Nature And Us Essay


Nature
    Nature is the world around us, except for human-made phenomena. As humans are the only animal species that consciously, powerfully manipulates the environment, we think of ourselves as exalted, as special. We acknowledge that in an objective view we are merely one of many organisms, and that we are not able to survive outside of our natural world of air, earth, water and life. But we tend to be poor leaders in the "hierarchy" of animal life. Despite our greatness, too often we waste, we fight, we breed heedlessly, and are too self-centered and short-sighted. I take note of the increasing awareness of ecology, at least in Western culture, and am heartened. We may still change our weapons of war into tools of peace, and our habits of despoilation into nuturing.
    Earth is so large, that even if humans destroy ourselves, plus most other life forms, there will still be nature. The soil, oceans, atmosphere and weather would still interact with solar power to allow some life to exist. Earth cannot be a barren place like the moon. Humans can, then, reduce our planetary paradise into a hell of sorts, but cannot, I believe, destroy the planet itself.
    This thought, sober and gloomy, is a modern one; in earlier ages it is unlikely that people contemplated ourselves wiping-out most life on earth. I don't know why I brought it to the forefront of my nature essay. It does offer a perspective.
    Nature's life forces, as well as its winds, eruptions, quakes, avalanches, freezes, etc., is immensely powerful. I recall being allowed to study revegetation on the freshly-erupted Mt. St. Helens. It was more than 10 years ago, so my memory has retained only a few observations: life was strongest near water sources, and the weediest plants were most successful in revegetating the barren gray ash. Mosses tolerant of Seattle's freeway cracks grew on the loose sand and ash. Fireweed, which thrives after forest fires, clear-cuts and bombed sites, was abundant. If memory serves, scientists in general expressed pleased surprise at the rapidity of revegetation.

    Even in this age of high-technology, where many people who live in cities and work full-time with computers see but little nature intimately -- at least we all are still aware of the weather and the seasons. We all know that a short, rainy winter day is less pleasant than a warm sunny June day. Most of us are cheered at the return of spring, and we mostly have certain pleasant or striking memories we associate with each season.
    My awareness of nature was at this relatively normal level until high school. I recall as an 8th grade student, that nature was wholly unappealing to me. I liked sports, music, comic books, stamp collecting, and whatnot. Trees were trees, grass was grass, flowers were flowers and weeds were weeds. But by the time I was in 10th grade, and especially 11th grade, I had been affected profoundly by nature awareness. I went from a normal worldview to one wherein the value of being aware of and appreciative of nature was a centerpiece. In retrospect, this was the pivotal transformation of my life.
    In high school I went from just another one of the guys into a person whose passion and livelihood became nature. The process was begun, I think, by my having read Thoreau's Walden. I did this because I was exhorted to do so by an influential 8th grade teacher, George Hofbauer. Walden affected me, as I was at that ripe, receptive, impressionable age. In turn I read other authors: Emerson, Goethe, Voltaire, Carlyle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Schopenhauer, Pascal, Montaigne, etc. A common theme in all the writings was the importance of nature, of calmly reflecting, and of thinking for oneself. Goethe wrote:

    The thoughtful man's greatest comfort
    is to have explored what can be known
    and to worship the unfathomable quietly.

    I began meditating under trees, listening to birds, tasting wild berries, and finding joy and excitement, meaning and inspiration. My self-confidence boomed, my sense of being an individual blossomed. I began designing a custom meal for myself from the menu of life.
    The awareness of natural beauty was like a revelation. I looked at, and experienced, all manner of organisms, and light. Rainfall or windstorms became celebratory. At the time I had boundless ambition and wanted to learn the names and attributes of all the birds, butterflies, spiders, insects, seashells, plants, stars and constellations -- etc. It was a kind of euphoria. I saw the utility of such knowledge, too. How to raise vegetables and berries, and which plants in the wild were edible, appealed greatly to me. I began gardening. At the time I thought I'd grow up, move to the country, and be self-sufficient. I kept a journal in which I recorded plant flowering dates, and all my natural history observations. I gave up my hobbies of basketball, stamp collecting and the like. By and by my love of plants outgrew my interest in other aspects of natural history.
    I learned a whale of a lot about plant life in Seattle. I learned in an intimate way, from keen curiosity, combined with lengthy hours spent outdoors. I became an expert without even trying, by just pursuing my inclinations. The principles of life, previously mere broad abstractions to me, became plainly clear. I saw firsthand how environment and genetics, together, affect life. I saw nature's pace -- before I'd only considered humanity's.
    When these and many other observations crystallized in my mind, the result was my sense of having a coherent, logical philosophy. I felt grounded. From nature study, then, I developed my critical faculties, I gained practical information, derived inspiration and joy, and welded my personal worldview. Nature, plus the wise words I'd read from writers of the past, were my sources. My schooling was typical; all that really sets me apart is owed to what I did on my own.
    This in not an unmitigated plus. When one has an odd perspective, and so sees things in a rare way, communicating with others of more traditional or conventional outlook can be difficult. For example, if I believe the soil is sacred, and yet the prevailing assumption is that it is dirt -- we're worlds apart from compromise.
    Some people, Buddhists example, revere all life and will go to considerable lengths to end none. So they won't swat mosquitoes, don't eat meat, etc. Again, I look at the whole realm of living nature as one big biological web or food chain, with herbivores, carnivores and omnivores. As such, I have no philosophic qualms about taking life: I might eat a catfish for lunch; a lion might eat me for dinner. I do earnestly respect life, and agree to not wantonly destroy it. But to not squish mosquitoes or step on slugs is going too far for my sense of practical living.
    I would prefer that people based their philosophies more on nature study and reflection, rather than nearly wholly on what their parents or influential peers tell them. But the weight of tradition is on the side of relatively uncritical acceptance of whatever one's mainstream society believes in.
    The thought processes, and inspiration brought about by nature, are available to humans who study the wild, or tame nature. Just having a pet goldfish and some houseplants is better than no experience at all. And one can have a small garden, not need a wilderness experience, to be fed physically and mentally. I would go so far as to say humans have an instinctive need for nature, since we evolved under its influences. So to live, say, in a cave, with only artificial light, and only human-made objects, would be a severe strain. Along this line, the sterility of hospital rooms is frightful -- I am glad about the emergence of "horticultural therapy" and the like.
    One of my motives in sharing what I've learned from nature study is to help empower others. Even if a person doesn't find nature effective for inspiration or education, it is good to "strike it off the list of possibilities" and go on to sample something else, such as religion, art, work, etc. Find your love in life and pursue it passionately.



“I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists.”  The beauty of nature can have a profound effect upon our senses, those gateways from the outer world to the inner, whether it results in disbelief in its very existence as Emerson notes, or feelings such as awe, wonder, or amazement.  But what is it about nature and the entities that make it up that cause us, oftentimes unwillingly, to feel or declare that they are beautiful?

One answer that Emerson offers is that “the simple perception of natural forms is a delight.”  When we think of beauty in nature, we might most immediately think of things that dazzle the senses – the prominence of a mountain, the expanse of the sea, the unfolding of the life of a flower.  Often it is merely the perception of these things itself which gives us pleasure, and this emotional or affective response on our part seems to be crucial to our experience of beauty.  So in a way there is a correlate here to the intrinsic value of nature; Emerson says:

the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves

Most often, it seems to me, we find these things to be beautiful not because of something else they might bring us – a piece of furniture, say, or a ‘delicacy’ to be consumed – but because of the way that the forms of these things immediately strike us upon observation. In fact, one might even think that this experience of beauty is one of the bases for valuing nature – nature is valuable because it is beautiful.

Emerson seems to think that beauty in the natural world is not limited to certain parts of nature to the exclusion of others. He writes that every landscape lies under “the necessity of being beautiful”, and that “beauty breaks in everywhere.”  As we slowly creep out of a long winter in the Northeast, I think Emerson would find the lamentations about what we have ‘endured’ to be misguided:

The inhabitants of the cities suppose that the country landscape is pleasant only half the year….To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.

The close observer of nature sees a river in constant flux, even when the river’s water is frozen and everything appears to be static and unchanging for a time. Nature can reveal its beauty in all places and at all times to the eye that knows how to look for it. We can hear Emerson wrangle with himself on this very point in the words of this journal entry:

At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog, and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice?  Here is a new scene, a new experience.  Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world, hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Niagara.

MS Am 1280.235 (706.3E) Houghton Library

So if we’re sympathetic to the idea that nature, or aspects of it, are beautiful, we might ask ourselves why we experience nature in this way.  Emerson says that nature is beautiful because it is alive, moving, reproductive.  In nature we observe growth and development in living things, contrasted with the static or deteriorating state of the vast majority of that which is man-made.  More generally, he writes:  “We ascribe beauty to that which…has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things”.  He cites natural structures as lacking superfluities, an observation that in general has been confirmed by the advancement of biology.  Furthermore, he says that whether talking about a human artifact or a natural organism, any increase of ability to achieve its end or goal is an increase in beauty.  So in Emerson we might find the resources for seeing evolution and the drive to survive as a beautiful rather than an ugly process, governed by laws that tend to increase reproductive fitness and that we can understand through observation and inquiry.  And lastly, Emerson points to the relation between what we take to be an individual and the rest of nature as a quality of the beautiful.  This consists in the “power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality.”  In nature one doesn’t come across individuals that are robustly independent from their environment; rather things are intimately interconnected with their surroundings in ways that we don’t fully understand.

Nothing is quite beautiful alone:  nothing but is beautiful in the whole.

All of these qualities of beauty seem to go beyond the mere impression of sensible forms that we started with, and what they require is what also served as the basis of truth and goodness in nature.

MS Am 1280.235 (708) Houghton LibraryIn addition to the immediate experience of beauty based in perception, Emerson suggests that the beauty of the world may also be viewed as an object of the intellect.  He writes that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things.”  In other words, we can also experience the world as beautiful because of its rational structure and our ability to grasp that structure through thought.  Think for instance of the geometric structure of a crystal, or snowflake, or nautilus shell.  Or consider the complexity of the fact that the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone National Park changed the course of the rivers due to a chain reaction of cause and effect through the food web, a process called a trophic cascade.  This reinforces Emerson’s emphasis on the interconnection between all members of the natural world; as observers of nature we are confronted with one giant, complex process that isn’t of our own making, but that we can also understand, and get a mental grasp on, even if only partially, and be awe-struck in that process of understanding.

There is thus an emotional or affective component in the beauty of the intellect just as there is in the immediate beauty of perception.  If we destroy the natural world, we take away the things that we can marvel at and experience awe towards in these two ways.  And this experience of the beautiful through the intellect may reinforce our attributing value to nature here as well, but a deeper kind of value, the intrinsic value I talked about in the last essay.  Here it is not only that nature is valuable because it is beautiful, but nature is beautiful because it possesses intrinsic value, grounded in its intelligible structure.  Thus we see a close parallel between goodness and beauty in nature.  We can find an objective basis for goodness and beauty in nature, namely its intelligible structure, but also see that nature is valuable and beautiful for us, with the particular apparatus that nature has given us for navigating our way through the world.

So that which is the basis of truth in nature and provides it with intrinsic value is also that which makes it beautiful.  Emerson himself ties these three aspects of nature into one package himself:

He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye, because it expresses a thought which is to him good:  and this, because of the same power which sees through his eyes, is seen in that spectacle

This is the unified philosophy of nature that I set out to explicate in the first essay – nature is the source of truth, goodness, and beauty, because of its intelligible structure, and because of its production of organisms that can recognize that structure, us.  And this view of nature includes an inherent call to protect that which is true, good, and beautiful.  These are the things that we as human beings are searching for, are striving after, and yet they’re right in front of us if only we would listen with our ear to the earth.

Although I’ve been advocating an approach to nature based on its intelligibility, we are far from tying down the giant that is nature with our minds. Emerson writes that “the perception of the inexhaustibleness of nature is an immortal youth.”  Although we shall continue to try to uncover nature’s secrets, let us also continue to take pleasure in our immediate encounter with her. Let us continue to be awe-struck, like the child on the seashore, or clambering up a tree. Let us hold onto that experience, and fight for the environment that makes it possible, both for the child in each of us, and for those that come after us.


Michael welcomes correspondence, and can be reached at mpopejoy@fas.harvard.edu. His series "Emerson and the Environment" is part of a larger project which was awarded a Student Sustainability Grant. Quotations taken from Emerson’s journals, his book Nature, and his essays ‘Nature’, ‘Art’, ‘Beauty’,  and  ‘Spiritual Laws.' He is happy to provide more specific source information for the quotations.

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