I mentioned in an earlier post that in this blog I won’t stay away from loaded terms like “nature,” “natural” and “wilderness” (for now I’ll use them interchangeably). They’re often considered simplistic and misleading because they suggest something fully apart from humanity, despite the fact that we’re inextricably linked with it physically and psychologically. It’s true that pristine nature is no longer an ecological reality, and that even when it was, our very act of protecting and even defining it as something outside of humanity made it “human” in a sense. But as you’ll see, it isn’t so simple to say (as many do) that the concept of wilderness has no use or meaning—if it’s all in our heads, that’s simply a different kind of reality, and one that fills a crucial psychological role.
In the worldviews I think about and depict nature as special and distinct, which means intact at the small scale (e.g. no invasive species or cut trees) but not necessarily at the larger scale (e.g. when it’s isolated by or juxtaposed with “civilization”). And, by portraying it in the first place, let alone idealizing it in these ways, it’s become something more than just a physical thing out in the world. So while these issues have been on my radar for years, I’ve recently been giving a lot more thought to the question of what “natural” really means to me and to humanity, especially given how quickly the answer is changing given today’s environmental realities.
This is the first in a series of posts (not necessarily consecutive) that’ll look at this bigger question—they’ll be a little more “academic” than those focusing specifically on the worldviews, but I find that my motivations for the works don’t have much substance without a larger theoretical context. (It’s part of the reason I find the term “artwork” too reductive.) Recently a few people have told me—and I agree—that the future writing projects that this blog is intended to jump-start should take the form of a memoir, which I plan to use as a way to personalize my more academic interests (essentially, what plants and ecosystems mean to us symbolically and the ways those meanings are revealed). So as always, especially those of you in the design/environmental fields who might think about these topics more than most, I’d love to hear your impressions. (And don’t forget that you can leave comments below—these days I’m longing to get into some in-depth discussions that aren’t political arguments on Facebook!)
PHYSICAL VS. CULTURAL REALITY
It was while studying ecological anthropology in college that I first realized the range and extent of historical human influence on the planet. Nearly all of it has been impacted to varying degrees by habitation, cultivation, hunting and gathering, fire management, or some combination of those, if not by development and urbanization. Until recently there were certainly places—Antarctica, high mountain peaks, uncolonized/undiscovered islands—where those impacts were absent or negligible, but with the accelerating effects of climate change there’s no part of the earth that can any longer be considered untouched. At least in the sense that humans have been “created” and shaped by nature, and have in turn shaped it from the very beginning, it’s true that we’re just as much a part of it as every other species.
Despite all this, as I first explored in depth in an environmental philosophy class, Western culture has always had some concept of a “pristine,” non-human nature, which over time has alternated between hostile and benevolent, corrupting and redeeming, worthless and precious. This idea of wilderness has persisted even though it’s become less and less of a physical reality, because we’ve been able to convince ourselves that somewhere out there (whether or not we’ll ever see it) that reality still exists.
The fact that climate change is now destroying that reality completely, as Bill McKibben describes in The End of Nature, will have profound implications for wilderness as an idea; how quickly that happens will probably depend on how quickly the effects become widely perceptible. For now I think it’s fair to say that even for those of us who don’t deny that climate change is happening, enough (myself included) are in emotional denial to keep idea of a pristine nature hanging by a thread. Regardless, both because and in spite of the disappearing physical reality of that nature, and the fact that it’s no longer our mortal enemy except when it fights back, the idea has become all the more essential to our psychology - now in the most benevolent, redeeming, and precious sense. Nature may be a cultural reality and not a natural one given that there’s no longer anything truly apart from us, but it’s also a manifestation of that inseparability—nature is now as much a part of us as we’re a part of it.
In graduate school for landscape architecture fifteen years ago, these topics all came up again but with a particular and (as I saw it) concerning angle, if not agenda: if humans are inseparable from nature, meaning pristine nature is just a cultural construct, then there’s nothing to stop us from continuing to erase the distinctions that still remain. Back then landscape architectural practitioners and theorists, increasingly in my program at Harvard but also notably at Penn, inspired by environmental writers like William Cronon (“The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”), latched on to this attitude to justify a focus on natural process rather than form or image. If nature’s always in flux, the argument went, and cultural processes are part of that flux, our (or the designer’s) job is to encourage natural and cultural processes to work together for the benefit of both.
The spatial mixing and merging that would result from such functional integration was considered not only “natural” but good, “interesting” and “honest.” It would create a non-idealized representation of humans’ “real” place in the environment, unlike somewhere like Yosemite that’s artificially and misleadingly frozen into a static, romanticized image. As for the few places that are truly close to untouched by humanity and everyone agrees we should leave alone: they were seen as out of sight and out of mind, not worthy of our interest in why they’re important to us or why we might like to design things next to them.
I should stress that this viewpoint was particular to a few academic programs focused on being cutting-edge, and probably not shared with equal enthusiasm by everyone within them. Also, in landscape architecture at least it seems to have lost traction (or at least the discussion fell off) around 2013, replaced by concerns related to social justice. But these issues aren’t going away, and given that pristine nature is now truly only in the mind, the view that any sort of physical separation between civilization and perceived wilderness should be created or maintained will likely continue to face opposition. Maybe in some cases it should. But going to grad school after being immersed in deep and nuanced college discussions of these topics, and with more of an interest in the non-human environment than most of my colleagues, I found these arguments for further “merging” over-simplified and even lazy. “Separate” in this context has many meanings and degrees which have changed over time and are changing even faster as we speak. Much more to come on this!