Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Unnatural Nature

What is “nature?”

Recently I’ve been noticing that some of my favorite nature spots are not sprawling wilderness. They are sites with a history of heavy human activity. When I was in my hometown of Nashville, Arkansas, recently, I walked most days on the “nature trail” at the City Park. It is a beautiful half-mile trail that meanders through an overgrown pecan grove, by a lazy creek, and past an old cow pasture. The land was a farm once, and the landowner donated the land to the park. There are places along the asphalt trail to stop and read signs about how to look for and appreciate nature, even among the carefully planted rows of pecan trees.

Closer to home, I love to walk on the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where I work. There is no place around here more serene, at least outside of tourist season. There are pastures, woods, a creek, and small, picturesque hills. I never fail to see a myriad of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and sometimes deer. But these trails are part of a so-called commemorative landscape covered with monuments to Union and Confederate units. The ground is soaked in the blood of tens of thousands of soldiers who died in a brutal three-day battle. And, if you'll notice in the photo, there are plenty of con trails in the clear blue skies overhead.

"Flower in a Sidewalk Crack", by Fuzzy Gerdes (unaltered), CC BY 2.0
If these two places qualify as “nature,” then what about the garden in my backyard? And if that qualifies, what about potted garden plants on an urban balcony? Or the tuft of grass that sticks out of an urban sidewalk crack and provides cover for the occasional beetle? Or a zoo full of wildlife?

Google provides the following definition of nature: “the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.” Hmm. That definition disqualifies all of the above, which are human creations - or, perhaps, places where the physical world struggles to exist in spite of human interference.

Earthlights 1994-95, captured by NASA
Every geological epoch is given a name to reflect the major occurrences of that period. Although the international bodies that decide these things have not approved it, the current age has been unofficially named the Anthropocene to convey the great impact that humans have had on the earth since our existence. When you think about it, there is hardly any aspect or location of nature that has not been impacted by humans. We have changed the soil, air, water, atmosphere, and seismic activity of this planet. We have changed the genetic structure of plants and animals. We have moved into almost every territory. A CNN travel article online, entitled “10 of the World’s Last Great Wilderness Areas,” includes hotel recommendations for each of them!

So does that mean the whole planet can no longer be considered “nature?” Of course not.

I like that we call the unnatural “nature.” It reminds me that nature is all around us and that we are part of nature as well. It shows me that we don’t have to go to great pains to go out into nature; instead we can begin to appreciate nature as it exists around us. It suggests to me that the kind of human-nature integration that we think only occurred in the past, or is now only accessible to indigenous peoples and hermits, can be ours, too, if we simply decide to slow down and pay attention to what is all around us.


  1. Once again, Amy, you have really found an interesting topic to explore, and I came away thinking about nature in a new way. I love it!