What is nature and why care?

This started life as an explorative essay but it became clear that each section could easily fill a book by itself, and in some cases already has. Because of this, I’m breaking it down into blog posts, each dealing with a different aspect of my initial question; what is nature writing?

“Nature” is what we see
—The Hill—the Afternoon
—Squirrel—Eclipse— the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.

– Emily Dickinson

What is nature?

Perhaps an obvious, straightforward starting point.  And yet, deceptively difficult.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines nature as:

  1. 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.
    1. The physical force regarded as causing and regulating the phenomena of the world.
  2. The basic or inherent features, character, or qualities of something.
    1. The innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal.
    2. Inborn or hereditary characteristics as an influence on or determinant of personality.
  3. A person of a specified character.

Now, it is the first definition which we concern ourselves with here but even that is not as simple as it may at first appear.  Indeed, Raymond William wrote, in 1976 that:

Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.

For many people, nature is intrinsically linked with wild and wilderness and with being alone and surrounded by countryside.  This is an association which is prevalent in our culture so I do not seek to disparage those people, but I do hope that eyes will be opened to urban nature.  Increasingly, magazines, newspapers and books are speaking of urban nature with the merit it deserves and we have to remember that Britain has very few places untouched by human hands.  Stephen Moss speaks of the agricultural history of our landscape in his book Wild Kingdom; “everything I can see, all around me, has been shaped – and indeed is still being shaped – by human hand”.  We have historical land boundaries, enclosures, ruined buildings, plough marks, forests which no longer stand, trees which have been coppiced, pastures where sheep have grazed for hundreds of years… All of which are the result of human land use.  Very few parts of our country escape this, so the wild nature which many of us idolise, has not really existed for thousands of years.  Our focus on this untouched idea of nature is detrimental to ourselves – Cynan Jones notes that a fascination with far off wilderness can blind us to the local wildernesses.

And local wildness is beautiful.  Just think of the dandelion which forces its way through the crack in the pavement and persists and perseveres.  Mark Cocker talks of the overlooked inner-city wasteland where nature thrives.  He explains, whilst this “completely subverts our conventional notions about beauty in landscape… almost every other part of the country is intensely managed at a physical level and we are, in some sense, guided towards a particular intellectual and emotional response.  Even in nature reserves and national parks our attitudes are largely prescribed. By contrast, urban dereliction is entirely free of these restraints. Uncared for, unmanaged and unintentional – it is, in a way, the nearest thing to true wilderness that we possess.”

For the purpose of this project, I am going to go with an intuitive definition of nature.  A judge once said of hard core pornography that he could not define it but he would know it when he saw it.  I am choosing to use the approach here.  I cannot define nature to my satisfaction but I know it when I see it and my idea of nature is probably very similar to yours.

Why do we or should we care about nature and natural history?

Historically, knowledge of nature was much more important in our everyday lives and to survival.  We needed to know about different animal species, which plants to eat and which to avoid, we needed a sense of the weather and also of the time of day.

Information about crops, medicinal herbs, dangers and so on were traditionally passed on through song, stories, sayings and in day to day life from parent to child.  Because this knowledge was actively used, it was kept alive and maintained.  Most of us no longer need to know these things so even if we have learnt it, we frequently do not recall it.  In addition to this, the disintegration of family and community have contributed to loss of knowledge and writing (as well as the internet) has reduced the imperative to remember it.

Whilst we no longer need a working knowledge of the natural world, it still offers us something vital.  It is full of wonder and magic but it is more than that which pulls at our souls.  There are measurable, reportable benefits to nature.  Feeling connected to nature is good for wellbeing and mental health for example.  And in this age of policy and evidence based medicine, this is something which has garnered a lot of interest .  There is research which supports the importance of a connection with nature for health.

Interaction with nature can bring us pleasure, which increases wellbeing.  The study of nature can lead to increased knowledge and understanding.  The aesthetics of nature can foster inspiration, contentedness and security.  Indeed, a friend recently commented that the sea seems to be especially important to those of us who have mental health issues.  Feeling connected to nature is another powerful outcome, this sense of connection can then extend into other areas of our lives.  And enjoying nature can lead to us being more interested in looking after nature as well as thinking more consciously about the impact we are having on the world.  Of course, not everyone who goes out and looks at a tree will experience all of this and different people will experience different aspects to differing degrees.

But what of the less measurable aspects of fostering a connection with the natural world?  Thomas Berry said that “the natural world demands a response that rises from the wild unconscious depths of the human soul”.  Thomas Moore, in The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, wrote that nature holds the answers to many of our problems, “in nature we see ourselves reflected in the animals, our natural rhythms in the seasons and turning of the days and the ebbing and flowing tide”.  Nature provides a screen on which we can project our longings, dreams, needs, our selves.

A third Thomas, Thomas L Fleischner writes about the value of natural history and how it makes us “better, more complete human beings”.  It makes us better citizens and helps us to pay attention to the world, to see the world and see ourselves.  Natural history helps to foster respect and hopefully, as a result, better stewardship of the planet.  It feeds our sense of beauty, wonder and awe as well as our imagination and curiosity.  Nature creates humility in a human centric world, helping us to see ourselves as part of nature, not apart from nature.  Connecting us to a sense of place helps make the world seem less homogenous and abstract and makes it seem more interesting.  You can walk down the high street in many different cities and see the same signs and logos, even if the language is different.  With nature, you would find yourself in an entirely different landscape with different plants, animals, weather, rocks, terrain etc.  To care for the world, we must know the world.  And to know the world, we must know the history (or at least a bit of it) of the world.

Then there is the power that nature has for symbolism.  Using nature based language and metaphor, we can express ideas and communicate feelings.  For the nature writer, this is perhaps the most relevant impact of nature.  Nature underpins many ideas and sayings and clichés that we use every day.  Think of how we are busy as a bee, face as dark as thunder…

Next What is nature writing?

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