Nature is not an open storehouse from where we can forever pick what we like, for our need and our greed. It is a very complex natural organisation of soil, water, air, plants, animals and humans, and what happens in one part sooner or later affects many or all other parts. There are many reasons to conserve nature – being moral, being generous, being selfish, being realistic, being arty – so which one is right? And is any one of them wrong?

The truth about nature is that it is all around us.

An even more important truth about nature is that without it we would in all probability die as individuals and as a species.

For me in particular, an equally important truth is that the treasure chest of nature’s bounties is so varied and generous that I can spend my entire life exploring it in wonderment. It is much, much more exciting than shopping malls or movie theatres, food courts or playgrounds.

I have walked the forests of six continents and have worked as a conservationist with tigers and elephants, rhinos and endangered birds. The seeds of this journey of exploration were planted in me in high school. The Yadavindra Public School in Chandigarh in the 1970s believed in taking the children every year for long camping trips and treks in the Himalayas. For a school nestled in the Shivaliks, at the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range, this was but natural. What was unique, especially if you compare it with today’s school excursions, was that the group spent a couple of weeks walking and camping – not going in an air-conditioned bus and staying in resorts.

One such trek up to Rohtang Pass that started in Kullu remains etched in my mind. The climbing road through apple orchards – which we raided daily only to be chased by irate farmers or in one case an equally irate Himalayan black bear (bears also like raiding orchards and this one thought we were out to compete with it!), the camps under starlight, breakfast of cereal in an enamel mug, endless marches through alpine forests and pastures, and the exhilaration of ascending the pass and looking down into Lahaul Valley... If there was a time in my life when I knew being in nature was going to be an essential part of my life, it was this.

Have you been taken out into nature by teachers or parents and exposed to the wonders of birdwatching or animal viewing or even just looking at trees and flowers, butterflies and dragonflies? If you have, then you are part of a small, wonderfully blessed group of youngsters lucky to have had a sneak preview of the wonders of nature. If you have not, you have been deprived of a joy that can still be yours if you want.

But perhaps, you, your parents, or teachers are not convinced that being in nature is important to you. Perhaps reading this piece might make you change your mind. Or at least, it may clear the confusion in your mind about nature and nudge you to take a small taste of it, the next time there is an opportunity.

Here are a few questions young people like you have asked me in the past about nature, and what I think about them.

Is it possible at all to advance while caring about and preserving nature?

I believe that the question should be asked differently: Is it possible at all to advance if you don’t care about preserving nature?

The answer to that is easy. You can advance or develop in the way that modern worlds do, for some years without caring for nature. But very soon nature will strike back. Often, we don’t realize that we are living in the nourishing womb of Mother Nature. And if you exploit the surrounding environment more and more, and take away without control and without a thought for the future, the environment cannot nourish or even support you after a time. And you will likely find yourself in a toxic wasteland where life cannot flourish. And life means animals and birds, flowers and trees – but also us.

We human beings, in many ways, are the most vulnerable species on Earth. This is because we are increasingly losing connection with nature and therefore ending up not knowing how to survive natural disasters. With so many natural calamities still befalling so many parts of the world, you must have wondered why technology does not protect us more during typhoons and cyclones, earthquakes and volcanoes… When the tsunami swept through southern India in 2004 the antelopes in Point Calimere Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu (the place where I started my ecological studies in 1987), ran through the centre of the village.

“We wondered why the deer were running!” a village elder told me later. “And then the tsunami struck.” The antelopes were an early warning system. Nature was warning us that another part of nature was about to strike in a large-scale and devastating manner.

But we have forgotten to listen to nature’s warnings. (Or even its music.)

In this case, the blackbuck ran to safety while human beings perished in large numbers as the tsunami struck. When the earthquake of Bhuj in 2001 flattened a lot of Gujarat, the lions of Gir remained safe, for these animals knew how to escape uprooted trees. It was in the town that people died, in the thousands. Not from the earthquake as such. Most people who died were killed by falling buildings that were built without heeding natural building principles.

Now, coming to the question itself, the answer is yes. People and countries can advance while practising an ecologically and environmentally sensitive life. Remember when we stop to see the designs on a butterfly’s wings, we are not only delighting ourselves with colour, pattern and beauty. We are doing many more things.

We are slowing our lives down just for a moment and taking in the wonders of the world in that one millisecond of time. That slowing down is helping our bodies recover from the strains of daily urban life. Don’t underestimate how happy even that little moment away from your everyday routine will make you.

That moment is making you look at the detail in life. It is this very attention to detail that will help you flourish personally and professionally, and it is also that very attention to detail that makes countries advance. You can see a reflection of this in Japan. It is one of the most advanced nations in the world and yet the Japanese have tried very hard after the Second World War to be one with nature. Their food is among the most natural in the world. Their architecture is increasingly more nature-based. Every little thing they do seems inspired by nature. It is very different from the development paths followed by their neighbour China or even most of the Western world. But who can argue that Japan is not developed?

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Truth About Nature’ by Vivek Menon in The Young Earth Lover’s Book of Nature: Stories, Poems, Essays, edited by Deepa Agarwal, Hachette India.