31 January 2016

Nature - Culture Binary


I'm doing an online course on the Environmental Humanities.

Not that after three weeks of the course I could tell you what the Environmental Humanities are. I was expecting poems and site specific art installations. Instead there are 30 page pdfs by French philosophers, and videos of professors casually sitting in a student union bar discussing the 'liveliness' of water. To be fair there was one earnest young artist making nests for mice out of recycled wool jumpers, but we'll ignore him and his youthful naivety.

Overall it has been an eye-opening course that I have really enjoyed (my idea of heaven is 30 page pdfs by French philosophers). As I understand it the focus of the Environmental Humanities is to make people aware of the assumptions they hold about nature and where they place themselves within their ideas of nature.

One of the exercises, designed to demonstrate there is no 'us and it', was to go outside and pick six random objects. Then place them in two different categories of natural and cultural, and if that was too difficult then to put them in a continuum from more natural to more cultural. We were then invited to upload a photograph of them and talk about our findings.

It was fascinating to see the results from around the world. Here are a few:

Maranup, Western Australia

Items collected during a walk in the paddocks. From "natural" to "cultural": snake skin, kangaroo poo, a chewed pine cone, blackberry leaf and fruit, twine, my dog's tennis ball.

Chía, Colombia

With help from muy son and daughter.: they chooseObjects coming from environment, excep cigarrete (but even it coming from important native plant, and with a mustang horse paint) "natural", but mostly of them introduced by people

A back street in Saigon

Here are my 6 objects from left to right - more natural to more man made....(please note a 2 and a 4 yr old helped me pick these objects)

1/ A flower from a weed....this is probably the most natural thing I could find as a weed it is likely that it wasn't planted there.

2/ Piece of lime - as this was found outside a cafe and was cut it was likely used in a drink and so although is natural has been manipulated by man.

3/ White pebble- found in a plant pot outside our building - although a natural stone this has been shaped by man to ensure it is the right size and shape for using using a plant pot

4/ A piece of clay tile - natural clay but shaped by man

5/ A piece of polystyrene

6/ Plastic string both of these last items are man made but shaped a dirtied somewhat by the natural world

Southland New Zealand

Items left to right ==> natural-cultural.

1. Lancewood leaf. Lancewoods are native to NZ, so natural.

2. Hebe cultivar. Hebes are native to NZ, however this one is cultivated for gardens, natural.

3. Rose petal. Roses are introduced to NZ by humans, but still natural.

4. Piece of gravel. Natural source but modified by humans to be used for various purposes. Possibly more cultural than natural. Difficult one.

5. Newspaper produced by humans, cultural.

6. Piece of plastic tie, produced by humans. Cultural.

Boston, UK.

Ordered from 'most cultural' to 'most natural' :

The crisp packet had blown into the hedge bottom and symbolises our society accurately i.e. crisps are manufactured so the original potato is no longer recognisable, put in a glossy, shiny packet and when it's empty, it's discarded.

The rusty old screw had been turned over in the soil. Designed, manufactured for human determined purpose.

'Wild' bird food. Questionable as to how many would survive the winter without human intervention.

Honey bee. Purposefully bred to satisfy human needs.

Silver birch twig. Native to UK following last ice age, although this particular tree would presumably have been grown in a nursery and planted here.

Decaying Bramley Apple. Selected and bred but the decaying process is removing the cultural context.

Central Texas, USA

From left to right:

-White marble native to my region of Texas collected on a hike with friends

-Ball Moss (Tillandsia recurvata) a native air plant that attaches its self to tree branches


-pumpkin seed

- plastic plant marker

-plastic rain gauge

So even while posting this I kept changing my mind about the order of things. I feel now that the ball moss should be on the "most natural" end of the spectrum, since it is native and uncultivated. The marble should be next, because I "imported" it from a ranch 100 miles away and I took it only as a memento of a great day hiking with friends.

The oregano I'm sure was exotic at some point, but I grow it because we love Italian food (globalization of cultures and natural products for sure)

The pumpkin seed is a remnant of our Halloween pumpkins (that kind of rotted and made a mess) 4 months back. The pumpkins weren't native or locally grown, and celebrating Halloween is highly cultural

The plastic plant marker is next - how cultural is it that we don't already know the names of plants and need to manufacture a small disposable, but permanent, label to educate ourselves? Lastly, the plastic rain gauge the city hands out for free to remind us that "every drop counts" and we shouldn't be wasting water. Our culture is so removed from nature that we need to be reminded that water is a precious resource necessary for survival!

Aren't they intriguing? There are more but I think you get the idea: there is very little that is purely natural, and most cultural objects are derived from or associated with nature.

It was cold and rainy so I just looked out of the window into Garden65. The result didn't include such interesting items as kangaroo poo or mustang horse paint (?!), so I wont list them, but the lesson was learnt. Whatever I did list would have been cultural because they existed within a garden.  And gardens are entirely cultural constructs. Or are they?

The course is on the FutureLearn site