The Changing Face of Nature

The natural world is evolving; right now; it always has been. For many of us evolution is synonymous with nature. We immediately think of changing planetary conditions and the emergence and decline of species (including us!). Nature does change; slowly, steadily, stealthily. But our ideas about nature also evolve, as does our relationship to those parts of nature outside of ourselves (we are, after all, natural too!).

In recent human history we’ve had various relationships to the natural world. From Biblical times nature emerged as a place of fear and trepidation; in the Middle Ages nature was seen as red in tooth and claw, a force that we should seek to dominate before it dominates us; but also something to celebrate, respect and to obey (for example Paganism); during the enlightenment it became important to probe nature and to learn of its mechanisms and methods (so that we could better control them); in the romantic period nature became a source of great inspiration; and in the present era . . . well, what is nature to us now?

Our relationship to nature is a somewhat confused one. Since the environmental revolution of the 1960’s there has never been so much interest in the natural world, so many environmental organizations, so many conferences attended and papers written; there has never been so much media coverage of nature, particularly about global warming. If we care about nature and want it to thrive this all seems very positive. And yet conditions in the natural world continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate. How can we reconcile this? It seems to make no sense.

In truth there are many complex and interrelated reasons why nature is suffering – too many to go into here (although rampant consumerism and a burgeoning human population are high on the list). But, to ironically borrow a business term, the ‘high-level’ overview is that we do not quite see a coherent and clear face of nature; we do not seem to quite know what nature means to us or what our relationship to it should, or even could, be.

Nature will continue to evolve as will our concepts of it. This is hopeful for it means that we can write a new story of human nature relationships, one which both serves humanity and the world outside of our society.

In the 19th century nature was prised for being picturesque and scenic. Those with the means would indulge in a ‘grand tour’ of famous natural vistas; nature was being valued by how it looked. In his famous essay, ‘A Near View of the High Sierra’ John Muir relates a tale of shepherding artists to a high mountain pass so that they could capture the celebrated scene. To his disdain they completely fail to recognise the magnificence of the view or experience because it does not meet with their own preconceived ideas of how it should be.

We often try to put a human face on nature, moulding it to fit our own image and to bend it to our will. But, as much as we try to deny it, nature plays by its own rules – many of which we are at a loss to understand and explain. Nature has its own formula for robustness and continuity, its own alchemy.

Perhaps our job is simply to respect it and value it on its own terms. If we can do that then maybe the true face of nature will emerge and we will be surer of how to live, intertwined as we are, with it.

Did the ideas in this article interest or inspire you? If they did and you wish to learn more check out a free preview of one of the lectures from my online course. Or check out the course overview here

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