A piece of writing on the separations we have constructed between humans and Nature.
Back in my first year of university, I had a very memorable introductory lecture on “Ecocriticism”, a subject I’d never heard of before but was excited about. Writing about human relationships with Nature and the environment has always been a great interest of mine and I was keen to see what kind of new perspectives this would unearth.
The lecturer for that day asked us all to get out a sheet of paper and a pen. He said, “I want you to draw whatever you think of when you think of “a home”. Don’t think about it for too long, just draw.” I remember scrawling a rectangular block with a roof - a house - and adding a few stick figures for a family next to it. “Ok, stop,” the lecturer said. I looked around at what the people sat beside me had drawn: houses, some figures, some faces; all delivering the concept of home - we thought - efficiently if a little childishly. “How many of you drew a tree?” the lecturer asked, “or several trees? How about flowers? Animals?” I looked at my drawing, suddenly thrown. I hadn’t drawn any of those things on my sheet of paper - not one.
Now, this may not be surprising if I were someone from an urban environment, living in a built-up city or with little access to green spaces, but I am not. I am someone who has always lived in the English countryside, and who has always believed my sense of home to be inextricably and firmly tied to my natural surroundings: our garden, the wildflower meadows, the woods, the rolling hills and commons, and the small, winding country lane we live along. These are all things without which my sense of home, and my sense of self, would be utterly incomplete.
Our paddock in South West England
This network of the human and extra-human - the horse chestnut tree at the end of the lane that signals the changing of seasons with leaves a head above the rest; the four-door walk to my best friend’s house; the weeping willow casting hairlike branches over the pond, scattering green; my family; the wildflowers; the butterflies and bugs and badgers - I feel it all as a part of “home”. So, why were these missing from my drawing?
The separations we have constructed
I couldn’t stop thinking about it after that lecture. It became something I fixated on, this division embedded in my thinking - a division between humans and Nature that is played out over and over through our culture, industry, social systems and structures, and language. So often, we place a constructed idea of what is natural in opposition to our own lives. We define “man-made” as something antithetical to what is “natural” as if humans were not natural beings. We make trips to “experience the outdoors” as if it did not literally exist just beyond our front doors. We seek “refuge” in Nature, or an “escape” from the business of modern work - as if Nature is not always there to connect with, as if in the daily acts of breathing and eating we are not enacting our relationship with the ecosystems we are a part of, and rely on to live.
In the words of Charles Eisenstein, author of Climate: A New Story, it is perhaps not so surprising given the way that modern life centres around “systems that reify separation by severing our ties to community, plants, animals, land, and life and replace those with the technology-mediated, money-mediated, generic relationships of mass society.” In the literature I read for my course, I found that even writers like Aldo Leopold - a well-known American writer, ecologist, environmentalist, and conservationist who made his desire to make a home amongst Nature the focus of his book A Sand County Almanac - was not immune to writing about the patch of rewilded land he owned in central Wisconsin as an escape from society, a “week-end refuge from too much modernity”.
Not to mention, the separation between Nature and “human life” in our psychology is one that our prevalent economic systems thrive off of: the imperial/colonial “othering” and devaluing of Nature in order to plunder without guilt, basing our ideas of wealth and progress around this exploitation of Nature for human profit. It is a pervasive psychology, a linguistically reinforced narrative of separation, and one that badly needs deconstructing if we are to achieve anything approximating true progress and wealth.
The Trouble with Wilderness
In my final year at university, I took a module called Literature, Environment, and Ecology - a module on how we write about Nature, environmentalism, and the climate crisis. I loved this module - and I have many books, essays, and films to recommend from it - but one essay I have returned to again and again is an essay called, The Trouble with Wilderness, by William Cronon. I thoroughly recommend reading the whole thing, but for the purpose of this blog post, I want to summarize a few of the key points that have made a significant impact on the way I think about Nature.
Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature by William Cronon
In his essay, Cronon deconstructs the word, and the concept of, “Wilderness”. It is a word we almost exclusively seem to associate with undiscovered places, preserved places, or “untouched” places - and this is where the trouble begins. The “preservation of Wilderness” is a concept at the forefront of many environmentalist and conservationist efforts to combat climate change; where “Wilderness”, it seems, has come to represent an ideal state of Nature. That is to say, a Nature that is protected and apart from people, either having not yet been too seriously tainted by human civilization or having been clawed back from humanity’s devastating impacts - saved. Wilderness, in this way, has become synonymous with places where humans are not - a dangerous concept to idealize.
The first point I’d like to draw attention to is that many places which have historically been portrayed and mythologised as sites of “Wilderness” are built on nothing more than an illusion of pristineness. The fact is, most of these places were already inhabited when newcomers came to “settle” them or set them aside for preservation. As Cronon points out, “To this day, for instance, the Blackfeet continue to be accused of “poaching” on the lands of Glacier National Park that originally belonged to them and that were ceded by treaty only with the proviso that they be permitted to hunt there.” This attempt to scrub out the history of centuries of sustainable human life within Nature reminds us “just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is”.
Lake McDonald - Glacier National Park
Secondly, by idealizing Nature “out there” - the distant “wilderness” of mountains, rainforests, and the world’s most remote locations - we neglect to see or appreciate the Nature we are surrounded by, losing sight of Nature as a broad system of interconnected beings and seeing instead only bits and pieces. In maintaining such ideals, we reinforce the disconnect between our human lives and the natural world and, paradoxically, we turn Wilderness into the very thing it was set-up not to be - a consumerist product, a recreational thing to be enjoyed exclusively during trips to “the great outdoors”, and not something to live amongst, to work amongst, and be a part of. It offers us, as Cronon says, the “illusion that we can escape the cares and troubles of the world” while simultaneously allowing us to ignore any responsibility we have for our negative impacts on Nature and our responsibility towards our local environments - the ones we actually live in.
A marbled white butterfly - photo taken on a walk near our house
Thirdly, a depiction of an untouched landscape as the “ideal” paints the division between human and Nature as an ideal relationship. It suggests that human traces need to be removed from Nature in order to protect Nature’s integrity, and therefore that it can only exist in its most productive form where humans are not. As a by-product, this depicts any and all human interaction with Nature as corrupting, damaging, or abusive. This idealization, in effect, says that it is better not to connect with Nature at all; it tells us to deny or reject our unavoidable participation in Nature and therefore leaves no place for us on this planet.
Cronon expands on this in his essay, saying that “if [N]ature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save [N]ature is to kill ourselves.” He adds, “Not only does it ascribe greater power to humanity than we in fact possess—physical and biological [N]ature will surely survive in some form or another long after we ourselves have gone the way of all flesh—but in the end, it offers us little more than a self-defeating counsel of despair”.
This brings home the truth that, as humans, living requires our participation in Nature. Currently, the ecosystems we are killing are not just ones that support endangered species and specific plants and animals - they are the ones that support us. From this, we must conclude that the best way forward is to ensure that the way we live has positive rather than negative impacts on Nature, or else we eliminate ourselves. This adds a huge significance to the need to mitigate the climate crisis, in recognizing that it cannot be just an endeavour to “protect” Nature (which will surely continue living without us), but at its core, it is an endeavour to ensure the continuation of humanity.
I have found, through Cronon’s essay and my reading and thinking beyond it, that we cannot go on believing that our lives and the “human world” we have constructed are separate from the “natural world”. We must reconnect our lives to Nature, bridging the gap in our thinking by addressing this duality for what it is, and working to see clearly that this is one world - shared by all. With a more holistic understanding of human life, we can reject the fatalistic view that any human interaction with Nature will be damaging because we know that to live we have to interact with Nature. We, therefore, need to put active positive intent into that interaction - living (and conceptualizing ourselves) as a positive and sustainable part of Nature’s ecosystems. This idea already exists to some extent in the ancient concept of “interbeing”, which Rebecca Tamas brilliantly expounds on in her collection of essays, Strangers, and is a key principle of Ecopsychology.
Even though a full understanding of Nature’s non-human and constantly evolving lifeforms and their connectedness may elude us, we should not be afraid to interact with Nature using the knowledge we do have: to work the land, grow food and plants, farm, and gather firewood, all the while seeking to learn more from Nature about how we can make those relationships more sustainable. What we need to govern this relationship is a kind of “environmental ethic” that is not centred on Nature’s “value” as a form of financial worth or ownership. It requires us to re-value Nature not just as a useful resource to our “human” lives and systems, but as a complex network of living and life-giving beings that it is in our best interest as a species to ensure thrives, but also with its own, autonomous value by merit of being. Nature is, by extension of this, valuable as a source of diversity, for what we can learn from Nature, for the history and mysteries of its being, and for what Nature means for the future of life on Earth.
I also, as a literature and creative writing graduate with a keen interest in language, am excited to see how our language might adapt to facilitate this bridging of the gap between human and Nature in our thinking. Relatively new terms like eco-anxiety, environmental grief, extra-human, etc. are already becoming common-use words in today’s vocabulary, but as a continuation of this, I am excited to discover new ways of writing and reading about Nature that doesn’t reinforce the separations we have built, but instead seeks to deconstruct and analyze those separations, and find new ways of expressing and affirming our place in Nature.