What is nature?

Now that I have discussed what is a landscape, I can now ask the related question, what is nature? For Raymond Williams, “nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.” 1 Although I agree that “nature” is quite complex, I think that it is actually less confusing that the word “landscape.” At least he has some fairly distinct meanings for the word:

  1. the essential quality and character of something
  2. the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both
  3. the material world itself, taken as including or not including human beings

The first definition implies that things generally have an essence to them. That is, there is a natural tendency to something. The second definition is a teleological idea that maintains the first definition – the world is directed by a natural force to keep things as they are supposed to be. The third meaning defines the material world in which the first and second definitions are implied to be true. It is whether human beings (and their creations) are included in this material world that is often contentious. In fact, by instinct, we categorize the natural as everything not “man-made.” However, nowhere in this list of meanings is there any reference to the pristine green stuff that we think of as conventionally natural.

The wilderness and the countryside

Similar to the distinction between the “natural” and the “man-made,” we also conventionally use the word “nature” to describe the world outside of the city. These are places that we call the countryside or wilderness. To talk about wilderness in North America, or more precisely, the worshipping of wilderness, we will need to face the subject of colonialism. Wilderness as the recreational playground, the ecological classroom, or the outdoor sanctuary was not defined until wilderness was conquered. Prior to the frontier history, wilderness was associated with fear. In Christianity, wilderness was the “cursed ground” of Adam and Eve’s eviction.2 It was also the place of the devil’s temptation. This however meant that wilderness was also the place where Christ appeared.3 Wilderness was sublime: a frightening yet divine place. For the colonial settlers, wilderness was also seen as an escape from civilized life, a place for individualism and discovery. Because of this, wilderness needed to be protected. This happened in the form of national parks. Preserving wilderness was in a way “protect[ing] the nation’s most sacred myth of origin.”4

Image Source: Wilderness: The Moose River in the Adirondacks by Lida, Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The countryside is the tranquil opposite of wilderness. The countryside, for the most part, is an agricultural landscape. It is the composite of work (human) and land (nature). While wilderness relies on the notion that nature is pristine or untouched, this notion is forgotten when the countryside is considered natural. For example, Williams notes that hedgerows or deserts that were made by humans long ago are considered natural. A plant that is not indigenous to an area but is self-sustaining in its new habitat is considered naturalized. So, is nature really definite? Is it a gradient or a sliding definition? Or is it another construct made by human language? It’s confusing, but thankfully, we can always go back to material matter. For Karl Marx, the irreducibility of nature is its material form.5 No matter how much humans want to change things through work, a material is always limited by its “natural” capacity to do so.

Image Source: Devon Countryside by Sue Kellerman, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The human-nature binary

The symbolic assumption of the natural world is that it is “green” as compared to the “greyness” of the human world. Wilderness is valued because it is supposed to be pristine. The countryside is more natural than the city because it consists of more non-human-made materials. The stones along a riverbed are considered natural, but a brick wall is not. A tree is natural, but the planter box in the urban plaza where it’s planted is not. We intuitively put boundaries between nature and human whenever we can. That is because the tradition of Western logic is dependent on dichotomies.

Image Source: 5.9.11 KSS Plaza (93) by SDOT Photos, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Cartesian thinking separates the human mind from all matter, including the body and the external world. An active human mind is contrasted to a passive physical environment. Thus, all things not related to the human mind, in this sense, are considered natural. The creation of the boundary between nature and human gave room for the objectification of nature. A value could be placed on nature by its intrinsic worth, sometimes because of its association with divinity, or by its cultural marketability, such as through tourism or fetishes. The construction of the human-nature binary is continuously reinforced by Western modernity’s domination and commodification of nature. While it seems contradictory, often this reinforcement comes in the form of nostalgia. Whether it is the nostalgia for the wild frontier or the nostalgia for the pastoral countryside, the ambivalence towards modernity and human “progress” keeps the boundary between human and nature, as well as the modern and the traditional intact.

Commonsense worldviews

Our worldviews are shaped by our culture. For the most part, the Cartesian worldview is prevalent in the modern Western world. The essential problem with the Cartesian worldview is not so much about the distinction between mind and matter, but rather the assumption of truth. With binaries, truth is assumed to be definite. Empirical science establishes a system to generate truths through continual hypotheses, testing, and conclusions. On a day-to-day basis, the guesses and conclusions come from our lifestyles, which are shaped by a long historical process of reinforced beliefs and practices. After a while, these conclusions just become commonsense. I also had several commonsense assumptions about landscapes and nature, including:

  1. Nature is inherently beautiful
  2. Nature is intrinsic and irreducible
  3. Landscape is the perception of nature
  4. Landscapes are beautiful

It may be a generalization, but I also assume that these assumptions are not just applicable to me personally, but are also commonsense views applicable to a culture that I am part of. These assumptions may be well ingrained in our lifestyle and values, especially through continual reinforcement in the media, tourism, the arts, or environmental rhetoric, but when taken into consideration seriously, these assumptions may not just be commonsense, but also opportunities to question the meaning of beauty and truth. Starting to question about our understandings of landscape and nature has been my first steps.

1. Raymond Williams, “Nature,” in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana Press, 1976).
2. Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974).
3. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. by William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1995), 69-90.
4. Ibid, 77.
5. Karl Marx. “The Commodity,” Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, trans. by Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1992) 125-177.

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