The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Where Is Nature?
Where do you go when you want to experience nature?
Some people go to pristine wilderness areas, free from the sound of motors, and away from significant human influences.
Some head to parks, where the grand vistas and the wildlife are more accessible, and a bit more predictable.
Some sit under a backyard tree, or work in the vegetable garden, finding nature very close to home.
In Wilderness and Razor Wire: a naturalist's observations from prison, inmate Ken Lamberton records his experiences of nature inside a medium security prison. From his cell, he keeps close track of the changing seasons, the insect life, the migrating birds and the blooming plants. He writes, "Nature is here as much as it is in any national park or forest or monument."
But in all those responses, nature is always "out there" somewhere. It is something other than us that we go to observe, or to relate to. "Nature" is that part of the creation which is "not human."
In his important book, Earth Community, Earth Ethics, Larry Rasmussen calls this dichotomized thinking an "apartheid mind-set." It is a way of thinking and living which identifies all else by what it is not. "Nonhuman" is not us, which in turn usually means that it is "less than" us. Such apartheid thinking leaves us imagining that we are an ecologically segregated species.
Rasmussen challenges us to find a new mind-set, a new way of thinking. "We could learn to speak, for example, not of humanity and nature, but of humans in and as nature. ... We could acknowledge that humans never rise above nature, never transcend it."
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In my college ornithology class, we were studying "pecking order" in birds -- the social structures of hierarchy and dominance that take place within and among species. We took two field trips to observe this behavior.
For the second trip, we went to a nearby forest, where a family kept several feeders that attracted a wide variety of birds. We watched the sparrows and the jays and the titmice and the hummingbirds interacting and conflicting over food and territory.
But our wise professor thought that we needed an experience that would help us better understand such complex interactions. So our first trip went to a field in the suburbs. There, we hid behind rocks with our binoculars, and watched as a class of second graders poured out of the school building for recess.
We watched the timid kids who ran to the swings first, and then abandoned their seats when the dominant youngsters came near. We saw the girls who stayed close to the teacher, and the boys who hovered nearby to taunt them. We could observe the loners, and the ones who "play well in groups." The flow of children around the playground emerged as a fluid set of social interactions, all illustrating a well-established "pecking order."
The grade school kids at play modeled all of the behaviors and interactions that we saw the next day at the bird feeders. There was no meaningful distinction between "humans" and "nature" in what we recorded in our field books that week.
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I have heard that biblical Hebrew has no word for "nature" -- no single word that lumps together the non-human parts of creation. Hebrew has some wonderful collective terms -- the creation, the earth -- to speak of all that is. But it has no way to speak of -- no way even to comprehend the idea of -- a collective reality from which humans are separated.
Biblical Hebrew gives linguistic voice to a culture that did not experience a human/not-human dichotomy. Those folk who are the early heritage of our faith tradition simply understood themselves to be part of the creation.
So it is that we find the record of God's message to Noah after the flood: "I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark." God did not form a covenant "with you and with nature," as two separate entities, but with a collective whole.
It is wonderful when we "experience nature," when we get a chance to bring ourselves into relationship with the rich community that is creation -- whether in wilderness areas, parks, or even prisons. But our experience of that community is likely to be enhanced when our language and our mind-set avoids the collective "otherness" of the word "nature."
So, too, our ethics are changed when we recognize that we are part of the entire Earth community. The destruction and exploitation of "nature" is harder to stomach when we see ourselves in relationship with the world around us. The policies of the current US administration -- which delight in extracting resources, and which do little to foster environmental protection -- are a frightening illustration of what can happen if we see the natural world only as objects to be used.
Many people that I'm in touch with find it helpful to use different words, and speak of "humans" and "the rest of creation." That language reminds us that we, too, are part of the complex web of God's creation. It acknowledges relationship, not otherness.
For the next week, why don't you try out that shift in language and perception?
"Where Is Nature?" updates the Eco-Justice Notes previously sent on May 2, 2003.
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