“What is nature?” This may seem like a strange question.
It is early spring in Pennsylvania and you would be hard pressed to find someone who is not talking about or thinking about nature in some manner these days.
“The weather is beautiful today!”
“Oh awesome – I can’t wait to go for a bike ride after work.”
“Do you want to go to dinner where we can sit outside?”
“Yes! Definitely. Let’s go to that restaurant with the great tree in the backyard.”
“I am so happy that my bulbs are finally appearing. I love spring.”
Ok. OK. So, I made these conversations up on the fly. But I guarantee someone in PA is saying something like this right now.
I have the “what is nature” question on my mind often these days because it is the driving force behind my academic work. So, out of curiosity, I posted the question to my Facebook friends this afternoon in a seriously unofficial “poll.” The first answer appeared within seconds from a long-time friend: “Bugs!” I know she was making a joke, but her answer struck me as profound. Following her assertion, several others described their feelings toward nature and most comments centered around the out-of-doors, green grass, “not man made,” microbes, the universe… Then playing the role of a good Americanist, a colleague stressed that nature is “everything in our universe which is governed by natural laws… we are nature too, including most (if not all) of our creations” (Cory Hutcheson). Inclusiveness is important to academics, particularly those of the American studies sort.
But if everything is nature – what is not nature?
This is not an article to argue the natureness of nature. Or to define nature. It is a moment of pause to consider why we think about nature in the ways we do.
Why is the answer to “What is nature?” so elusive and always changing? Why do people have differing views of this thing called “Nature?” We can agree about foundational aspects of other major concepts, even if we disagree politically or socially with the solutions. Definition of race/ethnicity? Sure. Basic needs to survive? Maybe. Human rights? For the most part. Gender? (Ok. We won’t go there. That’s another article, completely…) My point is that though many of us feel so confident in our ideas about nature and are sure others see it similarly, ideas of nature can differ drastically from one person to another. Yet, nature is a physical thing, right? We can see it, right?
Well, maybe. “Nature” is an idea. It is a name that we give to a particular part of our world – one that may span great lengths of space – but it is only an idea. Think of the ol’ tree in the forest riddle. If no one is around to hear, does it make a sound if it falls? Our ideas are thoroughly and 100% completely from the perspective of our humanity. Is wilderness still wilderness unless we designate it to be so? There must be a marker for comparison. So, as a result, our ideas of nature and the weighted meaning that comes with it only exist because we have something to relate it to. Nature is natural because it is not technical or industrial. This is why we have so many definitions among us. One person’s nature comes in the form of (icky) critters. Someone else insists that nature must contain the color green (though I am not sure where the “nature” goes in the winter.) Finally, one can insist that nature is in everything.
Why is this important? To begin, our perceptions of nature may influence almost everything we do. It can cause one to purchase Garnier Fructis or Herbal Essence shampoo over Pantene because of the allusion to plant life. The idea could influence how we spend summer vacations: visiting the local zoo or SeaWorld, traveling to the beach or a cabin in the woods, or staying local to conserve resources. What we believe constitutes “nature” affects social and political decisions (climate change, fracking, marriage equality, national deficit). It helps us determine the kind of food we buy for our families. Do we buy local or visit our favorite chain restaurant because it brought jobs to our community (and we reeeally like the spinach dip)? Do we exercise inside at the local gym or enjoy the outdoors? Our ideas about nature guide the way we landscape our yard, use natural resources, make purchases, and relate to one another in our communities. These ideas can also be markers by which we define ourselves under the banner of religion or nationhood.
“What is natural?” A more definitive answer might follow this question. Of course, this could get us into dubious territory that would soar the conversation straight to the doorstep of the Food Babe. With a plethora of organic and “natural” items lining the shelves of grocery, drug, and big box stores, it is again very difficult to find the line between natural and not “natural.” My argument today is not to support a particular opinion regarding what we consume, how we consume it, where we go, and how we live. Rather, I wish for us to take a step back and acknowledge the fact that nature is “natural” because we say it is so. If this is the case, we also have a choice to either insert ourselves into that natural world or to separate ourselves from it. This is a decision an individual makes for herself and though that decision will have social ramifications this is not our topic here. The recognition that nature is a creation of our minds – nature, that thing that embraces weather, foliage, fauna, the oceans, and the skies – is in the position of an “Other” to us, whether we include ourselves in nature or not. (Very often, we go somewhere to experience nature, rather than acknowledge it in ourselves.) It exists as something to see and sense.
I realize this gets complicated and opens more questions than it closes. But in the twenty-first century, at a time of increasing digital experiences that cause us to question our place in nature and how we will responsibly care for the earth in the midst of a climate crisis, it is a necessary conversation to have.
What is nature? Why is it “nature?”