, a single thread runs through them all: an urgent desire to use culture to restore a healthy relationship with the world around us.

In Lima, I was hosted by artists from the Shipibo-Konibo tribe, whose paintings and weavings reimagine the flow of the Amazon in intricate geometric forms, a stunning map of our collective future. On the coast just south of Cape Town, South Africa, where two great oceans converge, I played with musician-scientists whose instruments were an organ made from hollow kelp and a drum constructed from a whale’s eardrum, a reminder that purposeful sound and music are phenomena we share with all the world. And in Ōtautahi Christchurch, New Zealand, I heard the songs of the Ngāi Tahu iwi, emphasizing the central vitality of water to all living things, a metaphor that helped their community recover its health after a series of traumatic natural and human events.

Yo-Yo Ma (center) at a sunrise gathering of Wabanaki elders, storytellers, and musicians in Acadia National Park in June 2021.Austin Mann

Stories like these have always been part of my cultural life. The instrument I play is a product of nature, soft pine resonating against harder maple, horsehair on steel string. To me, the first music I learned, Bach’s first cello suite, contains all the variety of nature at play: symmetry and asymmetry, regularity and irregularity, and the joy of infinite variety. The compositions of Antonín Dvořák, including his cello concerto, are inseparable from the riverbank of his youth in Bohemia and from the natural sounds he found while traveling in America. Among the songs that I have played with my colleagues in the Silkroad Ensemble are references to our great rivers, galloping horses, and birds soaring toward the sun. So many of our greatest cultural creations are celebrations of our living planet; they give life and voice to the truth that we are part of the energy and health that surround us.

A recent “sonification” of the pressure waves from a black hole at the center of the Perseus galaxy cluster is an extraordinary example — it translates the image of something many times bigger than the sun and impossibly far away into something we can internalize, knowledge that can transcend distance to become an extension of us. And that sits very comfortably beside Pablo Casals’s “Song of the Birds,” a musical portrayal of animals much smaller than us that brings alive our fundamental desire to be free.

To me, all of these creations show how culture can strengthen an empathetic bond between us and our geography, the plant and animal life around us, and the planet itself. And when we are emotionally and empathetically tied to the natural world, we are reminded at a more profound, instinctive level of our interdependence with it. Culture has a vital role to play in this most existential moment in the history of our species, a responsibility to restore our connection. It reflects our care and our love for this world, a love that will lead to better health and more long-term, sustainable thinking.

“Music and Mind” is set to be published April 9.Handout

There is an opportunity for each of us to be part of a movement, one that draws upon the millions of stories and cultural practices that have connected us to nature over time. We need to create new stories, illustrations, and understanding inspired by our current knowledge and experience of nature, like the “music” recently captured from a black hole in a faraway galaxy. We need to use the broad and deep perspectives of culture to imagine a different and better future for our planet and our relationship with it, drawing on the same spirit of creativity, collaboration, and innovation that helps us imagine new technologies and new worlds. We need to reconnect with the inspiration that wakes us up at 4 a.m. to welcome the sun, to play music and share stories with our communities, and to care enough about our natural home to rescript this chapter of the human story.

The late Richard Feynman wrote that “the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man.” Let us be part of that greater imagination, as we are among the wonders of nature — growing, adapting, evolving, and all connected.

Yo-Yo Ma is a Grammy Award-winning cellist. This essay was adapted from MUSIC AND MIND, edited by Renée Fleming, to be published on April 9 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Yo-Yo Ma. Visit to preorder. Send comments to

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