The Fear We Have To Be ‘Of’ Nature

Creative Commons photo.

I was giggling over my first cup of coffee on this fine Saturday morning, as I was reminded again of how I fraught our relationship to capital “n” Nature is, which is in actuality, a fraught relationship with ourselves. I was reading The Marginalian’s piece about artist Nina Katchadourian’s beautiful (seriously, check it out here) art made out of scraps, such as used N-95 masks and breaking down Styrofoam, amid the initial COVID-19 lockdown, and Maria Popova offered this lovely verse from Denise Levertov:

We call it “Nature”; only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be “Nature” too.

You know, as I think about it, I’ve always seen this reluctance as arrogance, an expression of our basest anthropocentrism. In other words, situating human beings as above nature rather of nature. But as I read that lovely verse, Levertov reoriented my thinking (the use of “reluctantly” is significant here): Perhaps it is not so much arrogance that makes us reluctant to understand ourselves as of Nature, but fear, maybe even insecurity? Because if we are of Nature, then it can engender a sense of smallness, in either direction of the scale, from the sun to the atom, what is the human as part of nature comparatively? And interestingly, the inverse is actually true for the prior formulation: If there is a dominant one in our relationship to Nature, it is Nature itself, not us. After all, as I was reminded by a D.H. Lawrence quote also from The Marginalian (and is of course, applicable in other contexts), “Brute force crushes many plants. Yet plants rise again. The Pyramids will not last a moment compared with the daisy.” Lawrence’s comments were in the context of entropy, that the arc of existence bends toward disorder and “falling apart.” More to the point, Nature will outlast humans. Sure, Nature will eventually fall apart, too, but we’re closer to that finish line — that event horizon — than Nature is.

When thinking on that virtually unfathomable scale, again, humans seem rather small and insignificant. At least, some would think as much. Even on the global scale of saving the Earth from the ravages of climate change, greatly accelerated by our activities, the better orientation is really about saving us (and other life forms). The Earth — Nature — will “find a way,” as they say. It will reconstitute itself into a new paradigm, to paraphrase a stand-up bit from George Carlin. The problematic fact is that we can’t assume the new paradigm would include us (and other life forms), if we don’t do something to reverse climate change, or adapt to it, as it were.

But to bring it back to less serious waters, I also chuckled at the Levertov line because humans often think in terms of “natural” versus “artificial,” with a propensity to confer positive connotations (such as healthier) on the former and negative connotations (such as unhealthy) on the latter. Without necessarily opining on the connotations, I would say that this is another small way of bringing humans outside of Nature. How could it be that humans, who are of Nature, could devise something that is artificial? Are not the elements comprising the “artificial” also of Nature, constituted of that found in Nature? That may be a superficial, silly point, but I always found that distinction to be odd and it occurred to me as another plank in the existential fear we have in thinking of ourselves as of Nature.

Anyhow, it is time for me to rise and retrieve a second cup of coffee. I have no natural (heh) ending point, but I suppose due to entropy, this blog post itself will get there eventually.

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