What we call nature and why it matters

What is nature is a difficult question imbued with cultural associations and assumptions and so to limit this to one blog post, I’m considering this from a broad UK perspective.

Nature is cast as a thing out there that we must head out into.  It is a wild and tangled space complete with certain iconic creatures, preferably rare and hard to see.  It is the peaks of mountains that one must summit and conquer.

It is this view that means we so often overlook the space around us, privileging a weekend hike into nature and forget that we are nature and we are embedded within nature and we cannot escape nature.  Even in the densest city, ‘nature’ can be found, and found thriving.

We step over plants pushing through cracks in concrete, ignoring their force to survive and thrive.  We move past walls with delicate purple petals clinging on.  We don’t see the pigeon that is pecking away on the pavement.  This could be argued, because of the specific idea our cultural has created about what nature is.  So let’s start by unpicking those assumptions.

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 in the UK 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.”

***

“We must learn to love the narrow spot that surrounds our daily life for what of beauty and sympathy there is in it.  Fore surely there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty.”
– William Morris

With the exception of the word man, I agree wholeheartedly with Morris’s sentiment. We know that in one square metre of English woodland soil you can find more than 20,000 mites, 15,000 springtails and about 1,300 maggots (Erica McAlister) as well as many other species in the soil and the space and flora above.  Many people overlook the space around us, privileging a weekend hike into nature and forget that we are nature and we are embedded within nature and we cannot escape nature.  Even in the densest city, ‘nature’ can be found, and found thriving.

By rethinking what nature is and isn’t, we can create a practice of connecting with nature that is vastly more inclusive.  It is more inclusive for people with disabilities, for people who may be financially excluded, it covers class and race and gender.  By focusing on where people are, as opposed to where they might go to, we can see that connecting with nature is accessible to virtually every person who wants to experience it.  Connecting people with nature helps more people to care about the natural world and it is ultimately an emotional connection that will help people to change their behaviour on an individual level and seek change on a more institutional level.

Of course, it is not enough to tell a disabled person that they don’t need access to the nature out there because they have nature all around them.  Of course, we still need to identify and break down the barriers that prohibit or limit access to forests, national parks, nature reserves and so on.  That will be the topic for my next blog post.

 

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