December 4, 2011 by sgoobie
Have you ever asked someone, “Where is Nature? Where is the environment?” How do you think they would respond? How would you respond?
One icy afternoon, from the heated confines of a classroom, I asked this same question. Student after student repeated a similar motion. “There,” they said, immediately pointing across the room to the half-frosted window. “Out there.”
Through the third-storey window we could see frozen oak leaves fallen from near-barren branches, sailing through the air until they softly landed in rolling hills of rust, amber and gold. Further out, the inlet waters lapped at decaying logs washed up on the rocks. Glimmers of winter sunlight peeked out from the edge of heavy grey clouds.
I turned back to the students. “Okay, what about in here?” I asked, waving my hands around the room. “Is this Nature too?”
They exchanged puzzled looks. A few shook their heads in firm disagreement, glancing at the tightly sealed glass window.
I continued. “Think about your body. Your breathing. Air is flowing in and out. Where is the air coming from? Where is it going? If we open the window, what then? Is ‘Nature’ coming in? What if we were to go outside to a tree and pick an apple and eat it? You would say the apple is part of Nature, right? What about as it enters your mouth, as you bite, as you chew, swallow, digest, and absorb? The apple is in you — did the Nature-part of the apple disappear? Or is it still there? Is Nature in you? Is Nature now a part of you?”
Taking a step back, I looked at the entire class. “Conversely, are you a part of Nature?”
Blurring the boundary
What I hoped is that students would begin to question a deep-seeded modern way of thinking known as dualism. From a dualistic worldview, there is a clear division between the human world and natural world. A concrete building is regarded as soundly in the human domain while a mountain is relegated to the realm of Nature — no matter that they are both composed from common aggregates of rock and minerals. A pencil is of humans while a tree is of Nature — no matter that they share an “ancestry” of materials. In this way of thinking, humans are seen as largely autonomous from the rest of the natural world; the environment is simply that — environs — one’s surroundings, that which lays around at a distance but not within.
Whether through logic or intuition, upon examination the apparent separation between humans and Nature holds little truth. As living beings, we are each conceived through the physical union of two “outsiders”, upon which the genesis for our individual lives grows in complete dependence on its mother-environment. During development in the womb, there is never a precise dividing line between fetus and mother. The two are fused. Even upon birth, in which we might think of an infant being separated from its creator and thrust out into the larger environment, the child’s complete reliance upon the parent’s protection, direct nutrients and physical comfort sustains this unyielding connection. Even as a child grows and develops, understanding her place in the world, she naturally maintains this sense of interconnectedness — that even as an individual she is an integral part of a grand system of life.
It is only in certain cultures where this intuitive sense of connection is driven away. These are the cultures rooted in the modern ecological thoughtprint. In this industrial worldview, where we seek convenient and self-serving ways of thinking to legitimize our destructive behaviours toward the more-than-human world, a belief in the dualism of humanity and Nature is forced upon our youth. Expanding urban life in cement cities reinforces the false understanding that Nature is “out there” and that human life is independent of all ecological support. As David Suzuki recounts, we can live in air-conditioned boxes in the sky, be whisked down elevators to our air-conditioned cars in sealed parking garages, drive to underground garages at our workplaces and then up and away to air-conditioned offices connected directly to shopping malls — gaining the ability to go weeks with leaving the “inside” world.
Where do we get food? The grocery store. Where does our energy come from? The outlet in the wall. Where does our water come from? Pipes. What about our waste and garbage? It gets taken to this magical place called “Away”. Placing the sources of our sustenance out of clear sight relieves us of the daily need to recognize our intractable dependence on Nature. We are, in effect, exporting reality.
Schools continue to hammer out holism — the belief that all is connected — through a sole emphasis on reason and categorical thinking. In secondary education and beyond, we clearly define different subject areas — science, history, art, language — and then further subdivide these, asserting that knowledge is readily compartmentalized with little interaction between. “Environment” is often relegated to science, where Nature tends to be dissected, devalued, and converted to a cold, lifeless, logical arrangement of compounds and governing laws. While ecology lessons may teach simplistic food webs and food chains, it is the rare student (usually one who does not thrive in the academic world, for which they are punished) who resolutely preserves his intuitive sense of the endlessly complex interdependence of all of Creation, with himself included in the mix.
Finally, it is our modern consumer products themselves which serve to propagate the illusion of dualism. Plastic, for example, has a powerful property in that we cannot readily see — or even imagine — what elements of Nature have gone into its construction. Our buildings are similar; uniform processed particle board and monotonous metallic infusions are mysterious materials seemingly born not out of the natural world but out of some autonomous synthetic factory in a distant industrial land.
Yet when we encounter materials which retain the unique characteristics of their original life source, it serves to remind us of our eternal marriage with the natural world. A table of solid wood reclaimed from monsoon-effected forests showing knots and warps, or unfinished granite blocks roughly chiselled from massive boulders — these types of thoughtful, skilled craftwork carry forth the textures of trees and the original strength of rocks, allowing us to readily see nature-based sources and even the sweat of labour poured into their construction.
Dualism may indeed be a convenient way of thinking, allowing us to more easily trample the air, water and land as we like — but it makes little sense when we honestly reflect on our lives. As we in industrialized societies surpass the planetary limits of natural systems, a need for a new — or, as it may be, ancient — way of thinking based on holism is arising. We can no longer afford to hide from our dependence on, and identity in, the rest of Nature.
Just as an adopted child eventually grows curious and asks questions about her long-lost biological mother, sooner or later, whether we want to or not, we are required to recognize our most fundamental ecological relationship. What a moment it will be when, even while living in cities of honking cars and glittering glass towers, we may reunite with our true home in the sacred forests, skies, mountains, rivers, seas, and the entire Planet.
Then we may not have the need to ask, “Where is Nature?” In such a world, this is a question which would no longer make sense. The concept of Nature would no longer exist to be spoken about. Nature, and our own belonging, would simply be felt in our hearts.