When I say ‘nature’ what comes to mind?

I’m asking this question of nearly everyone I meet. Invariably the response is of a single species organism, like a tree, a flower or a bird, or of a particular favorite waterfall or woodland refuge. More rare is when ecologically-literate people like regenerative farmers respond with references to multi-species relationships, micro-rhizome networks that wire up plant communities, and just the word “Gaia.”

Let’s survey three broad problems with how the term ‘nature’ is commonly used.

1) The Flattening of Nature

Nature is both a single planetary super-organism, and the countless multi-species relationships that compose it. In that sense, it is the entirety of all things that make life possible, and the individual parts of that process. It is the verdant temperate rainforest, as well as the climbing vine, its photosynthetic cells, its hydrating rains, the weather patterns with which rain comes and falls, the gestural rivers in air and in the ground that carry rains away, and the sedimentary rock at the bottom of the ocean glacially building layers from the sedimentary deposits of each wet season. We can see an individual leaf in all its clarity without losing sight of its relation to the tree.

2) Separating Humans and Nature

We speak of nature as if it is something that exists outside of ourselves, an insidious false dichotomy worthy of prompt collapse. This often happens when nature is evoked as a romantic, aesthetic escape, a place that requires special technical clothing to get to, a long-lost off-grid topography in which we seek reconnection.

3) The Abstraction of Nature

I covered this in a previous article but it is worth mentioning here. I am pained by the linguistic and economic tokenization of nature — the flattening of nature for commodity capture. Market economics tend to render the immense complexity of the living world into disjointed, fungible assets; forests become stacks of lumber and mountains become the rare earth ingredients of an inescapable internet of surveillant inevitable things.

Following on from the above, I propose the following recommendations to get us thinking and speaking differently about nature.

1) Nature as an Innate Quality of Being

In modern dictionaries, before the definition of ‘nature’ as natural scenery comes the expansive concept of “the inherent character of a person or thing” and wonderfully, “a creative force of the universe”. The Latin term for nature, natura, is translated into “essential qualities”, “innate disposition”, “essence”, and nasci, “to birth or to be born”. All these point to a notion of nature from moments in time when it was the principal source of misery, mythology and bounty, the persistent character in our embodied daily experience. The names we gave to the patterns of the stars we followed across oceans were the animals we saw in the sunlit days. We tracked wild scents, nourished from succulent secrets drooping in the landscape, created forest gardens in the Amazon, where black soils were meticulously farmed to sustain fertile orchards for generations to come.

2) Nature as Relationship, As Aliveness

Our alienation makes us forget that nature is not a collection of discrete entities, but a series of living and reciprocal relationships. We often allude to the individual facets and parts of the whole that interest us economically and recreationally, but nature is not a place or a thing.

3) Nature as Human & the Human as Nature

A human being is a wondrous crystallisation of non-human multitudes, of bacteria and minerals and proteins, of fluvial life uniquely expressed in a temporary structure of genes and pattern language, sourced from ecosystems and returned to ecosystems, constantly exchanged and transmuted.

4) Nature as Specificity

It takes effort and imagination to talk about the living world in a way that is both expansive and precise. But our daily exchanges would be greatly more rewarding if when we spoke about nature, we challenged each other to be more specific. To elaborate and explain what nature means for every person, to delve into the particular relationships that are being invoked in each unique context.

Cultivating our Ecological Literacy

While a reader could interpret this discussion as an effort to undermine the term ‘nature’ and call for a replacement, I am fine with its use.

Learning Journeys | Ecological Literacy | Author, poet, wilderness guide | Investor | Co-founder Atlas Unbound, Ground Effect (alexafirmenich.com)

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