Our relationships to the natural world are built upon ideas and experiences, as well as instinct and the inescapable fact that we do not live in a sterile, human-constructed vacuum. Even in our most constructed and mediated places, nature finds us in the form of wind, sunlight, and the small wild grasses that push their way up through the cracks in concrete.
Nature is a persistent truth that we all bear witness to differently.
For thousands of years, human beings have pondered the skies and the currents and have sought solace amongst trees and open lands. The vast expanse of the sea beckoned to the imaginations of early explorers and the fruits of the earth itself spawned the earliest human conflict.
Our existence is, itself, a thing of nature, driven by the same innate forces that support the growth of any species. Biologically, we differ very little from the other species we share this planet with. Yet, we are different, if only because we have come to think ourselves as being so.
Human consciousness – what we know and the ways that we know, our capacity to think beyond the immediate reality in conceiving of both a past and infinite possible futures – has, over time, set human beings apart from what we consider to be nature. With Descartes’ proclamation that one who thinks therefore is, and the notion that thought as humans experience it is the only legitimate form of thought, human identity has become thoroughly separated from nature.
This separation between humans and nature is reinforced in our language and in our expressed conceptualizations of what nature is, and what we are not. We speak about our love for nature, and we speak about protecting nature. We consider positive experiences we’ve had in nature – and thus place it as a thing that is apart from us, something that we can enter into, unnamed woods that are not our home, but a place we merely visit.
Many people – perhaps all people, across all times and places – have observed that, from the time of our birth, we are wild and fragile things, flinching at the light and shivering in the cold. We are driven by instincts, and those instincts keep us close to our mothers for many years longer than most other mammals and certainly for longer than the many short-living species that populate the Kingdom Animalia, where for so many creatures, life is – when considered in terms of human time – a seemingly hurried affair, a rapid sequence of birth, feeding, reproduction, and death.
It is no secret that, when we are very young, nature has the capacity to kill us with the ease of a chilly night, the nonchalance of a dry stretch of land. In many ways, it is no wonder that we have such a conflicted love-hate relationship with the wild world. Nature destroys crops and floods homes. It sends us reeling with fevers and buries our children. Even if we are spared, death is nonetheless inevitable and we must watch as everything we build slowly crumbles under the sun.
In our efforts to contain nature and to control nature – as it seems to be our instinct to contain and to control that which we are wary of – we have erected walls and scraped the earth clean, we have found ways to use nature, to manipulate its forces and its resources to bolster our own imagined dominance and the comforts of our constructed protections. We trim the grasses and temper the steel, invest billions of dollars in seeking to discover a concrete that will not crack. We have pulled the very elements out of the Earth itself and, as industrial alchemists, concocted mixtures that deter the simple rotting of wood.
We have made plastics and shaped them into bright blue bears and garish golden lions to place in the outstretched hands of our American children so that they may cut their teeth on them. Travelling through zoos on small trains, we ooh and ahh, thankful for the bars that separate us from those much sharper teeth.
True, not everyone is so lucky to go to a zoo. Those that are so lucky are told that nature must be protected, and that we must protect ourselves from it.
Regardless of where a person is born and raised, and the content of their specific language, culture, and subsistence, we draw lines between humans and nature, defining our relationship to the natural world and determining what our role might be within it, be we conquerors or stewards.
The lines that separate us from nature do vary and, in some places, are quite thin. In many indigenous cultures, the relationship to nature is sacred, a delicate balance of exchanges that weave a way of being in the world which is deeply enmeshed with the Earth and its processes.
For some cultures, such as those born of the industrial West, nature is a thing that is not only separate, but ours for the taking. This is reinforced by the laws that define our properties and by the beliefs we hold about how and why we were created. In much of the culturally Western world, as defined by the territories and cultures of colonialism, the relationship with nature which is taught is not one of interdependence, but one of dominance and exploitation.
As children in the West, across most demographic lines, we are told to not get dirty, and we watch as the grass is cut and flowers are planted in straight rows flanking banks. If we are lucky, we are shown books that manage to hold the Grand Canyon on a single, glossy page and we are taken on walks to the park, to play in these small, tamed places where there are trees.
The natural world and its inhabitants are dear and fascinating to us as children, but we unlearn quickly. In considering the current plight of the earth, it appears vital that we understand how it is that we forge our relationships with nature, and learn more about what constitutes health within those relationships. Further, it seems necessary that we reckon with the real existential impact that our relationships with nature – whatever those relationships may be – have upon our lives and our identities, both as individuals and as a species.
There is increasing literature on the subject of child development from an ecopsychological perspective and this represents a shift away from the anthropocentric traditions of psychoanalysis and the long-standing fascination with human-human relationships. People have begun to recognize that, as individuals, our lives are touched by more than our mothers and influenced by forces far more eternal than our fathers. However, in much of our waking lives, we are not given many opportunities to consider why we feel whatever we might feel when we think about wild places. Some people feel peaceful, some are apprehensive and still others are drawn to thoughts of real estate values and developments.
For many, nature is met with ambivalence and disconnection. It is something that is simply not a part of people’s lives. This phenomenon happens in all settings, though reasonably enough is more common in areas where humans have established a dominance over the environment and where their settlements, reaching into the sky, have become the most evident landscape. It could be argued, however, that even those who live deep within cities must cross bridges over rivers and shelter their heads from rain. Regardless of where a person lives, there is nature. Even in the most paved-over and ossified industrial regions, the sun casts shadows and the wind blows.
However, there is no guarantee that these elements of nature will be seen as being a part of nature. Often they are referred to as “weather.” Conceptualizations of nature are full of wild places, not parking lots. Nature is about trees and bears, not rat colonies in sewer systems or dandelions in the sidewalk cracks.
For as long as we have considered nature and the nature of what it means to be human, we have failed in developing anything remotely resembling an agreed upon worldview. If anything, our understanding of the natural world and our role within it has become increasingly disparate with every new idea.
Without a shared understanding of nature and what it means to be human, we will inevitably be challenged to respond collaboratively to the current threats to our habitat and, by extension, the wellness and sustainability of our species. Amazingly, we cannot even seem to agree that care of our habitat is important to our human survival. However, as nature is a persistent truth and, eventually, what happens within the environment we live in affects our own quality of life, it is worthwhile to spend time considering our individual relationships with nature, as well as how those relationships align or diverge from what we imagine to be other worldviews.
As concerns over environmental integrity and sustainability become increasingly real to us, we will reasonably be called upon to consider why we think and act the ways we do in relationship with nature and to reckon with the outcomes of our worldviews. Developing a coherent framework for understanding how it is that humans develop in relation to nature and what forces impact the content and expressions of those relationships is important.