Monday, June 22, 2009

Western Culture & Nature. Us & That or Us& Us?

steve colmbia darvall - -s40523916

as the crickets soft autumn hum is to us,
so r we to the trees,
as are they to the rocks and the hills.

.gary snyder.

Nature. Human nature. Bee nature. Arctic fox nature. Whale nature. Fungi nature. Red cedar nature. The nature of light. The nature of air. The nature of dust. The nature of soil. The nature of Earth. The nature of galaxy. The nature of gravity. The nature of universes. The common theme amongst these pieces of existence is nature. Although obviously a part of it (this article leans towards this assumption heavily) humans tend to perceive nature distinct from themselves. Especially in the current dominant culture on Earth, that is, Western civilization.

The following will discuss that beast that is Western Civilization and its general perception and attitude towards nature, what nature means to the majority of the people within and musings on what this may imply.

A recent online article entitled Guns, not charm, expel snakes from police station (Reuters, 2009) serves as a good introduction to the mainstream's view of nature. The final paragraph reports that 'villagers frequently have run-ins with wild animals in areas of the country that were deserted during the years of fighting (Reuters, 2009).' The words here imply a separation between human's and 'wild' animals and the places they inhabit. Places humans are not are deemed deserted and full of wild animals waiting only to have a 'run-in' with humans.

This separation from nonhuman entities, be it animals, rocks, trees, dirt, air or water, is the dominant theme that pervades Western culture and continues to support its movements and actions around the globe. Jane Caputi puts it bluntly by stating that 'to be civilized is to hold oneself in opposition to oneself; to be ashamed of the animality of the self, which to the fully civilized means the "filth" of the self. If we listen to the creatures and to the elements, and even to our bodies, we are then primitive, backwards (Jensen 87)." Where does this civilized belief come from and for that matter, how could anyone possibly be led to believe this?

As Derrick Jensen notes, 'We are embedded in the natural world. We evolved as social creatures in this natural world (Jensen 235)." To say anything less would be ludicrous, yet every moment that passes by, every action that does harm to the planet, every tree felled and mineral mined to be transformed into useless, dead matter is filled to the brim with the exact opposite notion, that is, that we are humans and the rest are resources to be developed. Except for those humans which are seen as resources. From Western culture's point of view, or at least the minority who seem to control it, the majority of humans are nonhuman, resources to develop the minority's resources, whether they are physical or emotional resources.

So where has this belief come from and developed? Ponting theorises that the 'transition to agriculture', perhaps 6000 years ago, from a hunter gathering society was most likely the change (Ponting 37).’ From there, the connection to the land began to dissolve. Towns grew and cities evolved that then began to bring in resources from elsewhere to support its population, essentially taking from others land and disconnecting itself from the land. David Suzuki recalls that his ‘grandparents had no sense of the sacredness of the land…they were too busy making a living (Suzuki 11).’

This then reaches the current world where sustainability is no longer possible within the culture as populations are reliant on other's resources. As a result, the Earth gets consumed. A human's needs have shifted from the land to that of cars, television, gourmet foods, gourmet loves, gourmet everything and all the extremes of technology. People are addicted to consuming and this addiction 'only promises to get worse.' It serves as a temporary filler of the hole, the void, the 'empty self’ that is left when our connection to the Earth and the beauty of life is buried (Gomes & Kanner 78). This empty self identifies with the culture surrounding it, one that is surrounded by steel and concrete, not the beauty of the natural world, and the earth that sired and raised them from the very beginning. 'This split between wild and tame lies at the foundation of both the addictive personality and technological society (Glendinning 53).'

But there is always a chance to realise this beauty, this grace. The blue or grey sky sparkling, the sound of a bird, the kiss of the wind on your skin, the touch of a raindrop, then raindrops, then a torrent, cascading down your face, your entire body, your entire being, your entirety. An entirety that encompasses all.

Jay Griffiths sees that another influence may be that ‘both classical and biblical traditions placed the city as the highest point in a hierarchy of imaginative environments built on wilderness. Culture was decreed as the opposite of nature and to be found in the city (Griffiths 37).’ Another influence may be that ‘Aristotelian knowledge is achieved through observation rather than intuition and stabilized not into a mythology but into an explicit theory (Oelschlaeger 67).’ Both these points stem from the mind separating and labeling what is around itself and placing things in hierarchies and theories, the mind’s realm. This only contributes to one’s perceived separation from nature.

Ralph Metzner sums this up eloquently; ‘Perhaps it would be fair to say that individuals feel unable to respond to the natural world appropriately, because the political, economic, and educational institutions in which we are involved all have this dissociation built into them (Metzner 65).’ The dissociation he refers to is that of humans to nature.

In truth, the causes of the current destructive mindset of many humans is as complex as nature is and is tightly entwined, but that does not mean one should simply dismiss it just because it is impossible to arrive at an objective truth. 'How could we be were it not for this planet that provided our very shape?...We should be thankful for that, and take nature's stricter lessons with some grace (Snyder 29).'

Ecologist Barry Commoner has proposed the 'Four Laws of Ecology'. They are that a) Everything is connected to everything else; b) Everything must go somewhere; c) Nature knows best; d) There is no such thing as a free lunch (Commoner 37). This seems fair enough. Seems again, obvious, even if it is still a human inventing some laws. Most anyone who has spent long periods of time in the wilderness will surely have been taught this, if not in so intellectual terms. One comes to simply know it, sense it, and become it. 'I want the guide of the wild to lead me to see, to touch with all senses the depth that is nature wherever I am (Rothenberg 21).' Nature, the Earth is our teacher.

On the other hand, Western culture has essentially inverted this and offered it up to the masses, which slurp it up. The majority of Western culture teaches that a) nothing is connected, we are all separate. Food is mass consumed with little or no thought as to what it is or where it has come from. It is eaten with no regard for the bodies' nutritional needs, guzzled or smoked down on a whim.
This then leads to b) everything must go somewhere? No, of course that is not true. The food you eat and its toxic filled crusts and skins don't flow into your arteries and innards. Don't even think about it.
c) Nature doesn't know best. We can fix that with genetic meddling and getting as far away from nature as possible. Besides, it’s scary. We don't want to be scared do we?
d) Free lunch? Yes please. No problem. It's a massive planet. We will just take from elsewhere. The distance between here and where we got it feels like it’s free, so let’s embrace that feeling to its fullest. Ahhh.....feels good. Now, no one rock the boat. We mean it, not even a slight movement. We don't want any fresh, vibrant, life supporting water to touch us. Fortunately, the boat will probably rock itself and is already in full swing.

All this perceived separation eventually leads to fear. The universe is an unknown unfolding mystery that cannot be controlled, and since one of the symptoms of separation is the need to control, fear arises. Often this leads to more separation to escape that which is feared, be it internally or externally. This can be seen by the countless acts of violence being perpetrated against the Earth and its inhabitants. It seems to be an ever spiraling chasm.

This attempt at control can also be expressed through those with a ‘positive’ view of nature but is really just another form of separation. Meyer believes that ‘this transformation of the biosphere springs as much from our deliberate efforts to protect and manage the life around us as from our wanton disregard for the environment (Meyer 9)’ There is that separation again trying to protect otherness.

Kathleen Deen gives another angle on a ‘positive’ view of nature and in this case, the Earth and people’s inaction ‘It’s nice to think the Earth is a Mother who will come after us and clean up the mess and protect us from mistakes, and then forgive us the monstrous betrayal. But even mothers can be worn out and used up, and then what happens to her children? (Leguin 67).’ This is an extremely valid point and is reminiscent of religious views of a higher power coming down to save us, redeem us and bring us to the light. Sure, the Earth has been our Mother, but one cannot take, take, and take. There must be an exchange, a codependence in order to sustain the relationship. In other words, it takes two to tango. Or in our case, it takes seven billion to salsa.

But could this be changing? Tim Flannery feels that ‘today that same dark, lurking fear is, I suspect, our best hope for a sustainable future. We have realised that we have no other home than this one, and we cannot remake it to suit ourselves (Flannery 123).’ Humans have backed themselves into a corner and are now forced to look the fear and the root of the fear head on.

‘The wild is not to be feared anymore, but to be loved, savored, enjoyed, inhabited respectfully so that we may ensure its presence long into the future (Rothenberg 14).’

'The physical universe and all its properties' is Gary Snydyer's preference when defining nature and it is this definition that is given experiential meaning when one ventures out into the wilderness. Then the lines, which were separate, begin to blur within the wild area, then the lines blur between the wild of the forest and the wild of the park, the wild of the city, the wild of the parking lot. Although the sense of wildness differs depending on one's surroundings, it could be said that that is yet another separation. As these separations begin to dissolve, perhaps what is left is the 'oneness' and unity that is experienced in religions and many indigenous cultures. It is this oneness and interconnectedness that is nature. Nature at its root level is this sense and it permeates everything. 'In such a world there is no wildness, as there is no tameness (Gomes & Kanner 28)'.

In summary, the above attempts to give a broad look at Western culture's perception and interaction with nature and its home, the Earth. We are inherently linked to the Earth and its complex processes and have been from the beginning of existence to this point, and for who-knows how long into the future, whether humans exist or not.

What is important here is awareness. An awareness of the reality of the now, in the present. An awareness of the planet, the culture you live in, the culture you don't, the land where you live, the land where you don't, the people you care about, the people you don't, the rocks, the air, salt, the soil, the trees, the furry bees, the magpies, the echidnas, the bush turkeys, the mosquitoes, the midges, the rivers, the seas, the dams, the pollution, the deforestation, the extinctions, the loves, the sorrows and the joys.

Contrary to the intellectual discussion above, awareness is simple. All it requires is a choice to be open to what is, what has come before, and what is coming. Forget the rest. The only rest that matters will bubble up from the warming springs that murmur away within, waiting for the debris to be cleared away in one brusque movement.


Commoner, Barry. The Closing Circle : Nature, Man and Technology, New York, Knopf, 1971.

Flannery, Tim. An Explorer's Notebook : Essays on Life, History & Climate, Melbourne, Text Publishing Company, 2007.

Glendinning, Chellis. "Technology, Trauma and the Wild" In Ecospychology : Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. Edited by Gomes M & Kanner A & Roszak T, San Francisco, SierraClub Books, 1995.

Gomes M & Kanner A & Roszak T Eds. Ecospychology : Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1995.

Griffiths, Jay. Wild : An Elemental Journey, London, Penguin Books Ltd, 2006.

Jensen, Derrick. Endgame : Volume 1 : The Problem of Civilization, New York, Seven Stories Press, 2006.

Knudtson P & Suzuki D. Wisdom of the Elders, Toronto, Stoddart Publishing, 1992.

LeGuin, Ursula. "Women/Wildness." In Healing the Wounds. Edited by Judith Plant, Philadelphia, New Society, 1989.

Metzner, Ralph. "The Psychopathology of the Human-Nature Relationship". In " In Ecospychology : Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. Edited by Gomes M & Kanner A & Roszak T, San Francisco, SierraClub Books, 1995.

Meyer, Stephen M. The End of the Wild, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2006.

Oelschlaeger, Max. The Idea of Wilderness, New York, Vail-Ballou Press, 1991.

Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World, Greatish Britain, Penguin Books, 1992.

Rothenberg, David, Ed. Wild Ideas, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Shepard, Paul. "Nature & Madness" In " In Ecospychology : Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. Edited by Gomes M & Kanner A & Roszak T, San Francisco, SierraClub Books, 1995.

Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild, Canada, Harper Collins, 1990.

online resources

Guns, not charm, expel snakes from police station. Accessed 10 June 2009.

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