The Nature of Nature: a brief inquiry?


Here’s a scene from nature that many will recognise. The setting sun, the colour-smeared sky and birds passing to roost. Actually a flock of cranes, wild clarion-voiced migrants from the north. But here’s the thing – which parts of this scene are also parts of nature, and which are not?

The cranes – one of Europe’s ultimate symbols of wilderness – for sure. But what about the clouds and the air, that mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, at a ratio of about 4:1 parts, then there’s the condensed moisture of the clouds and what about that big bright falling star, whose light takes just over eight minutes to reach Earth from its place at the heart of our solar system 150 million kilometres away? Aren’t these more intangible elements also parts of nature too?

Then what about this scene below. _DSC4972

Which of these details are ‘natural’? The ducks, ok. But the glass bottles are derived from the commonest element on Earth, silicon, while the discarded plastic, the human-made scourge of our modern oceans, is ultimately made from carbon laid down in the rotting forests of the Carboniferous?

And if we are not sure if they are all parts of nature what about this scene? Liverpool Street is both a marvel and the kind of ‘environment’ that drives me instantly back to the sticks where I live. Yet, isn’t it – aren’t we humans – at some level, representative of the same vibrant life as shown in the first image?  IMG_4950

The reason I ask the questions is because I was recently at an event at the Green Party conference in Bristol. It was a panel discussion entitled ‘For love of nature’. (I must first say that it gave me an opportunity to meet two heroes. Caroline Lucas, one of the great parliamentarians of our time,  carries upon her shoulders the political aspirations of the 500,000+ people who voted for her party last year. And what about the 2015 election when the Green Party got 1.3 million votes and we still have to rely on this one remarkable woman to make our case in the House of Commons). Hey ho.

Also there was Jonathon Porritt, whom I have listened to and been inspired by since I was in my twenties. Present on the panel were the hugely impressive Mary Colwell (twixt Caroline and Jonathon) and Laura Mackenzie of the Soil Association: far right. (And me looking rather tired after 136 nights on the road or may be it was the night before at Tim Dee’s bat cave, celebrating his fabulous new book Landfill!)Conference nature panel

What was striking about the event, which was packed and hugely stimulating, was that each of us made a case for nature, but each of us had different versions of what we meant by ‘nature’.

A good example came from Mary, who has written a superb book Curlew Moon on the plight of this wader, which is now threatened with extinction in these islands, and whose decline partly results from predation. (At the Bird Fair in August, where we spoke on a similar panel, Mary made a brave case for the need for predator control if we really want to retain our curlews. I think she’s right but not everyone on that panel would have been in agreement.)

The point, however, is that ‘nature’ in her presentation was the stuff we could see through the window, largely in green. And a big part of her campaigning this year is for a GCSE that focuses on that kind of nature. The things – animals, plants etc – which require species recognition and which were once the staples of the school nature table.

In contrast Jonathon and Laura talked mainly about it in terms of the carbon content of our cropped lands . This has been terribly depleted by intensive agriculture. They also focused on agrochemicals and the threats they pose to soil structure and microbial content. Equally they spoke of how carbon leached from the land was then added to the sum of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which, as we all know, drives global climate change.

My own version of nature was, of course, partly centred on those things visible through the window. The nature out there that referred to as ‘wildlife’. But I made a plea for recognising a wider version that included the gut flora present in every single one of the people that was there, that included the ancient Carboniferous sunlight as expressed in the electric lights overhead, and included the paper on which all participants were busy scribbling. I suggested that we have to see ourselves as part of nature because only by owning and recognising our participation in the wider, larger nutrient cycles described by Jonathon or Laura can we start to own our responsibilities for the rest of life.

The central point to make, however, is that each was talking about quite complex but separate versions and it struck me that the confusion and imprecision as we speak of our ‘love of nature’ are a problem and challenge.

There are broadly two campaigning groups in British environmentalism and they focus on

1. non-human nature (ie wildlife) and what you might call

2. ‘human nature’, or perhaps more precisely the parts of nature in which humans play major ecological roles (climate change, nutrient cycles, plastic pollution etc) .

1. and 2. are represented by the Wildlife Trusts and Friends of the Earth.

Here’s a picture to summarise both. The red colour behind the tree was the side of a metal container lorry. Which part of nature do you see? The relentless human traffic in the Earth’s resources as part of our global economy, or the spectral outline of a photosynthesising, oxygen-producing plant?_DSC5248

I think we need some baseline clarity on what we mean when we talk about nature, instead of talking past one another – even among friends – with our overlapping but separate versions of the whole process. We have to see ourselves as within nature which is the key starting place for people like Laura Mackenzie and Jonathon Porritt. Those who focus on nature as ‘out there’, like Mary Colwell and me, need to start talking about nature that includes ourselves.

I suppose the best single illustration of that specific issue is the strapline currently used by the RSPB, ‘giving nature a home’. No one sensible would question the organisation’s commitment and championship of nature. Yet in these 4 words are summarised a fundamental schism between us and nature that dates back to the Old Testament and which some see as the core of our problematic relationship with the rest of life. We can no more give nature a home than we can separate ourselves from the carbon cycle that  drives climate change. We and it are part of one process.

Similarly those organisations and individuals who take enormous pains to recycle, or to avoid flying, or campaign on climate change; equally those newspapers or TV correspondents that talk about the ‘environment’ and ‘environmental issues’ when they really only mean issues that entail human ecological processes (nature 2), and have almost no awareness or concern for species loss and wildlife depletion;  they need to recognise that their version of nature is partial too.

The day is almost done here in Claxton. So here is nature in all its complexity: con trail and ivy tod, pyrrocantha and carbon consumption. I will add finally that my friend Jeremy Mynott is working on a book about the nature of nature. We need it urgently. Because when we talk of nature we need to know  precisely what we mean.




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  1. Plenty to think about here. Perhaps I’ll have to read Jeremy Mynott’s book before I plunge into the argument. I hope he publishes it soon!


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