Bear in the Woods
Out here it’s silent save
for the wind rattling the conifers,
the needles shaking their spice loose into the air.
Miles away, life goes on in supermarkets
and office buildings. A person could forget all that
easily among the pines, could feel like the last thing
alive on the earth. But then a black bear
makes its way through the brambles,
searching for a feast of sweet berries.
The truth is often simpler than we make it seem.
Life lives here, too.
— Matthew Kosinski
This year, our Ignite series is taking a broader look at the natural world and considering how we can reconnect with more holistic ways of thinking about it. This month, in the rustic spirit of Wood Cabin, we’re looking at how the cognitive divide between human society and the natural world came to be.
Increasingly, consumers are reaching for more natural, sustainably sourced products. By 2021, Nielsen predicts, Americans will be spending $150 billion a year on eco-friendly goods.1
The trend is especially acute in the beauty, food, and household goods industries. These are products we surround ourselves with every day, products we often ingest or apply to our bodies. We want these products to be as safe as possible, and we’ve learned that some of the manmade innovations we’ve trusted for decades may be more curse than blessing. Take, for instance, the possible link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer2, or the mounting evidence that the plastics in which we package so much of our food may be leaching harmful chemicals that can wreak havoc on our bodies.3
Health benefits aside, green consumer choices can also motivate companies to produce and deliver goods and services more sustainably, reducing the waste, emissions, and resource usage that contribute to the climate crisis.4
Photo by David Marcu; ; Source: Unsplash
So there are plenty of good reasons to shop naturally — but the push for greener products also raises an interesting question: What does it mean to be “natural,” anyway? In discussions about going green, we often intuitively understand the human world to be separate from the natural world. As it turns out, however, people haven’t always thought of themselves as distinct from nature. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a relatively recent — and relatively Western — intellectual development. Moreover, by continuing to see human society as existing apart from the natural world, we may be making it harder for more of us to embrace green living.
“By continuing to see human society as existing apart from the natural world, we may be making it harder for more of us to embrace green living.”
Nature Is a Machine?
Published posthumously in 1945, English philosopher R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of Nature is still one of the most in-depth studies of how Western society’s perception of the natural world has changed over time. According to Collingwood, the definition of “nature” has passed through three distinct phases.5
Photo by Jeremy Bishop; ; Source: Unsplash
The first phase is one we touched on in our January Ignite story: the ancient Greek notions of cosmology that saw the natural world as one unified organism, with humans being one aspect of the organism’s overall functioning. The second phase occurred during the Renaissance (1300-1600 A.D.), when modern scientific thinking began to take shape. In the Renaissance view, the natural world was not an organism, but a machine. Scholars and scientists believed they could fully decode the workings of the natural world by observing and experimenting with it — much like how a person could teach themselves how a car works by carefully taking apart its engine.6
It was during this second phase that we really began to see ourselves as existing outside of nature. Perhaps this was an inevitable outcome: By seeing the natural world as something to be held at arm’s length and studied objectively, we removed ourselves from our own picture of nature.
“Nature was not so much an object as an active process of continuous change — a process we might call 'life.'”
The third phase starts with the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel at the turn of the 19th century. Unlike many of his forebearers, Hegel did not see the natural world as a fixed piece of machinery that would hold still for our study. Hegel felt nature was not so much an object as an active process of continuous change — a process we might call “life.” This understanding of the natural world as that which lives helped usher in our modern understanding of biology as the science that studies life itself.7
Alexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemälde depicts the distribution of different plant species at varying elevations; Source: Geographical.co.uk
Hegel was also noteworthy for rejecting the very popular contemporary notion that we could only come to know the world through scientific study. Instead, Hegel was more aligned with the Romantic school of philosophy, which believed we could gain valid knowledge of the world through our subjective experiences, emotions, and intuitions.8 Carrying on in Hegel’s footsteps, we get figures like Alexander von Humboldt and, later, John Muir — dedicated naturalists who approached the study of nature as both a science and an art.9
But look around. Most of us aren’t throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into the natural world. We aren’t amateur Muirs and Humboldts. In fact, we’re still pretty disconnected from nature. What gives? How did we reach a fourth phase where the modern world views nature merely as a resource?
“By comparing Western concepts of nature with those of other traditions, we can start to see why people in Western societies feel so separate from the natural world.”
Nature Beyond the Western Canon
Collingwood’s history of nature as an idea may be enlightening, but it is based only on the Western intellectual tradition. By comparing Western concepts of nature with those of other traditions, we can start to see why people in Western societies feel so separate from the natural world.
Much of modern Western thought — whether it be scientific or philosophical — is grounded in dualism, the belief that mind and matter are separate and the realm of the mind does not interact directly with the world of matter.10 Because this presupposition is baked into many strains of Western thought, it’s easy to overlook — but it has consequences for how we relate to the natural world.
In Western philosophy, dualism is most closely associated with René Descartes, the French philosopher who famously uttered, “I think, therefore I am”; Wikipedia
What makes Homo sapiens different from other animals? Most would agree our minds — with their capacities of consciousness and imagination — distinguish us from other species, even our close primate relatives.11 Because dualism encourages us to see our minds as separate from the material world, it’s all too easy to see ourselves as standing outside of that world. As a result, Western notions of nature tend to be anthropocentric — that is, they foreground human beings and human concerns. Instead of understanding nature as a thing that exists in itself, we often view it as something that exists for us, and that makes it all the easier to exploit natural resources without much thought.12
“The monist view holds that mind and matter are not separate, 'and as a result, everything in the universe is alive: animals, plants, humans, rocks, celestial bodies, natural forces, etc.'”
In contrast, many Indigenous intellectual traditions are monist. As the academics Glen S. Aikenhead and Masakata Ogawa explain, the monist view holds that mind and matter are not separate, “and as a result, everything in the universe is alive: animals, plants, humans, rocks, celestial bodies, natural forces, etc.” This monist view often leads to a more biocentric understanding of nature: rather than seeing humans as distinct from nature, many Indigenous worldviews posit that humans are just one of many parts of the natural world.13
For example, consider the Ojibwe creation story, which says that Gitche Manitou (the Great Spirit) created the first human and the first wolf as brothers. Together, the human and the wolf traveled through the world, naming all the other plants and animals.14
“Observations of the Astral World” by Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau. Called the “Picasso of the North,” Morrisseau often depicted scenes from Ojibwe legends in his paintings; Source: ACI-ICA.ca
Aikenhead and Ogawa also note that Indigenous methods of studying nature are often more relational and dynamic than the Western approach, in which the natural world is often held at arm’s length. They quote another scholar, Gregory A. Cajete, as saying,
“Native science evolved in relationship to places and is therefore instilled with a ‘sense of place’. ... Native peoples’ places are sacred and bounded, and their science is used to understand, explain, and honor the life they are tied to in the greater circle of physical life. Sacred sites are mapped in the space of tribal memory to acknowledge forces that keep things in order and moving. The people learn to respect the life in the places they live, and thereby to preserve and perpetuate the ecology.”15
‘Blow the Stink Off Yourself’
Centuries of dualist thinking aren’t the only thing driving us away from nature. Researchers Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir think there is a material component, too.
In an attempt to trace the growing gap between humans and nature, Kesebir and Kesebir looked at a useful proxy: our cultural products. Reasoning that the art we produce often reflects our society’s thoughts and feelings, Kesebir and Kesebir created a list of common nature words — like plant and animal names, weather conditions, seasons, etc. — and then checked how frequently these words occurred in English-language movies, songs, and books produced between 1900 and today. The analysis revealed that references to nature began a marked decline in the 1950s.16
A graph from Kesebir and Kesebir’s research showing the decline of nature references in song lyrics; Source: Berkeley.edu
Kesebir and Kesebir note that people often blame urbanization for cutting us off from nature, but they don’t believe that tells the full story. Urbanization rates didn’t change between the first and second half of the 20th century, so that wouldn’t explain the decrease in nature references. Instead, Kesebir and Kesebir pinpoint the rise of “indoor and virtual recreation options” as a key culprit. Television arrived on the scene in the 1950s, with video games and the internet following just a few decades behind.17
“Birdly”, a new virtual reality simulation that allows humans to “fly” in nature from the comfort of a horizontal platform with attached fan; Source: Choice Radio
With such a veritable buffet of entertainment options at our fingertips indoors, fewer and fewer of us feel any need to go outside and “blow the stink off” ourselves, as our parents used to put it. (Well, maybe not everyone’s parents — but this author’s mother certainly did.)
Given just how easily our anthropocentric views of nature lend themselves to environmental exploitation and degradation, we have an imperative to start reincorporating ourselves into our own visions of the natural world. But how, exactly, do we do that?
Green consumer choices are a good start, as is making the decision to switch off your smartphone and head outside every once in a while. Maybe we should all carve out more time for regular “forest baths” — periodic trips to bask in the beauty of natural settings.
Photo by Tyssul Patel; Source: Unsplash
And when we’re out in the woods or mountains or valleys — or even just our local public parks — we should try to be conscious of the dualistic ways of thinking our culture perpetuates. Perhaps we should emulate more often those Indigenous scientists who seek to understand nature not by merely studying it, but by actively and directly relating to it. Take a moment to feel the temperature of the air and the wind on your skin. Notice the thrum of activity all around you: the leaves swaying, insects chirping, and clouds meandering. You are part of all this.
Art, too, can be a powerful way back into the natural world. As Kesebir and Kesebir put it, “cultural products such as songs and films not only reflect the prevailing culture — they also shape it. … Artistic creations that help us connect with nature are crucial at a time like this, when nature seems to need our attention and care more than ever.”18
“Write an ode to the trees outside your window. Paint a landscape of a local mountain range.”
British artist Andy Goldsworthy uses natural materials and nature itself to create ephemeral, natural art; Source: Bored Panda
Write an ode to the trees outside your window. Paint a landscape of a local mountain range. Don’t worry whether it’s “good” — just take the opportunity to put yourself back in touch with the world beyond your front door.