Humans and nature are linked basically, inseparable. Our livelihood as a species depends on changing relationships with the natural world. The green outdoor void we call "nature" is at once so expansive and detailed, in other ways also so vague. There's always more to learn if we have the curiosity, and it's completely up to us where we stop inquiring.
It's sometimes difficult to understand how people come to view nature so differently until the factor of human interpretation and intention is considered. We might call to mind the wide variety of animal-based illustrations and deities from cultures around the world. Animal representations are one of the most basic ways humans have assimilated an experience of the natural world, something which has inspired us from the very beginning. Thinking about everyday lives of ancestors ignites in many of us a want to reconnect with our past, to reinhabit a place that feels ancient and really important.
There is an essence to the word "wild" which implies something lost, in sight but just out of reach, something that escaped from you. This how W.S. Merwin describes it, how many artists work a fascination with the concept. We resonate within a feeling of apartness from nature. The modern world feels so destructive, awry. Wars, destruction of forests, pollution, the melting ice caps. Our own lives, those of the forests and the animals, even the surfaces of the planet have been forever altered by our growth and technology. We cut the tops off mountains, we peel birch trees down to toothpicks. We raze the wilderness to plant huge crop fields, build concentrated city communities out of wood and stones, mostly to insulate and comfort ourselves. We change our surroundings, in essence we are the terraformers of our own planet. All of it brings a feeling of drifting away from where we once were.
In recent thinking and conversation I have come to regard this feeling as more or less just that; a sense, a feeling, that we have perhaps forgotten the things which drove us to capture parts of nature, take more control, insulate ourselves. We've in a sense not really forgotten our wildness but rather haven’t experienced the fundamental indifference of earth completely without modern amenities and thought solutions. The real-time experience of growing through exposed, harsh and culling natural circumstances. That time has more or less passed completely. It is the aspect which is truly lost to us. What does this mean?
What Was Lost
In ages long past humans maintained connection with nature through direct contact and participation. Immersed, the thoughts and senses were inhabited, the relationship was straightforward, troubles rinsed away quickly by constant occupation of our minds; the need to find/grow food, have shelter, good water, and so on. Nowadays human attention and intelligence has been divided into modern concerns. Emerging from an insulated modern lifestyle, a lot of us seem to experience the 'quiet,' the 'grounding,' the 'healing,' the apparent realignments of that general sense of disharmony. This is among the first things people notice as a result of contact with nature.
There are things one might find out in the fields and woods - food, fresh air and besides: one's sense of origin, of mystery, of infinity, of homecoming, re-simplification, shrugging of modern conditioning. All the spiritual stuff people talk about. Thoreau, John Muir. It's a powerful realization how nature carries a profound neutralizing quality. So much that it tends to give an overbearing impression that nature is there just for us. To heal us.
These impressions, these genuine experiences people have, they aren't really about nature. They are mostly about people and what nature does for them. How it feels to re-immerse from a sense of disparity. It's not what nature itself really is. Which isn’t to say any of us really can ever know what nature actually is, only that we can try to find out. I have come to consider nature a "reflecting pool" in recent years for this reason. The ancient quiet of nature tends, more than anything, to amplify one’s inner world. Many are unable to recognize their own thoughts imposed, let alone see past them. It's complicated further by how efforts to perceive directly become muddled by the feedback of human thought. Outside of people's images, without human thoughts chattering away, nature is the thing that moves through time all on it's own. It is perhaps the most indifferent, quiet, primal entity one can experience; a seemingly open universe of things transpiring at all times. How do we stay fresh when inundated with the awe of our nature experience? How do we keep from imposing our thoughts on nature? It's not the most straightforward subject.
What is the word "nature" in essence? Nature might be simply regarded as that which takes shape by itself. The factor of human activity the contrasting point where "unnatural" things might begin. Human thoughts and intentions exerted upon nature's usual activity. To a further extent it's about what is real (nature; untouched) versus what seems not (thought, intention; artificial).
Why does the division begin with the influences of humankind? What is it about us, our thinking, our products, that is inherently unnatural? On one hand we might agree that humankind is from nature, part of nature and should be basically regarded as such, while on the other we use words and concepts which imply separation from, corruption of nature. This is the unseen argument, the contradiction. This has some apparent roots.
Why Nature Always Looks Like Us
Humans require basic symbols to communicate with each other; words, language, the images conveyed. When you recognize something as a "tree" the word is not the thing, only an association. In the same way a map is not actually the terrain it represents. We learn from a young age to think in symbols without realizing the very act of having language abstracts from the thing we're describing.
This may not seem mind-bending by itself but it has some implications. It sets a tendency for identifying more with the symbol, the images conjured in thinking. That representation, being based in thought, is easily influenced by basic human things - wants, intentions, and so on. We basically project what we "want to be" or what we "think something is" or "ought to be" and then cultivate towards that image. How we perceive reality is filtered through these concepts. We think we are seeing more clearly when we are filtering into thought artifacts which skew towards our own biases. Within all of this we also learn to concentrate more on obtaining results, our identity in nature, over having an open and living interactive process that is basically undefined. We are concerned more with the ends, the image, which is about ourselves. I hope that makes some kind of sense.
Is the base division of natural/unnatural, or nature-made/manmade, in a psychological sense, not itself an abstraction? We see what the words mean, what's implied in using them, but is that division actually there? We came from nature, we exist in our own made detour of nature as an active aspect of it and we always have been. It's just a different role than we had in the past. What we have done instead of looking at this more holistically is to look back into our own history and say "that's when we had it right" or "that's when it all went wrong." We say the answers are probably in our past and in this we become resistant to science, to innovation, to the current direction of humankind's collective thinking. These are the seeds of all the modern counterculture ideologies which readily identify with nature for it being the loudest internal echo chamber.
Most of us see the destructive parts of our presence but not all of us necessarily believe that taking up opposing concepts will help. One can identify these reactive concepts rather easily, they define themselves largely in what they reject, by what they are not. They hijack modern terms to substitute in a new or enlightened-sounding concept. This is what the human mind does best, projecting into a duality which contains a piece of the very thing they are hoping to avoid. It's why countercultures seem to think, speak, behave, take up similar ideas; because they are reacting to a common thing. These concepts of returning to the wilderness, it's superiority, purity, it's healing power, the implied rejection of modern things, much of this is a kind of reflection, artifacts of our thinking contrasting and repelling. It all only further confuses and fragments the situation. This is the feedback.
How do we make sense of it?
In the spirit of pulling pieces together it makes orderly sense if one looks at humankind as part of nature with changing participation through time. That's how nature is, always moving through time based on subtle tiers of what occurred before. For example, we aren't naming species because that's what those creatures will be forever, we understand it's just a snapshot of a changing lineage. The counterculture will argue that mankind is tagging and compartmentalizing and somehow missing the overall whole, the forest for the trees so to speak. The reality is that the interaction within the whole is only becoming better understood through knowing the parts and how they move. There is nothing wrong with obtaining more, finer degrees of information. If people could better keep their fundamental curiosity, inquire further to see what others already know on a subject a lot of counterculture would not exist. Instead we have fields of more or less static self-regulating thinking resistant to information but for that which attends the bias. Most of us don't seem to get past this. Or maybe we don't want to know how far into the void we can go, maybe it seems formidable and we'd rather insulate ourselves from the expanse psychologically.. this being a common thing with humans, we've already done it with regard to nature at least once.
It's also unwieldy how our technologies and the modern planetary resource situation might seem so it's rather natural to look back at what might have been lost and experience a sense collective regret. I think we gravitate very easily to retrospective concepts, artifacts of our species' lost sense of true wildness. Past states which were practical results of those times generated in a living way from that circumstance. To mimic these things however is not to breathe life into them again. It is in effect to chase an image projected. In the romanticized thought-spaces which result from it all one really has to do is love nature, the hard knowledge about it seems to come second. Most coming in to their natural interests are simply eager to begin using the natural resources around them, to begin that personal sense of participating directly. The other modern stuff (ie. science, information) is not a driving force. At times it seems we want to live in a familiar world known in intuition just casually pulling in or remembering the factual stuff.
You are already a product of earth's immense and dignified history and I suspect that essentially you only want to have an immediate thought-occupying interaction with earth that seems fulfilling. That same inclusive thing we had in ages past, the life we want to know tacitly. The want "just to be." However nature is positioned irregardless of our wants, and the less you impose your thoughts on the natural world the closer to the contour of reality you might be able to see. The more workable and objective your perception and discoveries, the more massive the complexity of nature becomes. It's about the knowing and wanting to know. Nature doesn't care to fulfill thoughts, abstractions, and feelings. It just is. Everything else .. Is just us. Just people.
The future indeed needs serious course changes, but these are to be unique and modern, a living response to the situation, all of the aspects that led us to now. Time moves forward and so does our mode of participation with our environment which has itself grown as a living thing. So far we are the only creature so basically aware of our surroundings, intelligent and capable as to have accomplished all manner of directing and shaping nature for purposes of self-preservation, to thrive. We could not have done this if we weren't smart. But we are of course far from perfect, it's a two-sided coin of both great and costly things. I think that humankind's role must inevitably turn towards the responsibilities that come with changing power dynamics. In this case, our capacity to understand the parts of nature, to use them with good intention and to preserve the ancient heritage of our planet for the future. Especially in light of all the damage we've caused. We have to accept our role in all of it instead of rationalizing into countercultures which effectively lift the burden. Yes, the stakes are massive.
Rather than chase our own reflection back into the woods I think we should mind further our obvious step out of the forests, making sure that we document every unique lineage, every species that we can. Not just for our own benefit, but for nature's own sake and for an an ambient respect and appreciation for what it is. With regard to nature I believe we are stewards and caretakers now, being the only animal thus far cognizant and capable of such things. We never lost our wildness either, it only feels like it’s passed because of all the change. We can at any time occupy our thoughts fully, immediately, sincerely. This is most evident in people with fundamentally curious minds. I will suggest that the full engagement of thinking, of mental and physical effort into what one is doing - that is the realm of human wildness. The wilderness is the place we learned, but the states of mind never left us. That ability to engage intelligently is what kept us going through the ages, what brought us to know. We are still “wild” and still part of nature. It’s just not exactly as we imagine.
© Timothy J Lane, first published April 2016