On [not] idealizing nature

One of the pleasures of having omnivorous reading tastes is getting to read about the same subject through unexpected angles. Although I don’t read much actual environmental non-fiction — much of it is massively depressing — most of the quirky natural science and sociology I do read ends up with something to say about ecology. My latest read is The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson, a quirky, snarkily British ramble through the history of pedestrianism. At one point, Nicholson takes a stab at the topic of walking and nature, writing,

“A quick browse among New Age walking sources will soon have you screaming for mercy as you’re told nature is an unalloyed source of goodness, purity, benign intention, spiritual insight, higher consciousness, and (oh spare me) healing.”

He goes on to point out that the nature New Age walkers reference is invariably a managed nature, an idealized version without the violence, decomposition, competition, and mosquitoes. I feel like I come across this sunshine and lollipops version of nature all the time in the spirituality-leaning sect of the environmental movement. And I think Nicholson is right to criticize it, though not solely for the purpose of popping other people’s balloons.

Labeling the not-obviously-human-related world as ‘other’ seems to produce to two basic view points: 1) nature as an opponent to subdue, conquer, and harness, and 2) nature as something pristine to worship and humans as unprincipled scourges. It’s hard not to fall into that people=bad, nature=good paradigm when we’re constantly bombarded with news of how badly humans are screwing over everything else on this planet, but the problem with both perspectives is that we position ourselves as distinct from nature, either as its conquerors or humble worshipers.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up with the special evolution edition of National Geographic lying around the house, but the more natural science I read, the harder it is for me to see humans as meaningfully separate from other animals on this planet. Other animals have complex social groups, communicate, use tools, modify their environments, have opposable thumbs. Chimpanzees and humans share 96% of their genetic data. Humans continue to compete, albeit in somewhat subtler ways, for resources and reproductive privileges. It’s true that humans have gone further than other species with all of these, but we’re still very much part of this planet and its ecosystems, for better and for worse.

To address the issues our various behaviors are causing, I feel like we need to first recognize that we are nature. Part of it, anyway, caught up in an intricate tangle of cause and effect relationships with other species. We’re not better than it or worse than it. We are it.  Any serious species-wide attempt to address our ecological problems will need to acknowledge that complexity and interconnection, how much we affect other species’ wellbeing, and how much that, in turn, affects our wellbeing.

I don’t really know what nature is. I don’t think it’s a thing, category, or definable entity. I don’t know whether the smell of rain on asphalt counts as nature. And I don’t understand what other people mean when they rhapsodize about nature. Digitalis, extracted from foxgloves, keeps my grandmother’s heart pumping, but the same substance is fatally toxic in larger doses. Poison oak, while a considerable nuisance to hikers, provides food for many of the animals in the open space I visit.  These factoids may seem like trivia, but I’m fascinated by how complex and interesting things are when you take the human out of the middle. Nothing is black and white. Everything affects everything else. Even wiping out the entire species of mosquitoes (something I daydreamed about while in Hawaii, trying desperately not to scratch my 14 bites) would probably have some pretty nasty repercussions we couldn’t predict.

I have no idea how to break down this us vs. it mentality. But maybe we’re in this mess partly because we didn’t have an interconnected, grayscale view of the world to start with. To be fair, it’s not our fault. No other species on this planet has had to think this way, ever. But no other animal species ever had the capacity to affect so much on this planet, either. Time to start learning.

Where do you stand on nature? Do you see yourself as part of nature, or is the whole term problematic?


16 responses to this post.

  1. Jennifer,

    I love the way you are willing to dig into challenging topics and even [slightly] upset the green status quo.

    I’ve been intrigued for a long time by a line from Ethics for a New Millennium by the Dalai Lama in which he says that the environment is not sacred, but we need to take care of it because it’s our home. At the same time, the Dalai Lama is a major proponent of interdependence. He’s not saying we’re not separate from nature by any means.

    It seems there’s always this temptation to label and create concepts [dualism in a nutshell] rather than just to experience directly. That’s what gets us in trouble all the time.

    I’m very intrigued by your thinking. I agree that it’s not all so simple or black and white, but I do see interdependence at the heart of it. Awe may more apropos than worship.

    Thanks for waking up my mind today.


    • Hi Sandra,
      I mostly hear the Dalai Lama’s words through you, but I like the way he thinks. 🙂 It’s probably better to worship nature than to abuse it, but until we realize that neither relationship is sustainable for the long term, I’m not sure we’ll get anywhere. We shall see…

      At the risk of falling into the sentimental new age trap, I have to disagree with Nicholson on one point. There definitely is something therapeutic about standing in an open space with lots of blue sky and plants all around me.


  2. Ha! Great post. What always gets me are the products that are marketed as “all natural” as if that means anything. I mean arsenic and botulism are both “natural” but that certainly doesn’t mean that they’re good for you.

    Have you ever read Richard Heinberg? You might enjoy his work. He’s an ecologist and a Peak Oil proponent. He uses a great analogy where he compares human beings to yeast growing in a bottle of grape juice (essentially the wine making process). Basically the yeast has this great energy source – the sugar in the grape juice. It consumes the energy and multiplies out of control all the while emitting waste which is toxic to its own survival (alcohol). Since the bottle is a finite environment eventually the energy is all consumed and replaced with toxins and the yeast dies. In the analogy we are the yeast, fossil fuels are the sugar and the planet is the bottle. Alas – it would seem that in the end we are no smarter than yeast!


    • Hey EcoCatLady,

      I just came across a metaphor that compared humans to early algae that overpopulated, filled the atmosphere with poisonous oxygen, and then expired themselves, having exhausted all their own carbon dioxide food sources (or something like that). First algae, and now yeast — we humans are really not having a good week! The book is by James Lovelock, one of the more depressing environmental writers. I haven’t heard of Richard Heinberg, but if I can steel myself to read yet more depressing environmental science, I’ll check him out.

      One of my long running fascinations is with poison, particularly from plants and mushrooms (although apparently swallowing diamond dust is an exceptionally nasty way to go). Lots of things can kill us, natural and otherwise.


  3. I am an animal. I am certainly not vegetable or mineral, though I have been told I’ve got a head as hard as a rock. 😉 I enjoy the ability to retreat from gnats or whatever into my air-conditioned enclave to watch a Braves game on TV… but I still have to breathe the air, drink the water and feed myself. “Nature” is my resource, and I’m doing my best to keep it from being finite.

    Thanks for a great post.


    • Hi R. K.,
      Sadly, I think your opening admission that you are an animal is one that a lot of people would find difficult to make. I also suspect that our belief that we humans are a superior life form has led us into all sorts of trouble. A more equitable understanding of what we are and why we behave the way we do seems like a good foundation to making wiser choices. And preserving the world that lets us live comfortably is surely one of them!


  4. I have been wrestling with this dilemma too. I see nature all around me in the city, in little bits. But mostly in my everyday life I do not see nature, I see roads and sidewalks and big buildings and lots and lots of cars. I lived my whole life thinking nothing of all these man-made things, and now when I see them I feel flat. Blah. Another 100 cars drive by. Oh there is a blade of grass growing through the crack in the sidewalk, and rain falling on the cement. Is that nature? I don’t know. I guess it would follow that if we are nature then the cement we make is also nature?

    It makes me feel flat because it reminds me how far we need to go.

    Time to start learning indeed.


    • Hi Sherry,
      That’s definitely something I struggle with, too. Even while I recognize that other animals shape their environment (would anyone call a beaver dam unnatural?), it’s very hard for me to see nature in a concrete block, even if there’s a little grass around it! I also can’t explain away the difference it makes when I get away from obviously manmade things for a while. Sure, my favorite open space is plenty man-made in lots of ways — there are non-native eucalyptus trees and old walnut trees from orchards — but there is something splendid about being away from concrete, buildings, noise, and other people all the same.

      Without condemning concrete, I think we need to be more conscious about how, when, and why we alter our environment. For all the times that concrete is necessary and helpful, there are plenty of times when it isn’t.


  5. Thank you for such a thought provoking post. Over the past few years I have very clearly began to see how everything is interconnected. Nature is defined as “The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.” But I am part of nature-no question. At times our expectations around what truly is nature are skewed-like your concrete block example. Is something nature that is man made? According to this definition it isn’t. I think it all goes back to being interconnected. There really isn’t any you or me-you and all other things are a reflection of me, as I am of you. And it is all nature.


    • Hi Lori,
      As always, I appreciate your thoughts and wisdom. I think you’re right in that it’s about interconnection, not artificial definitions. Labels are convenient, but I have to wonder if they end up doing more harm than trying to understand and experience things for what they are.


  6. Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I agree that our tendency to create a dichotomy for nature as either enemy or spiritual paradise is problematic (and annoying).

    For me, the separation between us and nature is superficial and moot since science clears the dilemma nicely: Homo sapien is the genus/species for a bipedal primate. It doesn’t matter whether or not we believe we’re animals or part of nature, we, by definition, are.

    But the stories we’ve told ourselves over the millenia have distanced us as that “special” act of creation or special place in evolution. Don’t know if you’ve read it, but Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael does a nice job offering ways to think about “how things came to be as they are,” namely our relationship with “nature.”

    But then again, I have five cats who regularly remind me of their evolutionary superiority.



    • Hi Jen,
      Thanks for the book recommendation! I haven’t heard of Daniel Quinn — looking him up now. I didn’t grow up with a religion and came across all creation stories as myth rather than literal truth, so now I find it exceptionally difficult to understand the attitude that humans are fundamentally separate from and superior to other animals. The perils of a secular upbringing, I suppose.

      Apart from the lower back issues, I quite like being a bipedal primate. 🙂


  7. A great thought-provoking post. I’m not sure how I fit into nature exactly, but I know that no matter how comfortable I am living in a city (where everything I need is at my door step and I’m close to the people that matter to me), I can’t recharge unless I spend time in a natural area – and city parks just don’t cut it. Nothing quiets the thoughts and worries in my mind like breathing in fresh air, seeing every colour besides the black of pavement and the grey of steel, and hearing wildlife, water, and wind in my ears. I know I can’t live in the middle of nowhere, but I like to escape there. Surely that’s a strong argument for being a part of nature and needing to connect with it to survive.


    • HI Andrea,
      I definitely know that sensation. One day, I slipped out of work early and went to my favorite open space in the late afternoon, a time that I rarely see it. Even though I was in my impractical work clothes, it seemed like a weight I didn’t know was on me suddenly fell away as soon as I was out amongst tall grass and hazy sunshine. Even though it’s a managed open space, not wilderness, there is really something about getting away from obvious signs of human impact.


  8. Great thought-provoking post. I see humans as part of nature, though manmade cities are made according to human fantasy, not according to nature’s rules of ecological sustainability. So are they nature too? Buildings and cities are made from natural resources, that’s where everything comes from. I like Lori’s definition of nature, and that’s how I sort of see it too. Nature is a collective – an ecosystem of diverse living things. So a manmade city seems to be a poor excuse for nature, with its appalling lack of biodiversity and other living things.

    I think you’re right – we’re in this mess b/c we don’t have an interconnected view of the world. It’s us vs. them, black vs. white, primal instincts take over our higher orders of consciousness.


  9. I wonder if the nature-worshiping thing has been around as long as people up sticks from the fields and went to work away from the land? If you live a subsistence farming existence life now in a developing country, life is most probably too hard for you to spend time rhapsodizing or romanticising nature.

    Polytheistic religions tend to have some element of nature worship through ritual in them. If we choose to worship nature now, however, we can bypass the gods and buy into all this mother earth stuff.

    I think nature worship in these sense you’re talking about probably began with the romantic poets such as Coleridge etc. It can be seen as a reaction against industrialisation and a changing world.


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