When I say ‘nature’ what comes to mind?
I’m asking this question to 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 people respond with references to multi-species relationships, mycorrhizae networks that wire up plant communities, or just the word “Gaia.”
When I hear people use the word ‘nature,’ I wish they were using it interchangeably with the word ‘life.’ Life is everywhere, not just in postcard panoramas of untouched wildernesses or in charismatic iconic species. I’m listening closely for personal definitions of nature like “the rain that pummels my windscreen”, or “the murmuration of autumn winds in tall grasses.” Any of these responses would point towards a sense that nature is characterized by relationships and processes, and this is what makes it teeming with life.
As it is commonly used today, the vernacular use of nature does both nature and us a disservice. The term ‘nature’ can counterintuitively distance us from the embodied experience of a highly complex and poetic world.
We are increasingly contemplating the survivability of our civilization, becoming more interested in nature whilst growing anxious in the face of the intractability of widespread ecological collapse. And while we look to our leaders for guidance, we deflate when major governments bend to interest group lobbies and quietly remove any remaining constraints from organizations that profit by behaving in a way that accelerates ecocide.
A flourishing industry of thought-leaders and NGOs moralize with the liberal appeal to ‘nature’ to help corporations continuously renew their social license to operate. Some stand out by having ‘nature’ in their names and slogans, yet don’t expand on what they mean by the term. To take one example, the prominent Business for Nature coalition has no definition of nature on their website. How can they advocate for nature without specifying what it means to them?
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 deposits of each wet season. We can see an individual leaf in all its clarity without losing sight of its relation to the tree.
When people speak about nature, multiple images such as these might roam across their minds. We all have had a different experience of nature in our lifetimes, and by not expanding upon this one word in personal (and even corporate) conversation, we risk not being able to relate to each other, or misunderstand what the other person is referring to. Instead of unintentionally flattening the terrain of ‘nature’, we should enquire into what we all mean by it, thereby deepening our appreciation for other people’s interpretations.
2) Separating Humans and Nature
We speak of nature as if it is something that exists outside of ourselves, which is 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.
When we say ‘nature’, we must try to reflect on the way that we as individual humans are inter-permeable and composed of trillions of non-human lives. We exist within nature, just as nature moves through us.
E.O Wilson (who I greatly admire) has begun to advocate for a ‘half Earth’ project, whereby half the surface of the Earth would be set aside in ecological reserves. I’m all for protecting and conserving critical ecosystems, yet I find this approach to hold a particularly gloomy view about human beings and our ability to live symbiotically with other forms of life. Must we be kept away from nature at all costs, lest we realize that our essence is that of an ecological destroyer? Separation cannot be the long term solution.
I advocate for a ‘whole Earth’ project, where we start to remediate the untethering from living systems that have been central to the advance of our technological civilization. Whether or not we believe in the inherent value of non-human life, we’d benefit from learning to frictionlessly integrate human systems into planetary systems; we’d be in the practice of balancing metabolisms, opening apertures between bioregions and cities, tuning their exchanges as they become a living whole.
Another way this separative thought shows up is in the oft-used statement ‘nature doesn’t need us, but we need nature.’ This is fundamentally misanthropic and sometimes is even intensified with the clarification that if only people should perish, nature would reanimate in a vivacious post-human paradise. But just because humans in the last few centuries have desecrated life as a byproduct of a nebulous concept of growth, doesn’t mean that we should be permanently relegated to oblivion from our home planet.
There is an integral role for the human to play in the proper valuation and propagation of life. We have the unique capacity to experience our own consciousness, to be a witness of the beauty of the world, to be students and scientists of the miraculous materials and processes of life, to express reverence through poetry and art, to be guided by an insatiable curiosity of continuous discovery, and to then amend our ways to become partners again with the generative forces that branched again and again to arrive at us.
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.
When nature is spoken of only as a ‘service provider’ of natural capital, and is described in a language of prices and calculations and offsets, we see it in terms understandable to economic ideas of wealth accumulation and transfer. In the quest to establish a common base value of nature in finance and business, the complexity of ecosystems and their socio-cultural associations become less important, reduced, simplified, and distanced from our collective imagination.
When we began to control the wild, domesticating it into figures that could be subdued in standard rows and measured time, we traded minds. From a creature the land moves through, we became a cultivator, thinking of nature like a dweller. And it’s from this lineage that our conventional use of ‘nature’ can be traced.
Following on from the above, I propose the following remedies 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 ourselves from succulent secrets drooping in the landscape, created forest gardens in the Amazon, and farmed black soils to sustain fertile orchards for generations to come.
It changes things to think that at the root of the word nature lies our “innate qualities and essence.” That when we are talking about a particular rock-face we love to climb or river we camp beside, we are alluding to something inherent in ourselves. Not something that lies outside. In yearning for the soothing lull of the river at night, or the challenging grip of sharp rock under our fingertips, we aren’t just scaling cliffs or looking for refuge — we’re seeking our own essence. Longing to become intimate again with it, to re-encounter ourselves as naked beings, newly awakened, in a landscape that we can read with our wild bodies.
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.
Nature is a process. And the process of nature is expressed through relationship. A lattice of crisscrossing lives, a universal reagent illustrating all the places where connection points exist between ourselves and life.
3) Nature as Human & 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.
We should not be so quick to separate one term from the other. Man-made industry has drifted into every part of the living world — waterways are laced with pollutive discharges, winds carry coal smoke on thermal rides, the digestive systems of deep sea fish act as migrating receptacles of plastic beads. Monsoons drown out entire villages, wildfires scorch centuries of harvests, and zoonotic diseases spill over from one species into another. Where then do we draw a boundary?
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.
You are presented with an opportunity. The next time someone says they’re going to rent an Airbnb ‘in nature’ over the weekend, tell them, “That’s awesome. But… what do you mean exactly when you say ‘nature’?”. Meaningful conversations may very well ensue.
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. However, when we speak of ‘nature’ we should attempt to unravel its many definitions according to our varied personal experiences, expanding everyone’s awareness of the multitude of forms and relationships that life can take, and break down the cognitive separation between what is ‘human’ and what is ‘nature.’
The dynamic between how we feel about nature and how we speak about nature is self-reinforcing. I sincerely hope that people will match their curious observations of the living world with a keen desire to expand their ecological literacy (their ability to understand the living systems that make life on earth possible) in a language and poetry entirely of their own. If we are to deepen our relationship and experience of nature, and thus our regeneration of the planet, we need to expand the language we use to describe it, to ourselves, and to others.
(& a huge thank you to Joshua Kauffman, for his tireless editorial skills and thought-provoking discussions that helped make this piece into what it is)