Retrospective: "What Is Nature"

Thirteen years ago I wrote an essay called “What is Nature” for a Plants and People class at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Sometimes we experience education as so much more than monotone teachers and squeaky chalk, deadlines, and too much coffee. Sometimes, a true epiphany clicks into place and we’re never the same. Working out my ethos through this assignment produced one such epiphany. Though I used to write less skillfully and with way too many passive verbs, 😉 this essay nonetheless proved foundational for years of study to come. It’s with nostalgic retrospection that I share this essay with you:

We’ve created a word: “nature.” It is a confusing word in a confusing language, a reflection of our problematic understanding of the universe. Trying to grasp what Nature is mean we must go beyond our western use of the word. There are four different questions within this exploration – First, why do so many people feel separate from Nature? ARE humans and their creations part of it? What IS Nature? And why are we trying to figure it all out, anyway? Reviewing how we use language, as well as looking to Easter thought, Native American thought, and Western science help us understand Nature. Nature is not simply a definition for all that is non-human. Although we are destructive beings, we have not escaped the realm of nature. We are Nature, and it is us.

Language is one reason we feel separate from Nature. This is obvious just in the fact that we have a word like “nature,” and that we use this word to define something that’s separate from ourselves. We’ll often say how much we love to be “out in nature.” This is a linguistic distinction, to explain locations and describe an area. But to truly analyze what Nature is, we can leave this practical definition behind. As Zen Master Thich Naht Hahn says,

“We have grown used to a way of thinking and expressing ourselves that is based on the idea that everything is independent of everything else. This way of thinking and speaking makes it difficult to penetrate non-dualistic reality… a reality which cannot be contained in concept.”

Using the word “nature” to describe something non-human creates polarity, and therefore distracts us from realizing that we ARE part of it. This tendency towards dualism seems inherent in our language. Birth-death, male-female, light-dark, inside-outside, civilized-wild, human-non-human. To understand the effect of dualism, the yin-yang is a perfect example. It represents how one whole is made up of dual forces. For example, when a tree falls, we call this death. But he life continues, and as a nurse log, she re-forms into smaller trees. We call this birth. These labels make it black and white, when in fact there’s lots of gray in-between. In observing the dualism we cannot deny the interconnectedness. Just as we can’t have birth without death, we can’t have people without Nature.


Getting past these cultural limitations of our understanding is the first step to seeing that we are, indeed, Nature. So about those strip malls… Is Wal-Mart nature? And the tree farms and managed forests and organic farms? Are our creations part of Nature?

Our gut reaction is to label them as unnatural because they’ve been manipulated human, but manipulation itself is not unnatural. Out creations are manipulated in the same way bees make their hives and birds their nests. In the dead of night, I once drove through Chicago’s silent, towering buildings. Though skyscrapers are often thought of as unnatural, I suddenly realized that they looked exactly like termite mounds, those tan mounds with little black windows. Our disgust with manipulation is that we hate to admit how parasitic we are, but no one can deny that termites or tapeworms are natural.
We also ten to label things as unnatural when they’re destructive, since we idealize nature as “good” and “harmonious.” It’s hard to see the earth trashed and disrespected. Though Wal-Mart is painfully destructive, exploitive, and ugly, it still sings of nature. It’s not hard to see that nature has its “dark” side. Lions eating zebras is natural. Devastating floods are natural. Destructive volcanoes spewing their gases into the atmosphere are natural. Wal-Mart is just as natural.


Reflecting on our Interconnectedness with Nature, it helps to understand the Eastern way of thinking. The Chinese word for Nature is zi-ran, meaning “self-thus.” This outlook clearly includes humans. As Baba Ram Dass says,

“If you can get into that place where you see the interrelatedness of EVERYTHING, and you see the ones in it all, then no longer are you attached to your polarized position, and you start to live in the Tao, (the Way).”

Native American though is also helpful to understand that we are part of nature. Imagine living in a tent made of buffalo skin, eating gathered plants and hunted animals, and sleeping under blankets of buffalo hide. Their way of life as natural being was clearly dependent, and NOT independent, of the earth. They celebrated this Interconnectedness. Even today, when we buy blankets from Wal-Mart, we’re still utterly dependent on the earth from our living needs. Is a child ever separation from her mother? Though she may move away from her mother, she will always e of the same flesh and blood..

Science has also revealed this same Interconnectedness. One thing I’ll never forget from high schools science is how Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. No matter what form it’s in, it’s always been there, and always will be. Wal-Mart’s concrete walls, neon lights and for sale signs are composed of molecules and atoms, which are vast empty spaces in perpetual movement at incredible speeds. That’s the stuff this universe is made of.

Science has also led us to understand that there are continuing patterns of the universe, connecting seemingly different forms on a structural level. When I see pictures of spiraling galaxies I’m struck by how much they resemble a tornado, a whirlpool of water, and our own DNA. Swirling fractals appear in trees, crystals, and blood vessels. Intricate mandalas are found in atoms, flowers, and spider webs. Structurally there are obvious connections, just like how Chicago can be seen as termite mounds. Even our seemingly “unnatural” cities are in the same natural patterns, though it’s hard to see it from the inside.


So just what is it that we’re a part of? What is Nature? Can it be described in words? One way I help myself understand the Interconnectedness and Oneness of it all, is to become aware of the roar of the world. The scream of the highways, the cry of babies, the murmur of men, the gushing of waterfalls, the thunder of airplanes, the rush of the wind. Step back until you can hear it all, together it is Noise. Together it is one.

The sound of Nature, of the Tao, the Universe, is OM. Om-ing is one of the closest ways to clear you mind and ego, letting yourself feel that you are One. It’s a good exercise to know what Nature is, because it reduces the noise in your head that makes you feel so individual, and allows you to meditate on the collective All.

Such exercises are key ways to feel what Nature is. But to describe it, in our faulty language, I’d use words like Energy, Vibration, Rhythm, Song, Dance, and Flow. These are powerful words that reflect the power of Nature, but they must be thought of as all encompassing to really be understood. What is Nature? – It is the Eternal Human. It is the Dance of Everything. It is the Whole


So why and I sitting here trying to define the indefinable? So we can understand the implications of using words like “natural,” “unnatural,” “man-made,” and “non-human.” These words are a way we justify our destructiveness. When we feels what Nature is, we become aware that in hurting the water, air, and soils, we hurt ourselves, both physically and spiritually. Realizing this leads us to a more holistic (WHOLE-istic) approach to life, in which we can make life choices about our food, shelter, clothing, and transportation to be less destructive.

Whether ignorantly hurting ourselves, or mindfully treading lightly, humans are all part of Nature, for nothing can escape being part of the Whole.

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