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What is nature, anyway?

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

I’ve talked to many people over the course of the last month or two about our ‘connection’ with nature, or our ‘embeddedness’ in nature. Many people have suggested to me that we would do better if we had a greater collective awareness of the fact that we are ‘part of nature’. What does this mean? What is ‘nature’?

I’ve just read an article, Writer’s Block, by Jenny Price in a recent edition of the Conservation Magazine. Price, who gives tours of the Los Angeles River, is critical of the North American tradition of nature writing. “Historically, nature writing has hewn to a powerful definition of nature as only the wild things, which we destroy and banish when we build cities. This way to define nature… has become so firmly entrenched that seeing nature in other ways has been next to impossible.”

In the UK ‘nature’ has the superficial connotation of an environment that is relatively unaffected by man. Heathland might be commonly seen as nature, a municipal park perhaps not. But of course, the whole of the UK environment has been shaped entirely by human intervention; so our delineation of what is ‘natural’ is necessarily arbitrary. We do not have wilderness, in the sense that it is found in the US.

But what of our dependency upon nature for everything else? Price reflects on this, too. “[T]o narrate all the encounters with nature that define my hike [in the wild], I also have to ask myself where the natural resources in my GORE-TEX shell and hiking boots come from – the oil, stone, metals and animal skins in twenty-first century hiker gear… How do they connect me to the global transformation of nature?”

Environmentalists often highlight our reliance upon natural resources for everything we consume, seemingly in the belief that a greater awareness of our material dependence upon the natural world will lead us to care for it better. (This doesn’t seem inevitable. Depending upon one’s worldview, such awareness might just as well confirm one in revelling over our ingenuity in exploiting nature, to meet all our needs.) But Price gives me a different sense of what it means to be embedded in nature. She goes on:

“The hike has to be a story about how our connections to one another define our encounters with nature. And its about how the National Park Service in the Santa Monica Mountains has chosen my favourite trail routes, and how they manage fire suppression, and how they draw up hundreds of rules and policies to keep both the visitors and the parklands happy.”

All that we possess is transformed nature, and our sense of nature itself is mediated by these things, and by our relationships to one another. Reflecting on this leads me to feel an existential embeddedness in nature, which includes me; a feeling which transcends an understanding of material dependency.

But if nature is everything, what value does it have as a concept? In their essay ‘Death Warmed Over’, Shellenberger and Nordhaus asked the same question of our concept of ‘the environment’: “there’s something funny about the concept of ‘the environment’. If the concept includes humans, everything is environmental, and it has little use other than being a poor synonym for ‘everything’. If the concept excludes humans, it is scientifically specious (not to mention politically suicidal).”

If we are to recognise the true extent of our embeddedness in nature – from our material possessions, to the fabric of society, to our relationships with one another, does this mean that we may as well dispense with the word? Perhaps our concept of nature conveys an understanding not so much of something ‘out there’ as a balance we need to achieve. To live entails that we frustrate the urge of other things to live. To live in a way that recognises ‘nature’, implies a recognition of the need to be conscious of these impacts; and, indeed, a recognition that we are in some way more fully alive when we are aware in this way.

Tom CromptonWhat is nature, anyway?

4 comments

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  • Jim - October 23, 2007 reply

    One way of looking at this is seeing a ‘continuum of connection’ with the world. Taking a walk in the woods is more likely to make the walker feel closer to the ‘natural’ world around than taking a drive through the same wood. Drinking from a mountain stream is an activity ‘closer’ to the real processes of the world than drinking bottled spring water. When we talk of something being natural, perhaps what we mean is it further along this continuum than another thing, so it is a useful relative statement. The distance between two things on the continuum could be seen as insulation, preventing us from connecting with the world and thereby the experiences which shape our attitudes and actions.

    It is clear that children are spending more and more time insulated from this outside ‘natural’ world- even if this means just a field, or even the garden. Several authors have thought about what this might mean for the future custodians of the planet, in terms of their physical and mental health and their likely actions to protect the things that are increasingly remote from them.

    It is a huge challenge to restructure society into a more sustainable ‘connected’ one. One starting point is to change the way we treat children- let them play outdoors again, experience wild places, strip away the layers of insulation that the virtual worlds of television, the internet, mobile phones and the market gives them from the natural world. Perhaps in doing so we adults too can experience what it means to ‘be outdoors’ again.

  • frances - March 11, 2008 reply

    It doesn’t help anything to widen the scope of ‘natural’ to include the activities of humans, however natural we are or were. We have lost naturalness because our behaviour is circular and refers to itself. City children develop in relation to this circular human world that has definite differences from the previous world of reference.

    Nature – a confusing word – I use to mean the very complex living organisms plus the physical world like rocks and sea, that have complex relationships between each other. This complexity is many orders of magnitude more than a computer or motor car or space shuttle. Moreover, this complexity generates well-being in humans and probably in all primates. Part of that well-being is called spirituality (no, nothing to do with religions or seances.

    One simple bit of support for the case that nature generates well-being is the way trees and flowers and countryside landscapes still pop up as textile designs and as pictures on the wall.

    I get a bit stuck when it comes to music, which appears to me to be a discovery that patterns of notes stimulate whatever receptors are part of the ‘spiritual’ pathway to good feelings in our brains. Any thoughts on this, anyone?

    It might be possible to expose the average child to enough beautiful things made by man to counteract the ugliness of cities, the shallowness of technology and the lack of depth of interest in these things. Equally the lack of exploring and touching and tasting the world, the lack of creativity in play and the lack of enough exercise to slim, would have to be dealt with at huge cost in a world where the outside and the countryside is out of bounds.

    This year, for the first time ever, every weekend I am seeing people come to the Lake District mountains in indoor clothes because they are unaware that the outdoors can be cold, windy and wet. This just hasn’t ever occurred to them as a result of them living entirely in the indoors in city shopping malls, the car and the home. Nor do they understand in a practical way that it gets dark at night.

    We should take away the computers in primary schools, demolish the supposed health and safety rules that prevent schools having nature tables and tadpoles and beans sprouting on blotting paper in a jam jar. Take nature and relating to complex objects into education through the senses rather than memorising from books.

  • Claire Milne - March 24, 2008 reply

    A very useful medium through which to explore the issue of connection with nature is the food we eat. It fills me with horror to see not just children, but fully grown adults become overcome with terror at the thought of tasting what nature has blessed us with. Whilst recently running Smoothie Moves, Bristol Food Hub’s bicycle powered smoothie making session, at a library in Hartcliffe (an area of an extreme social deprivation), most of the children refused to go anywhere near the smoothies, proudly displaying all sorts of noises of disgust. Needless to say their preference was no doubt the not-so-natural coca cola.

    Food now offers us the most exciting opportunity to reconnect people with nature. By helping people to learn about where their food comes from and the respective impacts it can have on the health of both people and the planet, we can start to reconnect a generation of people whose taste buds have been deadened and whose awareness of food’s potential to transform and preserve our lives seriously compromised.

    What’s more people’s vested health interests represent a perfect in-road to take people on a journey to connect and live in harmony with nature.

    And as if that wasn’t enough, food also brings with it the potential to connect people not only with nature, but with everyone around them. Breaking social barriers and bringing people together, food affords us the opportunity to salvage ourselves from the likes of reality TV and Facebook!

  • Anna Percy - July 10, 2008 reply

    Connection to nature seems to me to be one of these things, like happiness (or rainbows) which does not reward those who seek it directly. Little everyday things like gardening, walking, looking at the sky and – yes – growing, preparing and sharing food build a sense of connection with nature almost regardless of why people do them. So I think a campaign to make people connect more closely with nature could easily lose its way if it gets too lofty and theoretical.

    My own favourite approach to this is the “virtuous circle”. Some things, like walking more and encouraging others (especially kids) to walk more, are small starts that tends to lead to bigger actions and spinoff benefits. I’m not convinced that it matters why you start walking, because once you start you notice new reasons to walk.

    Not everything that starts small has to stay small. But connecting with nature has to start with the practical, and stay practical.

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