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What Does Nature Mean to You?

When we talk of nature or the wilderness, what is it that we mean? Nash (2001) argues that the wilderness is a subjective term, which represents a specific mood or feeling in an individual, specific to a certain place. Therefore giving a universal definition of the wilderness or nature is a difficult task, as what constitutes as the wilderness for one person, may not for another. Often the terms ‘wilderness’ and ‘nature’ are used to refer to environments which are separate to, and untouched by, urban civilisation. This vagueness brings about the question of what exactly is nature and can people actually be separated from it?

The concept of nature and wilderness did not exist for early nomadic hunter gatherers, everything was just a part of the habitat in which they lived. However, as the human brain size increased early hunter gatherers developed the ability for abstract thought and speech, which in turn enabled them to develop and use tools. These tools were used to overcome the difficulties which were presented to them by their surrounding environment – the first form of environmental control and the beginning of the change in attitude towards nature and the wilderness. Now that humans had some control over their environment, societies were formed as a defence against the powers of nature, controlling and manipulating it in a fight for survival. This created the modern Western stance towards nature, in which economic and social progress is dependent on the control of natural resources – what Marx describes as ‘the great civilising influence of capital’.

It was not until the Scientific and Industrial Revolution that the term nature and wilderness really began to take shape as something separate from society. Up until this point the concept of wilderness did not really exist, because it was something which humans were a part of and created from. However, through the Industrial Revolution nature became dominated and the environment reduced to a commodity, causing a separation between society and nature. Any part of nature which was not under human control became referred to as wild, thus creating the concept of wilderness. This removal of nature from society highlights the Western divide between humans and nature, creating a definite sense of separateness. This divide was not just a theoretical one; humans barricaded themselves away from nature and the wilderness using fences and walls.

Towards the end of the Industrial Revolution, when most of the natural resources had been exhausted, people began to develop a Romantic appreciation of the aesthetics of nature. Up until the 18th century wilderness areas would be described as barren or desolate, reflecting society’s feelings towards such environments. However, this view towards nature took a dramatic turn following the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Romanticism. The Romantic period came at a time when industrialisation was at its peak and living conditions were greatly affected by overcrowding, pollution and noise. Inspired by the French Revolution, people living in these conditions turned to the Romantic Movement, which offered a sense of hope and freedom for people at a time when it was most needed. The Romantic Movement viewed nature as a safe haven from the struggles of society – a view which is famously advocated by the American author Henry Thoreau, who in 1845 moved into a self-built house on the shore of Walden Pond. What he found while living in the wilderness was that people had become more domesticated than they realised, becoming distant from nature. However, by escaping from civilisation he discovered that nature offered a level of simplicity which challenged the advantages of industrial development and uncovered a need for the wilderness, concluding that ‘Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness.’ (Thoreau, 1854)

Following in the footsteps of Thoreau, John Muir also agreed that civilisation stifles man, explaining that ‘Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity’ (Muir, 1997). He argued that the hundreds of years in which man had lived in a primitive state, had instilled in them a need for nature and a return to the wilderness, which was not to be found in civilised life. being cut off from the wilderness had dissolved any sense man had of being connected with the rest of nature, therefore he unconsciously longed for it.

However, returning to the problem I presented at the beginning – any attempt at capturing the essence of the natural world is not without the cultural bias of the capturer. For example, someone may choose to go for a walk in a ‘wilderness’ area which is separate from urban civilisation and they may describe it as being beautiful and evoking a sense of awe and respect. In contrast, prior to the age of Romanticism, in the early stages of industrialisation, people found beauty in the cultivated agricultural fields and scenery, and any idea of the rugged wilderness was widely unappealing. In his essay The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon argues that it is impossible for the wilderness (and nature) to stand apart from humanity because it is only a reflection of their unfilled desires which, in the period following the Industrial Revolution, was a tranquil respite from the city. In other words, the nature which people seek would not exist without the cultural problems which are causing people to seek it. Cronon sums up this arguement when he states:

Wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilisation that has lost its soul. It is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives. Most of all, it is the landscape of authenticity…it is the place where we can see the world as it really is, and so know ourselves as we really are – or ought to be. (Cronon, 2002)
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