25 January 2016

Which Nature?

When my mum introduces me to a new friend she has the problem of not having a label to easily explain me by.  I am not ‘a ...’ There is no job title to categorise me by, and the socially acceptable role of ‘looking after children’ is now not true. She sometimes overcomes the difficulty by declaring I write a blog. With this come signals of techno-mastery and holding an opinion about something. That’s loosely true. With this deft move she transfers the problem of classification to me. What is my blog about? “Nature in the urban environment” I self-importantly declare.

Generally this is all the information the friend requires to safely put me in one of the pigeon holes of her world view. No one comes back with the question, “What do you mean by ‘Nature’?” Which is fortunate because I’m not entirely sure myself.

The practical reason for saying the blog is about nature in the urban environment is that it immediately disabuses the unlucky listener that something called Garden65 is about gardening. It has a wider remit.

A more detailed explanation is in the About page above.

I have to confess until recently I hadn’t given much thought to the word Nature. I assume we all agree what nature is. It’s birds and bees, flowers and frogs. It’s rain and seasons, seeds and vegetables. Apart from the biological processes within my own body, nature is what happens outside my house. Nature is not manmade; it is a force that happens without and despite of human interference. Nature is also Beauty. It is sunshine and seas, sunsets and mountains.

Right? But hold on, the longer the list of meanings grows the slipperier the term becomes. Nature seems to concern living material things – newts and daisies – AND the invisible forces that affect them – light and cell division.

And from where comes the idea that Nature excludes humans? It seems self-evident that we are subject to the same process as other beings, yet I don’t write about ‘people in the urban environment’, nor do Wildlife Trusts try to preserve ‘people in the rural environment’.

The word also seems to encompass emotional responses. Nature is a collection of phenomena that elicit feelings, both sublime and tragic.

There is subtlety and acknowledged assumptions in Nature.

To explore the conundrum further I have turned to the work of a Welsh Marxist (is there any other kind?). Web surfing has unearthed Raymond Williams. Wiki tells me he was an academic who was an ‘influential figure within the New Left’, and who ‘laid the foundations for the field of cultural studies and the cultural materialist approach’. I’m not sure what that means, or if he is considered dangerous or wise, so I’ll just plough on regardless.

With one of his major works, ‘Keywords’, he looked at the meanings of over 100 words not simply as definition, but within a cultural context. Nature is one of the words he deconstructed. Of course he does this better than I so I suggest you get a coffee and sit down with his original essay. However, I’ll have a go at highlighting the points he makes because he seems to neatly summarise the problem with the word.

The understanding of what Nature is has changed over time as human thought has changed. The word comes from Latin, in particular the phrase natura rerum – the nature of things. It had a neutral meaning. The character or quality of something is its nature. We still have this sense of the word.

But what is that nature? If the ‘things’ of that phrase is dropped what or where is the nature? The answer in past times was a god. Nature then becomes personified as Mother Nature a powerful force both creative and destructive. This is where my personal unexamined understanding of nature is. I can’t help thinking in terms of a capricious goddess. But then I don’t believe in God, so I have a constant battle with myself between sentiment and reason. I think we all do.

Williams then moves the development of the word on. The trouble with Mother Nature is that she would be just as powerful as the monotheist male God. To solve this problem the understanding of Nature was demoted to that of carrying out the will of God. Nature was God in action.

And then along came the Enlightenment – science and deconstruction and questioning. This was still a religious era so the meaning of Nature again changed to accommodate the need for a primary cause together with the realisation that there are many causes. Williams suggests Nature became a constitutional lawyer. There were now natural laws that could be classified and discovered. Nature was now the material world.

We are thoroughly immersed in the scientific worldview today and so easily agree that nature works within rules and systems. Do we attach any value to these laws? Williams says we do. We assume they are right, maybe even pure. When the Romantic era developed this became hardened into a belief that human society was artificial and corrupt. Redemption was to be found in nature. Here we come across Wordsworth and Theroux and all those guys. We haven’t moved on from this either have we? We all view nature as healing, with a spiritually positive affect. ‘To be natural’ is a good thing to be.

Here is also the idea that Nature is what man has not made. Williams cleverly points out an obvious problem with this: ‘though if he made it long enough ago – a hedgerow or a desert – [it] will usually be included as natural’.

Darwinism was the next thought development, and this muddied the waters further. The concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest turns Nature (as a personified force) into a heartless manipulator and destroyer. I don’t think Darwin saw it this way. He was trying to outline neutral processes, but the way his work has been used by people like those who believe in eugenics, and Richard Dawkins and his selfish gene shows humans will use Nature for their own ends.

And that is the conclusion Williams leaves us with. Not surprisingly given the importance of what the word covers it is complex, so it would be wise to be aware of what precisely you mean, and what perhaps you really mean.

I think next time one of my mum’s friends asks what the blog is about I’ll say it’s about gardening. We all know what gardens are, don’t we? Or do we?

A final thought of my own: there is a new movement in the eco world to reiterate the obvious, in that we, humankind, are part of nature too. This is a well meaning attempt to encourage people not to destroy the environment because we are not separate from it and don't have dominion over it. BUT if we are 'natural' then cities, and plastic, and oil spills, are also natural. I'm not sure emphasising the naturalness of humankind is wise.  Just a thought ...