Life As We Know It: What Is Nature?

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve found solace in the natural world. Maybe it’s because one of my first memories is climbing the eastern hemlock pine trees outside my house in Alabama, or maybe it’s because I spent every summer between a cabin on the Blue Ridge Mountains and one on a lake in the Adirondacks. Or, maybe it’s because I have a certain disposition that would rather be enveloped by streams, countryside and wildlife than by buildings, business and people.

“Nature” is a complicated word and I find its definition constantly needing to be altered with time. As a child I saw nature as anything not man-made, aspects of the world that were already here or could have been here before we humans existed. Yet, I also believed that we, too, are nature. For me, most beauty in the world exists in places that possess a purity which stems from the natural world: in creeks, lakes, mountains, trees, wheat fields, rivers and plains, in frogs, fish, loons, and moths. I call such places and things “natural” because I don’t know what else to call them. Whether they became what they are “naturally” or not, whether they have been influenced by humans or civilization, it is the only true “nature” I know.

Thoreau says “this old, familiar river is renewed each instant; only the channel is the same” in his Journal, and although written over a century ago, I find it very fitting for our time. Everything around us—our nature and our environment—is compelled to change and forced to renew. I used to think that as long as it was done over a gradual period of time and at a rate of natural processes, the power of the source (nature) would survive; the channel would not be destroyed. But as I grow older, I’ve started to doubt this theory.

Between recent environmental issues such as global warming, oil dependence, energy consumption and natural gas drilling(and those are just some of them) and the lack of compassion I see for the non-human world in our society, I have a hard time believing the child in me that says nature will survive, that it was meant to survive. Because I don’t necessarily think this single planet we inhabit has the power and potential to fight one of its worst enemies in the end: humans.

Nature writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben says that we’re consuming natural resources at an unsustainable rate, faster than they can regenerate. Not only are our individual consumption rates growing exponentially, but so is our population. This over-consumption mindset coupled with an extreme emphasis on growth has been enabled by cheap, dirty energy and is leading to the worst crisis mankind has ever faced. 350 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is considered the “safe upper limit.” In the past few years, scientists have shown that should this number increase past the 350 ppm, we would no longer have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” We are at 390 ppm already and continuing to rise faster each year. McKibben recently published a book entitled “eaarth”, deliberately adding an extra “a” to the word, making the point that the planet we live is on is no longer the “earth” we know. It has become a new, unusual, raped-of-its-resources kind of planet that—although we may still recognize as earth—has been degraded into something scary, and fundamentally different from anything we’ve ever known.

To try and define nature is to take an anthropocentric look at the world around our species. The true question to me becomes: can we step outside of ourselves and see our environments for what they are without the tainted lens of greed, competition, fear and ignorance? And if we do, does that make us any less human, less natural? Or does that allow us to change the way we live, to see our one planet for what it is: a beating, thriving life source that, just like any plant, vegetable or baby, needs to be cared for, fed and nourished, not polluted, tramped on, and damaged.

I’d rather be in the woods with the crickets, I’d rather be floating on a lake in the mountains, and I’d rather be surrounded by thick trees that bend at the break of the morning light. But now, I lie in bed at night wondering, fearing, if my children will have that same choice.


Filed under: Prose