“Our age”, writes John Lane, “is hostile to silence and, with it, to reverence for nature.” His words point to a connection between silence and an appropriate relationship with the natural environment, as do those of the Nature writer Barry Lopez when enjoining us to remain still and ‘listen’ to what the land is saying.

The silence or stillness primarily intended in such remarks is not literal – not the suspension of all sound or movement – though this is sometimes required for proper attention to places or creatures. What is meant, I suggest, is clarified through invoking an ancient tradition in which the values of silence and intimacy with Nature are both central.

Daoism has been called “the watercourse way”, and it is on the pervasive metaphor of water that reflection should focus. The Daodejing enjoins us to emulate water, which it calls “the highest good”. Water is a metaphor both for the Way (dao) – the source and power that sustain the world – and the way of the sage whose life is in harmony with it. For example, the sage will go around obstacles rather than aggressively confront them – just like water.

The most suggestive metaphors invoke water that is still. Just as water must be undisturbed in order clearly to reflect clouds or trees, so the sage’s mind must be still if it is to register the truth of things. As the Tang dynasty poet expressed it, a “clear and tranquil” mind is like “limpid water mirroring the reeds”. Still water typically makes little or no sound, so it is a metaphor too for the silence of the sage, for a wise refusal to speak of what cannot be spoken of. The Way is ineffable and “those who know it don’t talk about it”.

Is the Daoist life, then, a listless, immobile one, spent in passive contemplation of natural environments? No, not at all. In several texts it is noted that, while water must be relatively still in order to reflect things, it becomes stagnant and opaque unless there is movement. Like water, the mind becomes turbid when, as is explained in The Book of Zhuangzi, it is “blocked up and cannot flow”. This suggests that the Daoist life is not one of listless passivity, a point reinforced by the many admiring references in the texts to swimming. If water is the ‘root’ metaphor for the dao, it is the supple and effortless swimmer who is the main symbol of an authentic relationship between human beings and their natural environments.

The swimmers portrayed are themselves described as moving and acting “naturally”, since they are “following the Way of water instead of imposing” themselves upon it. They go with, not against, the flow. Their skill and understanding, moreover, are the product not of artificial and abstract learning, but of an intimate acquaintance with rivers, currents and reeds. Theirs is a knowledge located not in the head, but in the limbs, in movement.

The swimmer embodies the paramount Daoist virtue of wu wei. Literally, this means ‘not acting’, but it refers in practice to a smooth, spontaneous style of action that is responsive to a clear perception of things. Like a gently flowing stream that follows the contours of the landscape – or like the swimmer floating down this stream – people who exercise wu wei do not contend or impose themselves in their dealings with the natural world. Like the spontaneous strokes of the swimmer, moreover, these dealings are not governed by the rules, goals, purposes and ambitions that render our lives artificial and rigid. (The Daoist swimmer is closer to Roger Deakin’s “poet-swimmer who allows things to swim into his ken” than to an Olympic competitor.) What have been lost in these lives are the capacities clearly to see things, creatures and places for what they are – undistorted by human schemes and predilections – and spontaneously to respond to them in the light of this vision. To see and treat a fox, say, as the animal it is rather than as a ‘pest’ or ‘vermin’.

It is not, I suggested, silence and stillness in their literal senses that are primarily intended when they are held to be necessary for experience of the natural world to be truthful. In his pioneering book on silence, Max Picard referred to “the holy uselessness” of silence. For the silence that interests Picard is one that stills “the flow of the purposeful”. This is his metaphor for the loud, febrile, goal-driven busy-ness that is characteristic of complex modern societies and inimical to a mindful relationship with Nature. More than two millennia earlier, it was the point of the contrasting Daoist metaphor of a purposeless, spontaneous flow to warn people against the development of their simpler communities into such societies.

David E. Cooper is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Durham University and author of Convergence with Nature: A Daoist Perspective.