Tidiness, nature, and civilization

The human urge to tidy things up has us cutting hedges into smooth edges, trimming verges so as to take out all the wildflowers and generally destroying habitats. What is this urge to be tidy and how do we get rid of it so that we stop needlessly killing wildlife?

Neatness, order, straight lines, square corners – these are not things we generally find in nature but that humans create and impose. You will likely decide at a glance whether a place is natural or human-made, and the straight lines, tidy edges and whether there are obviously dead things will inform that decision. We like to tidy away the dead things, even trees when they fall down in woods. A dead tree is an amazing source of life and habitat for many other species. We do massive damage when we remove them. But, decay, and death are considered unsightly, so aren’t civilized or tidy.

When we force a straight line, or cut back a verge, we’re asserting a human presence into the landscape. Bringing order to the chaos of nature is a project that goes with owning the land, controlling what’s around us and valuing some things more than others. We use ‘straight’ as a word both to indicate honesty, and heterosexuality and I don’t think this is a coincidence. We call things wild in a human context often to judge them. Tidiness is something we treat as a virtue and seek to install in our children.

We’ve had hundreds of years, if not longer, of telling ourselves that being tidy is an expression of being civilized. The uncut lawn doesn’t say ‘home for insects’ to us. It says ‘lazy and uncivilised and a mess’. And so we cut things back that aren’t causing us any real problems. We strim and trim, and take away the dead heads.

Unfortunately, as human influence dominates and wildness becomes ever more threatened, our urge to tidy is simply an urge to destroy. It’s not the tiny, puny humans versus the wilderness any more. We tame and train our landscapes and in the process, we kill so much that should be in them. What we make when we do this is often ugly, sterile and joyless. The cityscapes that we make as ultimate expressions of tidy civilization lack soul, and are not good habitats for humans. We need softness too. We need living green growth, and at least some element of unpredictability.

We need to stop complaining about things that look untidy, and start celebrating the beauty of nature. Nature isn’t tidy. But when you think about the mathematical elegance of the Fibonacci sequence, it’s also clear that nature has a good deal more to offer than the banality of our straight lines and tightly clipped lawns.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

10 responses to “Tidiness, nature, and civilization

  • Buzzard

    Hello Nimue…
    I have in fact noticed around my local area an abstinence of a need to cut back verges creating beautiful pockets of sustainable habitat for insects and wildlife!!
    I do applaud my local authority.
    I do feel that it maybe a small step in trying to correct the damage done over many years.
    At a local NT site… Scotney Castle, they discovered by mistake whilst not cutting an area that had been cut back for years the Near threatened Green Winged Orchids!
    This is now managed for the orchids.
    Inspired by this I left my own patch to grow “wild” but, alas no orchids!


  • Wrycrow

    My flowerbeds are full of what others may call weeds, my lawn a glorious patchwork of clover, dandelion, moss and plantain, my hedge an explosion of ash, hazel, brambles and cow parsley, and the garden is always full of birds, squirrels, insects, hedgehogs, frogs and more. It’s not neat and tidy, but I love it.

  • Yvonne Ryves

    I have a garden with no straight lines and lots of wildness, it’s been intentionally that way from the time we moved here 20 years ago. As we get older the grass gets less and the wild areas grow. What I love is how it changes over time, how different grasses appear, new flowers, plants, things we certainly didn’t put there, how rabbits, birds and other wildlife make their homes here. That it all does it’s own thing fills me with joy 🙂

  • lornasmithers

    I feel like sending this to my local council!

  • Aurora J Stone

    This is a call to inaction, as it were. A call to let nature be natural. A bit of managed chaos is no bad thing, in one’s back garden where no one sees but the birds, creatures, sun and rain.

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