Thursday, May 13, 2010

What Is Nature Anyway?

A person who calls him- or herself an environmentalist is presumed to love nature. More than that, you could say that an environmentalist is someone who perceives a threat to nature (e.g. extinction, pollution, clearcutting) and wants to alter circumstances that are creating that threat.

But what is nature anyway? The dictionary defines nature as the physical or material world and its phenomena, in other words, that which is not created by humans. Most of us think of nature as the world of plants, rocks, hills, seas and beaches, and animals, entities that “surround” (environ means to "surround") human beings and exist independently of them. The Norwegian ecologist, Fern Wickson writes that, if “nature” is a place that is uninfluenced by humankind, then, really, there is no nature on the planet at all. “However, even if one sees nature as including humanity, the concept becomes so all-encompassing as to be practically useless…. An atom bomb becomes as ‘natural’ as an anthill.”

Culturally, we live with two contrary depictions of nature. On one hand nature is a fragile, tender thing that needs protecting from large, brutal forces that would destroy it. This is nature as the cute baby seal on the rock, imminent victim of cruel hunters with harpoons.

On the other hand, nature itself is the brutal force. This is the version Hollywood favors. This nature can—and will—get out of control and wreak havoc. People are going about their ordinary lives, rather like the seal on the rock, when relentless nature swoops down upon them in a terrible and deadly form: volcano, tornado, plague of insects, forest fire.

Nature is like that famous image that tests your ability to perceive dualities: look at it one way and it’s a vase, rearrange your gaze and see it as two profiles regarding each other. Nature swings back and forth: victim/villain, victim/villain. Cute and cuddy/ugly, terrifying, and out of control. What the current ecological crisis presents us with is an image of nature that is both these visions at once: Nature about to go amok and destroy the world because of climate change, and nature victimized and killed because of climate change. Nature is the perpetrator of disaster and nature is the victim of the disaster.

What do you think nature is?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Barry Lopez Reflects on Nature, Horror, and Beauty with Bill Moyers

As he prepared to retire after four decades in broadcast journalism, Bill Moyers thought long and hard about whom to invite as his guest on the last broadcast of his Bill Moyers Journal. In the end, he decided that the honor should go to author Barry Lopez, whom he described as "someone whose curiosity about the world, and pursuit of it, have set the gold standard for all of us whose work it is to explain those things we don't understand."

During the thirty-five-minute interview Lopez, the award-winning author of many books of fiction and non-fiction, spoke eloquently about nature as what he called "the full expression of life," the whole picture of the earth and its inhabitants, not simply a collection of majestic landscapes like those that appear on the pages of calendars.

Despite the fact that the phenomena of the natural world play the starring role in all his books, Lopez insisted that "I'm not writing about nature. I'm writing about humanity. And if I have a subject, it is justice. And the rediscovery of the manifold way in which our lives can be shaped by the recovery of a sense of reverence for life."

Moyers and Lopez also talked about the relationship of beauty and horror. Lopez began by saying that, even though he has lived for forty years in the Oregon wilderness, he loves New York City, especially when the sky is a particular shade of blue, as it was on this April day in 2010 when Moyers was conducting the interview.

Moyers replied that the sky in New York was that very color on the morning of September 11, 2001, when the two airliners were crashed into the World Trade Towers. What does that do to any idea of beauty? Moyers asked his guest.

Lopez responded: "Real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness in order to understand what beauty is.... What you must do is build a system of civilization that is as aware of darkness as it is of beauty."

Click here to watch the complete broadcast of Bill Moyers's interview with Barry Lopez.