Myths of Nature Cloud Our Thinking

Article excerpt

Byline: Tom Giesen For The Register-Guard

The Oregon Coast Range is mostly unbroken forest, laced with streams and roads. Most roads are gravel; many are ungated. People live only along the edges of the forest and on major routes: it is a province where humans come and go, but don't stay.

It isn't raw wilderness out there; most has been roaded and logged - some several times. But it is a wilder place than where I sleep. Bear, cougar, coyote, bobcat, elk and deer live there. I love to be there as well.

Oregon is gradations of wildness, from hyper-urban to designated wilderness. We tend to speak of wilderness as nature, and hyper-urban as not-nature - the Oregon Coast Range falls between the two.

But if wilderness is nature, is where I live not nature? Is nature the absence of humans or of human-wrought changes? Are nature and humans incompatible? What is nature? If something isn't nature, what is it?

We use the word nature in many ways. Some speak as if "mother nature" is in control of the biological and physical world, and that "mother nature" will fix things if we mess them up. We say, "Don't mess with mother nature" as a warning about nature's power, and we say, "Nature bats last" as a way of saying that some form of natural processes will be around (even if we aren't) after, say, a global nuclear war. Nature feels powerful to us.

A different view is that nature is simply natural things - unaltered landscapes. Nature seems natural, whereas our urban world doesn't. We think nature is a beautiful place, even if it is sometimes scary.

Nature can also be the locus of conflict when natural places are disrupted or degraded. Activities that turn nature into commodities (two-by-fours, crushed rock, water diverted from rivers) are sometimes disputed and opposed.

Humans are seldom spoken of as part of nature. There seems to be a human-nature dichotomy, perhaps with religious roots. Some folks find that humans alone have some supernatural aspects (a soul, immortality).

My Oxford American Desk Dictionary defines nature as "the natural world." Common usage suggests that nature is something relatively undisturbed by humans - something "natural."

I argue instead that nature is our total biological and physical environment - including humans. I argue that everything on or in the planet, or in the universe, is nature. Humans evolved within and are part of nature. Simply put, nature is everything of which humans are aware.

Wild places are nature - but cities are nature, too. Everything in cities is fashioned from nature. The energy to power cities is derived from natural sources - the sun, stored hydrocarbons, nuclear power, etc. This transformation of nature by humans is made possible by natural energy and natural materials.

There are many myths about nature - here are a few of them:

Nature is wild places unaltered by humans. But there are no such places left on the planet. Every place has been altered by human activity; we are even changing our climate.

Wild places are scary, sometimes terrifying. To imagine being killed by a carnivore - say, a cougar - can produce an overwhelming fear which keeps many people out of wild places. But I can find no modern reports of a human killed by a cougar in Oregon. In contrast, in Oregon, almost 300 people were killed in automobile accidents in 2010. Civilization is a brutal, gory place! But the fear of wild places, as of cougars, encourages the myth that natural places are always perilous and civilization is always safe. If wild places are terrifying, we want to fix them, to civilize nature and remove the wildness. In this way, just the idea of scary things in the wild seems to justify the destruction of wild places.

Nature is inexhaustible. Some economists believe that if any resources become scarce, we will find adequate and inexpensive substitutes. But there is no evidence for that - it is a faith-based belief. …