“That we have feelings (sentiments) about nature demonstrates that we are separated from it (her?).” Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth.
I haven’t read the entire book yet, but this statement leapt out at me and I wanted to take it out of context and poke it a bit. Largely I agree with it, as it stands, with some caveats. As soon as we define ‘nature’ as being a thing, that is not us, all we can do is believe we stand on the outside and either ignore it, or have feelings about it. If nature is other, we cannot see ourselves as participants.
A lot of the language around nature is incredibly binary. Culture and the intellect are set up in opposition to what is allowed to be ‘natural’. As soon as dirty human hands have violated the pristine, virgin landscape (and I use those words very deliberately) then it isn’t pure nature anymore and further despoiling is fine. Progress is at odds with nature. Technology is at odds with nature. Humanity is at odds with nature. Art is at odds with nature because art is artifice and nature is real. The only state we allow ourselves to imagine as natural, is naked, devoid of language and eating berries.
With ‘nature’ set up this way, how can any modern human consider what is natural to be available to them? Nature is all the things you have to get away from in order to make life bearable. This causes us all manner of problems.
Ants farm fungi, build huge nests and modify their environments. Bees and wasps undertake amazing construction work. Birds make nests, some of them incredibly ornate. There are many animals who craft homes and shelters underground. Hermit crabs use empty shells, octopi make portable houses out of coconut shells. Trees emit chemicals into the air and soil to help modify their surroundings to their advantage. From the tiniest organisms to the largest, life does what it can to manage its immediate environment for its own benefit. Nature innovates, and anything that can do better than silent berry eating, does better. We aren’t the only communicative species.
Half of the problem with talking about ‘nature’ is that to discuss all of existence as though its just one thing is incredibly reductive. What troubles me about Mr Bate’s statement is the idea that as soon as you have a feeling relationship, you are on the outside, and I think that’s wrong. When you can only have feelings about nature as an abstract idea, you are on the outside. When you care about this hill, that tree, these flowers, the birds in this valley, this stream, it’s an entirely different process. If you are depending on something, for food, or shelter, of course you care about its existence. Perhaps not in a conscious or benevolent way, but it’s still a form of care. To assume that we alone are capable of caring about nature and this only because we are outside of it, is a lot of assuming as an opening gambit.
If you’ve ever watched a cat rolling in the sun, or a horse rolling in the grass, or a dog frisking about in water, or a crow riding the wind, or a buzzard on the thermals, it is difficult to hold onto the idea that the rest of nature is all about the mechanics of survival. Watch any creature long enough and you’ll see it doing things just because it can, because it enjoys doing it, not because it serves some evolutionary function. Watch a cow come out onto grass for the first time in the spring, and you’ll be hard put to suggest that cows don’t care about grass, or have any feelings.
To hold feelings about any other living thing is not an act of separation, or proof of not being natural. Probably the only truly unnatural thing we do as humans is to imagine, foolishly and arrogantly, that we are somehow on the outside in anything other than our own imaginations.