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Nature: container, object, person, self?

Common Cause for Nature highlights the importance of frames in motivating support for wildlife and the environment, and discusses dominant frames in nature conservation. Here, Nadine Andrews discusses her own research on people’s personal frames around their own relationship with nature.

Scholars like George Lakoff, John S Dryzek, Brendon Larson and Arran Stibbe have analysed political and environmental science discourse. A dominant frame is nature as a useful resource which is there to be exploited for human benefit. Its value is not intrinsic but instrumental.

No-one (so far as I know) has analysed how people conceptualise their personal relationship with nature, so last summer as part of my Masters in Research degree I conducted a short exploratory study of metaphors about nature and commented on the implications for environmental behaviour.

For an explanation of what is meant by ‘frame’ see here. In this blog I am referring to cognitive frames – bundles of strongly linked concepts, emotions and values that are learnt through experience and association and stored in our memory. These structures serve as ‘frames of reference’ for interpreting new information and experiences. Certain words can trigger or activate particular frames in our minds.

Analysing metaphor can give us an indication of the cognitive frame active in the speaker, but there may be 2 or more metaphors in the same sentence. This shows that our conceptual systems are not consistent. We all have a range of frames available to us, which we may or may not be consciously aware of. We may choose to engage or not with certain frames in our thinking or behaviour at particular moments.

Metaphors about nature

The way we conceptualise nature matters. Thinking of nature as a resource to be harnessed, a victim to be saved or a mother that nurtures us shapes the way we behave towards nature. We act according to how we perceive.

As Lakoff & Johnson explain, conceptual metaphors are grounded in our everyday experience of interacting with the world. From interaction, understanding emerges. However, metaphors are incomplete representations: they privilege one way of seeing and obscure others, so there is always some other aspect of the experience that is being downplayed or hidden.

They claim that the most pervasive features of human experience are:

  • physical containment
  • spatial boundedness
  • differentiation

In experiencing ourselves as discrete entities separate from the rest of the world, when other things don’t have distinct boundaries, like clouds, we project our own physical in-out orientation on to them, conceptualising them as entities limited by boundaries. Lakoff & Johnson argue that defining a territory is a basic human instinct. 1

My study

I analysed written reflections of 14 participants of experiential nature workshops – workshops designed to deepen connection with nature.

I discovered that conceptualising nature as a container is extremely common, regardless of how interconnected with nature our sense of self may be. Lakoff says that the perception of separation from nature is so deep in our conceptual system that we cannot simply wipe it from our brains.2

Nature is a container – an object – a place

For example: “being in the outdoors”“being part of nature”“venture out on the hillside”“need to spend more time out there”, ”hanging out in nature”, “be nourished by the beauty around me”“in the midst of a glorious tapestry of autumnal colour”.

Many people conceptualised nature as a place distinguished from the city and daily life, associated with “space”“silence”“peace” and “beauty”“cut off from the world”“an oasis for peace and reflection” whereas the city (“the world”) was conceptualised as “noisy” and “busy”.

Some saw nature as a substance, for example: “see nature in all things”“being immersed in a place”. There were a few  examples of quantifying nature: “I do still wonder how much I am nature”“unfortunately not much wilderness around”.

Seeing nature as a contained place that you go to or from, into or out of, are within or without, implies there are places where you are and nature is not. It involves power relations – who determines who has access to what, and on what terms?

Furthermore, we can be physically ‘in’ a natural place and yet feel separate due to a lack of quality in the relationship. There is a degree of attention density and mindful awareness needed to reach through the boundaries in our perception separating us as a discrete object from other objects. Otherwise we are, in the words of one of the experiential nature workshop participants, just “looking out of a window ‘at’ it”. This feeling of separation may be compounded if we have a conception of being on the surface of nature; the 3 dimensions of being in a place reduced to 2.

The metaphor NATURE IS A PLACE draws on the habitat definition of nature. It is relatively easy to feel connected to nature in a place with diverse species and little obvious evidence of human presence. But even in the most extreme built environments there is still nature. There are life forms everywhere though we may not see them with the naked eye. Every day for the whole of our lives we live in symbiosis (and competition) with trillions of bacteria, within and on the surface of our physical bodies. Are we aware of them as nature? We breathe air, feel the sun, the rain, the wind. Sometimes we might see a few stars, a bright planet or even a comet.

It is when we are mindfully aware of and feel connected to nature in urban contexts that we know there truly has been a shift in our conceptual systems away from physical containment, spatial boundedness and differentiation. I doubt this can happen if we only see nature as a place.

Nature is a person

So could NATURE IS A PERSON be a more helpful metaphor?

Many wrote about nature as an entity, “it has a voice”“felt nature calling me”,“the weather was kindly”“nature has more to teach me”, “it needs attention, care”.

Perceiving nature as a person may lead one to understand that giving attention to it improves our relationship with it.

Related metaphors such as NATURE IS A MENTOR, TEACHER or HEALER have the potential to be exploitative and one directional. Nature is still a resource for human benefit, and we protect nature so it can continue to provide us with these useful services, rather than for its own sake. NATURE IS BEAUTIFUL is potentially problematic because of its romanticism; hiding the creation-destruction cycle of natural processes.

Seeing nature as a person often assigns it agency, as we can see from the extracts. However, it can also be conceptualised as a passive victim that needs our help to survive – it is we who can “save the planet”, which doesn’t cultivate humility and may reinforce hubris. Taking agency to its extreme, perceiving nature as a homeostatic organism that self-regulates, could lead us to deny human responsibility for dealing with ecological problems (“it’ll sort itself out”).

Nature is self

Seeing NATURE IS SELF “I am nature” seems to express the fundamental inseparable integral reality of our relationship better than NATURE IS A PLACE, and avoids the exploitative pitfalls of NATURE IS A PERSON. It works so long as we have a healthy relationship with ourselves (‘love thy neighbour as thyself’).

This does not mean losing our distinctiveness and merging into a homogenous mush.

The project of ecopsychology is to ‘rewild the psyche’. Nature becomes a state of mind, a way of being, rather than an object or a place. In connecting with our inner nature, we can connect and live in harmonious relationship with the rest of nature. I wrote about this for the Nature of Business blog, in preparation for a workshop I was doing at the annual UK ecopsychology gathering earlier this month.

Nadine Andrews is a PhD researcher at Lancaster University. This post originally appeared at her own blog, cultureprobe.

  1. [1] Lakoff & Johnson 1980.
  2. [2] Lakoff 2010.
GuestNature: container, object, person, self?
  • cllrrupertread

    Thanks, useful.
    Clearly some of this stuff is culturally-specific. There would be less ‘nature as container’ in Native American cultures, for example.
    On nature is self: see Joanna Macy’s greatest work, ‘World as lover, world as self’.