Hearing Nature’s Voice

An essential question: are human’s part of nature? Evolutionary history tells us that we very much are. But while that may be true historically – monkey into man sort of thing – in recent human history there has been several step changes to remove us from the intimate relationship we necessarily used to have with the world outside of our society.

We are natural but we live as though we are not, as though we must insulate ourselves against nature. It’s a strange situation, an unusual tension and one of the ways in which it manifests is trying to put a human face on nature and trying to apply human ways of seeing to the natural world.

Whether driven by hubris or fear we fail to acknowledge that although we emerged from nature (as opposed to simply showing up one day) it operates on principles which are different from human society.

How then do we find value in nature? By seeking out, or even constructing, human values? Or by valuing nature on its own terms? This is important because value influences our attitude and our level of care.

In the eighteenth century we started to value nature based on the scenery model; essentially framing it (sometimes literally) as a 2 dimensional design and borrowing methods from art criticism to explore its meaning to us. This ‘ocularcentric’ position is nothing more than entertainment – there is no effort or sophistication involved in pursuing the value.

Some of the greatest nature writers have echoed this complaint. John Muir famously in his piece A near View of the High Sierra and half a century later Aldo Leopold – America’s foremost nature expert – who wrote that we seek ‘’show pieces’’ in nature and are ‘’willing to be herded through ‘scenic’ places” and “find mountains grand if they be proper mountains with waterfalls, cliffs, and lakes.”

Human ethics has evolved beyond seeing value in people based on their appeal to our eye or the level of utility they provide to us. Should the same standards not then apply beyond the human sphere? How can we value nature on its own terms?

Environmental philosopher Yuriko Saito helps point the way when she writes,

‘’In the case of nature, our effort at understanding its origin, structure, and function correctly indicates our willingness to recognize its own reality quite apart from us and to suspend our exclusive pursuit for entertainment in nature. Instead of imposing our own standard of aesthetic value (such as pictorial coherence), we are willing to acknowledge and appreciate the diverse ways in which nature speaks, though some may not be clearly comprehensible at first.’’

What is nature’s message? What is it saying about its own value?

Holmes Rolston believes that nature’s value does manifest in its beauty, but through a systemic beauty rather than an obviously aesthetic one. Leopold strongly agrees with this view writing that “we have not yet learned to think in terms of small cogs and wheels.” So in this model we value nature based on the way it organizes its vast array of parts to achieve a state of balance and coherence – the economy of nature if you like.

The question of how we should value nature, which I am addressing lightly here, is a vast, complex and contentious one. My own feeling, and one shared by many commentators, is that the root to valuing nature lies in our multi-sensory aesthetic appreciation of it. There is a certain alchemy between the human body and the sensuous environment which is difficult to describe in words. Perhaps, if you will permit me, it if not unlike trying to describe love.

Saito writes, ‘’I believe that the aesthetic appreciation has to begin and end with the sensuous, though the sensuous can be, and often is, modified or adjusted by the conceptual. Leopold reflects upon the primacy of the sensuous in his nature appreciation thus: “my earliest impressions of wildlife and its pursuit retain a vivid sharpness of form, colour, and atmosphere that half a century of professional wildlife experience has failed to obliterate or to improve upon.’’

Perhaps then we should value nature not by constructing a complex philosophical argument, but simply by attuning all of our senses to nature’s voice and listening closely to what it has to say. Just as with love, words alone are never enough.

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

2 thoughts on “Hearing Nature’s Voice

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read it. I’m really pleased you enjoyed it. Yes, one of the major debates in environmental aesthetics is the question of whether and how we might be valuing nature as artefact. I’d be happy to share some writing (not my own!) with you if you’re interested.

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