What is “Nature?”

In a recent essay for Yale Environment 360, Michelle Nijhuis, an environmental journalist and author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, writes about the problems in using the word “nature.”

“…the word “nature” is more than just inaccurate. The vagueness of the concept allows us to believe that humans exist outside it. And if we can imagine that nature is over there, far away, we can also imagine that the damage we are doing to it is sad but not dangerous.”

–Michelle Nijhuis

This is not a new idea. Back in 1995, William Cronon wrote that wilderness (which can be considered a synonym for nature) is just an idea rather than an actual thing, that depends on the prevailing philosophy of the age.

“[Wilderness] is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it’s a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.”

–William Cronon

I’ve been reading William Bryant Logan’s Sprout Lands, about coppicing and pollarding. These practices involve cutting off trees at the base of their trunk (coppicing) or six to eight feet off the ground (pollarding) to allow new growth in the form of straight thin stems (their thickness depends on when you harvest them after the initial cut) that can be used for making fences, pathways, hedges, lime, and more.

Logan visits locations worldwide where coppicing and pollarding have been used since at least the 12th century, and as recently as the 20th century in Leicestershire, England where hedge laying – which uses the principles of coppicing – is still practiced.

He also writes about fire coppicing, which was undertaken by Indigenous nations around the world to keep undergrowth in check, to clear out diseased plants and nuts, to maintain a park-like landscape used to provide food like acorns and hazelnuts, and to attract browsing mammals into the area that could then be hunted for food. It also had the benefit of allowing certain trees to spring back to life with straight thin stems that people could use for everything from basket making to making charcoal.

While this history is interesting and the book is a hugely engaging read given that it’s such a specialized subject, what it really reminds us of is that humans have been altering the landscape for a very long while.

Indigenous people in both Africa and the Americas burned the landscape long before colonial contact and, according to Logan, people managed woodlands with coppicing and pollarding as early 10,000 years ago. Today we see the impacts of climate change across all landscapes, including massive wildfires and aridification in both populated and unpopulated regions worldwide, and the long-range transport of soot and dust to far-flung glaciers where they enhance ice melt. These activities suggest that the world may not have the untouched “nature” or “wilderness” that we think it does. There is no “nature” out there, free of human impact.

Controlled burn in Australia (Photo by JarrahTree CC-BY-2.5).

The key part of Nijhuis’s essay is that she set herself a challenge when writing her book: to not use the words “nature,” “wild,” or “wilderness.” She writes that this forced her to be more specific, to come up with other words that really meant what she wanted them to.

“When I reached for “nature,” did I mean all species, including humans, or certain kinds of species — vertebrates, say? Did I mean species and their habitats? Was I describing categories instead of emphasizing the relationships among them? When I wanted to use “wild,” or “wilderness,” did I mean places where people didn’t currently live, or places where people had never lived? Was I talking about animals that had never been domesticated, or free-ranging animals that weren’t currently confined by humans?”

–Michelle Nijhuis

Some would argue that removing the words “nature”, “wild,” and “wilderness” from our vocabulary will have a detrimental effect, that we will care less about these spaces than we should if we want to preserve them or manage them for maximum benefit.

Darwin Falls Wilderness, California (photo by John Sowell, CC-BY-4.0)

Paradoxically, however, Nijhuis writes that, while it was easier than she expected to not use those words, focusing on using more precise language made her more aware of her connection to the natural world, of being a part of it rather than apart from it. She found solidarity with other species, feeling closer to them than she did when using these generalized words. She wrote herself into connection with other species.

Perhaps the key to preserving “nature,” then, is to be specific in our wording of what we mean when we say “nature,” given that very little of the world is actually untouched. We need to break it down into a concept that we can easily connect with, which could make us more likely to protect these places. As Nijhuis writes, “…other species and their habitats are beginning to gain legal rights.” Rather than seeing “nature” as “other,” we can see it as a relationship between us and individual species and landscapes, that are worth caring about and maintaining for their own sake.

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