2019 recommendations

It’s Only Natural

As I’ve written about here before, I am often deeply skeptical of the way we use the word “natural.” I’m thinking in particular of the way it is appended to all kinds of products (food, beauty and cleaning products, and so on) as a kind of code for safe, wholesome, and generally morally superior as well. Part of my objection to this is simply that therm is unregulated, and so it means whatever manufacturers want it to— which is the same as saying that it means nothing. But it also tends to rely on, and so reinforce, a false dichotomy between things that are clearly and simply natural and those that clearly and simply aren’t. “Natural” in this context is at the center of a cluster of related terms, like “processed,” or “artificial,” all of which reflect the idea that human activity, by definition, corrupts or deforms nature, and so the more indications of human activity we can detect in a thing, the worse that thing is.

This is, ironically, a very human-centered way of thinking, because it takes it for granted that human actions, in particular, are different from those of other organisms, that when we do things that alter our environment, this transformation is different from, say, beaver dams or termite mounds in some deep and fundamental way. Humans change nature in ways that other species do not because all other species are part of nature in a way that humans aren’t. Non-humans, to put it another way, act in nature, while humans act on it.

Really, though, we’re all taking the world around us as we find it, and changing it to suit our purposes. Humans have certainly learned to make more complex changes, to effect transformations that involve more steps and more materials, than other species, but I’m not convinced that makes what we do qualitatively, rather than quantitatively, different. I am certainly not convinced that thinking of ourselves in this way— as standing outside of nature, looking in and too frequently interfering— has led to good choices about how to live with our environment.

“Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.”, (and part 2), by Jenny Price, is an older article, from 2006, which I just discovered because it was for some reason featured in a Longreads newsletter earlier this month. I wanted to talk about it because it very precisely sums up many of my concerns about the way we talk and think about “nature” and the human relationship to it.

There’s a lot in the piece, but a central theme is that everything we use and interact with in our lives is ultimately drawn from nature; everything we do uses nature in some sense. Defining nature as that which humans have not altered gives us permission, in a sense, to ignore or disregard the ways in which our lives constantly and necessarily involve us in the natural world.

Of course, nature writers have attached various meanings to a great range of places, animals, and plants. Yosemite? Majesty. A sacred place. The desert? Peace. Harshness. Clarity. Songbirds? Beauty. Delicacy. Earthquakes? Fury and vengeance. Water? A metaphor for life. But nature? The ur-meaning that frames all others? Wildness. Not-us-ness. The anti-modern. A place apart. Salvation. Refuge…We flee to wild nature as a haven from high-tech industrial urban life, but refuse to see that we madly use and transform wild nature to sustain the exact life from which we seek retreat.

To put the same point slightly differently: defining nature as the non-human, the things we have not touched, encourages us to think of ourselves as outside of it, as fundamentally disconnected from the natural world. And that, in turn, makes it harder to see that things we do will necessarily have an impact on the environment, and that what we do to the environment, we do also to ourselves. If human life, and particularly modern human life, is somehow outside of nature, then we are in effect absolved of responsibility for thinking about the environment as anything other than a distant worry, somewhere out there, important and necessary precisely because it is so remote from daily experience.

The point is that here you can watch the denial so intrinsic to the great American nature story play out as part of the larger desire to benefit from the innumerable ties to people and nature that sustain one’s life in the city, and yet refuse to make good on those connections.

Some of what she’s saying here— about understanding or being aware of the ways in which we transform and use nature all the time, even if we don’t think of what we are doing in this way— is connected to what Glenn Adamson is arguing in Fewer, Better Things. This is a much better and more interesting book than the title might lead one to believe. It sounds like yet another self-help book about reducing clutter, literally or figuratively, but Adamson is a museum curator who has had to think a great deal about how things are made, if only in order to preserve and maintain them. His main point is that most of us don’t really appreciate objects because we have so little idea of how they are made, and that an increased “material intelligence” would lead us to make better choices about what kinds of things to bring into our lives.

“The Political Economy of Safari”, by Rachel Aspden, is about a different consequence of believing ourselves outside of nature. After a long assignment covering Egypt during the “Arab Spring,” Aspden found adjusting to life back home in London difficult, and decided to enroll in a course in South Africa to become a certified Safari field guide. The experience was…mixed, but it brought home the fact that the way that “nature” or “wilderness” get defined will reflect particular interests, or a particular narrative of place.

The idea of the safari goes back to the late nineteenth century— the height of European colonial power in Africa. At the time, the “wildness” of Africa was a point of attraction for (mostly) men from colonizing societies.

When the first Europeans arrived in southern Africa, they found an extraordinary abundance of wildlife. It was a new Eden, rhapsodized the early adventurers, in contrast to the increasingly depleted, urbanized land of northern Europe, and its natural riches were there for colonists to use and enjoy.

Africa’s wild places became a scenic backdrop to Westerners’ feats of machismo. In the second half of the nineteenth century, hunting big game was seen as a way to stiffen the spine of upper-class British men at risk of “going soft” in luxurious Europe. A spell under canvas in the bush, with just enough bracing privation and a retinue of local black servants to provide domestic comforts, was thought to reawaken the primal instincts lost in modern city living. “Six months of African hunting life would make a man ‘a 10lb better fellow all around,’” proclaimed Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s father. By the first years of the twentieth century, hunting safaris had become the exotic-gap-year cliché of their day. In 1906, a colonial administrator named Harry Johnston complained that it had become “an accepted panacea… that a young or middle-aged man, who has been crossed in love, or has figured in the Divorce Court, or in some way requires to faire peau neuve, must go out to Africa and kill big game.”

In South Africa, in particular, the image of a beautiful but fragile wilderness could also serve to justify colonial rule by positioning Europeans as the caretakers of a landscape that Africans did not understand or give its proper regard. The poignant irony of this claim— a sharp reversal of centuries of criticism of non-Europeans the world over for being too close to nature— was of course lost on its advocates. The blatant hypocrisy of the fact that it was white men hunting for sport or adventure who brought so many of Africa’s large mammals to the brink of extinction— or past it— was also ignored.

In South Africa, the vast Kruger National Park was inaugurated in 1926, a symbol of the new national identity being constructed as British influence waned and Afrikaners assumed political and cultural power. Named after the nineteenth-century Afrikaner leader Paul Kruger, it was intended to preserve nature “just as the Voortrekkers [Afrikaner pioneer settlers] saw it.”…While black South Africans were excluded from this mythology and, largely, from the park itself (except as low-paid labor), the Kruger immediately took on an aura of sanctity for white citizens. It was a favorite talking-point of the Apartheid regime: in 1968, the National Parks Board warned “saintly countries” and “sanctimonious critics overseas” to recognize the South African government’s moral achievements in nature conservation, whatever they thought of its racial policies.

There’s a similar dynamic at work in many other colonial situations. in the United States, Native Americans were frequently described by early European settlers as part of nature in the same way as non-human animals; as chaotic and irrational as the forces of nature, they had no more valid legal claim to the land they occupied than bears or wolves. Yet they were later written out of the history of conservation in the United States, as images of e.g., Yosemite by photographers like Ansel Adams depicted the areas as an empty, untouched wilderness, ignoring the ways in which Native people had used and changed it for centuries. National parks like Yosemite are now very carefully managed, through human activity, to maintain them in their “natural” state, and even to return them to our best understanding of a previous state— for instance through the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

Indeed, our ideas of what counts as “managing” the environment and what counts as “changing” it seem pretty arbitrary. “The Land Where Birds Are Grown”, by Cynthia Hooper, is a kind of textual companion piece to her documentary film project Cultivated Ecologies. (Some of the videos from the project are in the article, and you can see more of her video work here.)

The piece is about the wetlands of California’s Central Valley, many of which were altered or degraded by the massive irrigation projects that have made the Central Valley one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. It’s also an illustration of the colossal amount of work that is sometimes required to recreate or maintain “natural” landscapes.

Maintaining functional wetlands in a 21st-century landscape dominated by agriculture and cities requires a host of hard and soft infrastructures. Canals, pumps, and sluice gates provide critical life support, and the lands are irrigated and tilled in seasonal cycles to essentially farm wildlife. Reams of laws and regulations scaffold the system.

For Instance:

Sacramento’s seasonal wetlands are managed like many others in the Central Valley, starting with a late summer flood-up to a water depth of no more than twelve inches, for optimal foraging by early-arriving dabbling ducks and geese. Ponds are kept flooded through the winter so the birds can feed, loaf, and court, and so that human visitors can either observe them or shoot them. Flooded units are then gradually drawn down in the spring, as waterfowl head north and migrating shorebirds arrive to probe the moist soil for nutritious invertebrates. After draining, the wetlands are irrigated at least once in the summer to germinate beneficial food plants like smartweed, swamp timothy, and millet. As these food plants mature, the fall flood-up begins, migrating waterfowl return, and the cycle starts anew.

In some of the segments of the videos, the presence of humans is obvious. I think there is a tendency to disregard or dismiss such spots as not really nature, or natural no longer; the damage has already been done, once human impact is visible. But the dismissal of any place we can see as changed by human activity removes a lot of land from consideration as ecology, as part of “the environment,” making it seem unnecessary to save or protect it. It also misunderstands the relationships between species, which are always affecting one another, once again setting aside the impacts of humans as qualitatively different from those of other organisms.

This reminded me of an older article, which I meant to write about long ago but somehow never got to. “Dust Rising”, by Michael Zelenko (with photos by Alex Welsh), deals with the drying of the Salton Sea, and the problems with toxic dust that result. Which might sound like a tragically familiar story of environmental disaster, except that the Salton Sea is not only artificial, but was created by an accident.

“It formed in 1905, when flood waters breached a nearby canal, sending the entire volume of the Colorado River into what was then a dry, ancient lake bed called the Salton Sink. It took two years to patch the break; in that time, a lake almost twice the size of Lake Tahoe had sprung to life.”

One could, therefore, see its disappearance as a return to normal, a restoration of nature as it once existed, prior to human interference. Once the Sea was there, though, whole ecologies and economies developed around it, all of which are disrupted by its disappearance; for instance, both the Salton Sea and the wetlands Hooper is documenting in her work have become essential stops on migration routes for hundreds of species of birds. It’s an example of the fact that, once you’ve made big change, trying to go back to “the way things were” isn’t a restoration or a return to “balance” in any simple sense; it’s just another big change, and just as disruptive as the first change was.

So, what’s “nature” in this scenario? I’m not sure the question makes any sense. Any line we try to draw between “natural” and “artificial” will reinforce our sense of being somehow detached from the rest of the world, and thereby misrepresent our relationships with other organisms, and with each other. To deal with the vast and complex ecological disasters that face us, we have to recognize our constant, inevitable involvement with nature.

Early in her piece, Price tells the story of a Zu-Zu, a pet Chihuahua who was eaten by a coyote in her owner’s yard in LA in 2002. There are, she says, two typical responses to this story: the “terrorist coyote” response, which sees nature as dangerous and unpredictable, as something we must protect ourselves from; and the “evil Chihuahua” response, which sees the pet dog as an interloper in the coyote’s natural habitat, and a sign of our lack of respect for the natural world. Both responses, though, are problematic, not only intellectually or morally but practically, in terms of the consequences they entail for human life.

An “evil Chihuahua” moral demands that we leave the nature we live in as it is (in which case we’ll die), but a “terrorist coyote” moral urges us to eradicate nature (in which case we’ll die). Neither approach helps us navigate how to keep pet animals in a landscape with native predators—or how to make a road or build a house or ensure a water supply or figure out how to keep the air and water clean.

Every species alters its environment, simply by living in it, and every species has the potential to do this in ways that are harmful. Without enough predators to keep their numbers down, deer will consume their entire food supply, and many will starve. Three billion years ago, photosynthetic bacteria may have altered the Earth’s atmosphere, giving off enough oxygen as a waste product to dramatically change the environment of the entire planet. The human capacity to alter the world may be greater, in quantitative terms, than other organisms, but that doesn’t place outside of “nature” any more than they are. I don’t believe that thinking differently about this, by itself, will solve any of our present environmental problems, but I tend to doubt that we will solve them without thinking differently.

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