It is not easy to give a positive, precise and complete definition of a reality so wide and so foundational, but perhaps we come close when we say that nature is the vital and primal force that inhabits us at every moment, feeding us and keeping us alive.
The plants that grow out of pavements have a history longer than our own. Birds communicate their news in songs and calls. Insects tunnel their way through the earth. The clouds draw the geography of the sky and the stars speak the language of light. We are surrounded by a living and vibrant universe that we barely know, and that we rarely feel as our own.
On any given day, you may connect with nature at some random moment. Perhaps you take a quick look at the sky, admire the moon when it draws a perfect arabesque in the darkness, or stop to admire some blooms on a flower stall. On holiday, you may allow yourself to live a fleeting love affair with the sea, a river, or the green silence of a hillside. But, if we are honest, most of us think of nature more as a place to visit than, as naturalist poet Gary Snyder proposes, as our one and only home.
What is nature, exactly? We could start with a definition of what it is not:
- The distant landscape that we spy through the window, on our way somewhere. It is not something “out there.” It is not an idea or a horizon. It is not an “other.”
- It is not Neverland (the imaginary country that gave Peter Pan and his friends the gift of eternal childhood). It is neither bucolic nor perfect.
- It is not cruel, bloody or completely unpredictable.
- It is not a resource designed to meet human needs. In the words of Thomas Berry, “The world is not a collection of objects, but a community of subjects.”
- It is not “the only thing that is real” while everything created by human beings is “false” or “artificial.”
It is not easy to give a positive, precise and complete definition of a reality so wide and so foundational, but perhaps we come close when we say that nature is the vital and primal force that inhabits us at every moment, feeding us and keeping us alive. We are nature and we are it all the time, no matter how far away or how close we perceive it to be at each moment. We are nature, even if we find ourselves enclosed by concrete walls, without a window or even a stamp-size view of the sky. You might even say that the lamp and the bed and the slippers underneath it, and even your computer, are “secondary nature” (as some authors have dubbed it), because we cannot create anything that is not built with its raw materials.
It’s in the light that warms our skin, in the air we breathe, in the water that we drink, in the iron in our blood. We are made of earth and the Earth is made of stars. I think this makes us creatures of nature.
How exactly do we find nature in ourselves? Kathleen Dean Moore, a professor of moral philosophy and philosophy of nature, put it this way in a conversation we shared about the concept of “the wild”: “It’s in the light that warms our skin, in the air we breathe, in the water that we drink, in the iron in our blood. We are made of earth and the Earth is made of stars. I think this makes us creatures of nature.”
This being so, can anything cut us off from this connection? “Nothing can suppress the wild in us. But we can lose our awareness of our connection to it. And this is a major loss,” says Dean Moore.
Nothing can separate us from this relationship, because our relationships define us, even from the biological point of view. So says David Haskell, a professor of biology at the University of Tennessee and author of The Songs of Trees:
We are all—trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria—pluralities. Life is an embodied network. These living systems are not places of benevolent oneness. Instead, they are places where the ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved. These struggles often end not in the evolution of stronger and disconnected individuals, but in the dissolution of the individual in the bond.
Since life is a network, there is no “nature” or “environment” separate from humans, emphasizes Haskell, nor are we the “fallen” beings of nature, as romantic poets such as William Blake suggested. “Our bodies and our minds, ‘our science and our art,’ are as natural and wild as they always were,” Haskell assures.
Our interaction with the planet is increasingly like that of a feudal lord towards a serf: we give it crumbs of our attention, and in return we ask for its full subservience.
Children though we are of the Earth and the stars, we created an ambitious culture that eventually convinced us of our own autonomy. We feel and act like powerful, superior, self-sufficient beings. Our interaction with the planet is increasingly like that of a feudal lord towards a serf: we give it crumbs of our attention, and in return we ask for its full subservience.
This vision not only exhausts the planet’s resources, it also erodes our souls. The link between nature and the soul is evident even in language. Bill Plotkin, guide of shamanic vision quests, points out that the word “nature” comes from natus, “being born,” and that “the nature” of a thing is “the dynamic principle that holds it together and gives it identity.” In other words, it is the essence. “Since the human soul is the essential core of our nature, then, when we are guided by the soul, we are guided by nature,” says Plotkin. Is there anything we can do to restore this link? Do we still have time to re-establish our kinship?
Indeed we do. We may live in brick houses; we may move around in metal boxes; but the smell of the earth finds us wherever we go. The poet— and farmer—Wendell Berry says, “The earth under the grass dreams of a young forest, and under the pavement the earth dreams of grass.” We can satisfy our longing: we can renew our belonging. Let us count the ways.
Excerpted from Where Wonder Lives: Practices for Cultivating the Sacred in Your Daily Life by Fabiana Fondevila, (Findhorn Press, 2021). Posted by kind permission of the author.