For many people, nature means the birds, the bees, and the flowers. It means everything that is not artificial. We have in our minds that nature is outside us.
– Alan Watts
The farm that I manage is small – only about 1/4 of an acre in country terms, or exactly 3 city lots in Chicago real estate metrics. The country mouse would feel claustrophobic in such a space, while the city mouse would lose himself in the relative vastness of it all. When a 6 year old visits the farm, she can become absolutely immersed in a patch of soil the size of a dinner plate, unearthing layers upon layers of mysterious, squirming life within. Conversely, a 14 year old finds great joy in the challenge of hurling a clod of that same soil outside of the confines of the farm, over the fence and onto the sidewalk. To do so is an act of rebellion against the idea of boundaries, because to the adolescent, boundaries are meaningful only to the degree that they can be tested.
If such a clod were to sail into the outer realms of the public space, i.e. the sidewalk, that clod would stand a good chance of landing on our neighbor’s “flower bed”. I place that phrase in quotations simply because the thing is a flower bed by name only. This neighbor, having given up completely on the thankless work of maintaining any minimal amount of landscaping obligation, has instead opted to cover his entire front growing area with a rectangular piece of fake plastic grass. In our current unseasonably warm March, while the rest of the block’s flower beds are essentially deposits of mud and trash uncovered by the early thaw, his patch gleams with spikey green defiance.
So my question is: which constitutes “nature”: everything inside the border of the farm, where plants and animals coexist? Or the patch of plastic grass? Most people reflexively point to the farm. However, the Particle Physicist tells us that both are made of the same essential building blocks of matter, and that those blocks must originate from some natural substance on this planet. The Historian of Ecology will further that all life continually modify its own context, and therefore nature is a always being recontextualized to include the plastic grass.
More often however, the issue often boils down to a question of semantics. An astute lesson in the proper use of a word can be jarring to our commonly held misconceptions. For example, the idea that no food is healthy, not even kale. Or the inaccuracy of the rallying cry “save the planet” (since, after humans have succeeded in completely ruining it, Earth will go on floating in space in one form or another, with or without us to populate it).
In the latest issue of the journal Minding Nature, Dr. John Farnsworth deconstructs the “pesky noun” to reflect what it truly is: a construct of human imagination, connotating the opposite of “culture”.
It seems important to me that my students understand the environmental cost of describing nature in such a way that it becomes “the other” to which they have no ontological affiliation. When nature and culture are viewed as binary opposites, humanity inevitably begins to subscribe to meta-narratives about ourselves in which our very being is perceived as superior to that of the natural world. This, in turn, means that our conspecific needs take precedence over whatever needs we might perceive other species to have. One example of such a meta-narrative is the story that tells us that we’ve been created in the image and likeness of God.
Still, Farnsworth concedes that regardless of the pitfalls of a dialectic opposition to nature, “we still need a concept of nature, which is to say that such a concept might still be useful in helping us to understand our species’ relationship with the rest of the biosphere”. At the same time he allows for the idea put forward by others that as wilderness disappears, it must be replaced by something else – another construct. Why are we so attached to the idea of nature? Is it possible to rid ourselves of the pesky noun altogether? Not exactly, but Farnsworth sites other writers who argue for viewing nature not so much as a thing that must be preserved in its current state, but as a process. If we “resituate” nature, “there are no more centers, so that the story is free to script new actions.”
This obliteration of centers, this blank slate upon which to script new actions, leads Farnsworth to Eastern (namely Taoist) ideas, that unify rather than distinguish humans from nature “in an attempt to resituate the nature construct outside of the body/soul dualism that Western civilization has inherited from its Hellenistic roots.” He continues that “nature can become the aesthetic that helps you appreciate birds in your garden, and even those nasty deer who get to your snap peas before you’re able to harvest them.”
Thus, we must foster the notion not only that the natural world is imperfect, but that it resists the stasis of perfection. It is always a place of competition, evolution, disorder, and change. The nature aesthetic should embrace this disorder, especially by refusing to serve as a construct for political ends beyond aesthetics.
Farnsworth asserts that “how we resituate nature is ultimately a political question.” I disagree. Political discourse is held together at the seams by tenuous threads of obtuse intellectual constructs, and holds within its design an irresistible propensity for manipulation and corruption. Of course, nature does not recognize the kind of authority to which politics subscribes. As the philosopher Alan Watts said in his lecture Man’s Behavior With Nature, “Nature has a self-ordering principle, but it doesn’t really know how it does it…If you translate this into politics, it is high philosophical anarchy.” He elaborates:
Nature – human nature included – is an organism. And an organism is a system of orderly anarchism…When you look at the clouds, they aren’t symetrical…but you know at once that they aren’t a mess. When you look at the patterns of foam on water, they never make an artistic mistake…
We need to strip away the political constructs that scaffold our framing of nature. We need to cease with the constant grasping for something pure and idyllic outside of ourselves. When we stop grasping, we can take a breath and see that we too are unsymmetrical and messy. We can see that our own bodily systems are “orderly anarchisms”, with no one centralized organ to rule them. (Inevitably, the brain is be argued to be the ruler of our bodily systems, but research has shown that the gut plays just as important a role). Nothing is hierarchical, every organ is interdependent. In medical terms, we need to regard nature less as specialists and more holistically, with the parameters of that term stretched to include our bodies, our “environment”, and the whole universe.
We need to see politics for what it really is: a manifestation of the confusion that arises when we define ourselves as unique and independent; By upholding a political viewpoint, we cling to precious belief systems that are in opposition to other belief systems. Among this confusion lies Nature: the political pawn, the arena of struggle. Political struggle is like the playing of a guitar string. When an issue is raised, the string is plucked. The back and forth of debate is the string’s vibration, and the vibration is always finding its way back to the center, to a state of rest. The tone produced by the vibration is only made real when our senses process it. So in this way politics is the sound (or more often the noise) made by our tendency for separation from the things outside us and our tightly held beliefs.
The Japanese scientist-turned-farmer and mystic Masanobu Fukuoka understood this deeply. In his manifesto The One-Straw Revolution (1975), he wrote,
To the extent that people separate themselves from nature, they spin out further and further from the center. At the same time, a centripetal effect asserts itself and the desire to return to nature arises. But if people get caught up merely in reacting, moving to the left or to the right, depending on conditions, the result is only more activity. The non-moving point of origin, which lies outside the realm of relativity, is passed over, unnoticed.
The vibrating string will never find stillness unless we ourselves find a state of rest. The state of rest can be achieved right now, at the place where we are sitting. When we let our minds find that state of rest, we catch a glimpse of the connectedness with our bodies, the floor, the plastic grass, the earth, and the universe beyond. When we catch that glimpse and recognize it as a reflection of our true selves, then the restitution of nature is ultimately a spiritual question.
To be clear, I am not arguing for anarchy or the dismantling of political systems. We need regulations to offset the greed and recklessness waged by countless companies that value profit above any sane ecological responsibility. But by analyzing the way we resituate nature in terms of language, we in turn need to examine how the concept of nature operates in our collective consciousness. Out of such an examination will arise the political will to act.
How do we resituate nature in our consciousness? It’s simple: see the way an infant sees. Again, Masanobu Fukuoka:
That which is conceived to be nature is only an idea arising in each person’s mind. The ones who see true nature are infants. They see without thinking, straight and clear. If even the names of plants are known, a mandarin tree of the citrus family, a pine of the pine family, nature is not seen in its true form. An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.
To break experience in half and call one side physical and the other spiritual is narrowing and confusing…Similarly, it would be well if people stopped troubling themselves about discovering “the true meaning of life”; We can never know the answers to great spiritual questions, but it’s alright not to understand. We have been born and are living on the earth to face directly the reality of living.
To not understand is important spiritually, yet we have lost the ability to practice it. We strive for knowledge and understanding through data, research, and scientific proof. We strive to be right. But where is the spiritual awareness that Mr. Fukuoka calls for? How do we see without thinking?
Many years ago, I was an 18 year old art student at the University of Oklahoma. I had all the ego and self-righteousness that seemed to be required of anyone pursuing a career in art. One of my professors was a Cheyenne Arapaho artist named Edgar Heap of Birds. Large in his presence, Edgar seemed to be anchored where he stood in a way that I found quite admirable. One Monday morning I was among a group of students talking about what we had done over the weekend. The usual parties and bar-hopping exploits were shared. What Edgar reported resonates with me to this day. He said that he went walking with his sons. “Where did you walk?”, someone asked. “Oh, in a field, with our shoes off”, he responded with an air of nonchalance. “Just felt the earth with our feet.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but his matter-of-fact account of the simple act of walking barefooted with his children was his way of seeing without thinking. In that conversation he assumed the voice not of rationality but of poetry. Another Cheyenne Arapaho artist, the poet Lance Henson, expressed this in his 1998 poem Every Emergence:
yesterday the sun shone
in its afternoon light a single leaf fell to the ground
across the raven colored undersides of day
toward hope and the fervent desires of the living
with our hands made from the bones of extinct birds
our relatives the refugees
arriving in fields without eyes
in the first silence
in the last
Such a poem could easily be mistaken as one from a great Zen master. In all cultures, there exists a tradition of mysticism that can guide us back to nature’s center, where we can find rest. Fukuoka lamented that “there is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or sing a song”. And yet he was able to achieve incredible agricultural results while also living the life of a philosopher, teacher, and spiritual guide for others. Balance is possible if we simply allow it to surface.
Our own spiritual reconnection with nature can happen at any time, and take many forms. We only need to become aware of our own identity as nature in the present moment, they way an infant sees without thinking. Awareness of our nature identity can happen while barefooted in an expanse of wild grass, or it can happen on a meditation cushion. But it must happen if we are to move beyond the reification of nature as a thing to be preserved. We must move toward an awareness of ourselves as an expression of nature.
Again, Alan Watts, from his lecture Man’s Behavior with Nature.
You are something that the whole universe is doing, in the same way a wave is something the whole ocean is doing…The real, deep down you is the whole universe, and it’s doing your living organism and all its behavior. It’s expressing it, as a singer sings a song…We need to experience ourselves in such a way that we could say that our real body is not just what’s inside the skin, but our whole, total external environment. Because if we don’t experience ourselves that way, we mistreat our environment. Beat it into submission. And if we do that, comes disaster. We exploit the world we live in. We don’t treat it with love and gentleness and respect.
When a neighbor covers their flower bed with plastic grass, one could argue that he is not treating his environment with gentleness and respect. However, we must remember that the flower bed itself is by no means “nature”, anymore than a painting of a flower is nature. Both are composed within a rectangle. Both are a representation of something natural. Both are made of material that at some point was derived from an earthly substance. It is tempting to look over the fence at the farm next door and say “that is nature”. But when we can finally see all of it working in concert as a process of nature, and see ourselves as a an equal part, then we can move beyond the pesky concepts and on to something real.