The title of this website is “Armchair Naturalist,” and some of those who know me well have questioned why I would use this moniker to describe myself when in their eyes I am anything but. After all, armchair naturalists are generally thought of as people who are not formally trained as scientists; and, while most of their education regarding nature may indeed stem from “armchair reading,” they often spend much of their time outside directly observing nature and its inhabitants.
“Oh, cool!! I’m taking this home to look at under my microscope!”
In my case, I am formally trained to study nature, but, due to various health problems, I spend very little time “out in nature.” Most of my time, in fact, is spent in an ergonomic chair at my computer, with breaks to clean house, run errands, or volunteer at my local natural history museum.
But, really, who better to be an “armchair” naturalist? Not only do I spend much of my time in an ergonomically cushioned chair, but most of that time is spent reading about scientific subjects, and this is how it’s been for almost as long as I can remember. Even as a child (when I didn’t especially need an ergonomic chair), I was never one to enjoy strenuous hikes (too exhausting) or to linger very long examining nature’s nooks and crannies (where some disturbing creature might be lurking).
“Ewww! What’s that thing?”
Yet these quirks of stamina or personality never discouraged me from a fascination with nature – I simply satisfied this fascination by reading about nature within the pages of books. And the first of these books that I can remember was The Golden Treasury of Natural History. (Thank you, Bertha Morris Parker!) I took this book everywhere with me: to the supermarket with my mother; to the doctor’s office; on visits to relatives; and in the car on vacation trips. Even as my father drove my mother and me along winding mountain roads through forests of pine trees, I spent more time devouring the information in this book about rocks, fossils, plants, and animals than I did watching the trees speed by or trying to catch a glimpse of wildlife.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I’ve never interacted with nature itself. In addition to examining nature at the molecular and microscopic levels, I’ve always enjoyed observing whatever nature I can find in my own backyard as well as taking short walks in more natural environments.
But since my direct experiences with nature at the macroscopic level have always seemed so limited compared with what I could learn through other means, I have mainly relied upon books, periodicals, photographs, lectures, recordings, and museums to foster my appreciation of the beauty and diversity in nature.
Which brings me to the first question this blog will address: what is nature? At first glance, this seems like a simple question – of course, nature is everything “out there,” outdoors, not human. But is this answer completely accurate?
If we look at the origins of the word “nature,” we find that it is derived from the Latin word natura, which in turn was a translation of the Greek word physis. Physis was defined as the intrinsic properties of plants, animals, and other features of the world that develop of their own accord. The word natura also referred to such properties but was slightly expanded to include the innate characteristics or dispositions of a person, object, or activity. Indeed, we still use the word “nature” to describe characteristics that seem beyond the ability of free will to control . . . “it is not in his nature to raise his voice,” or “it is the nature of cats to hunt.”
Today, the word “nature” is not only used to refer to innate properties but also to the whole of the physical world – rocks, landscapes, oceans, atmosphere, living organisms, planets, stars – anything, in fact, except for humans and their creations. Yes, despite the fact that humans are living organisms, very few of us think of humans as part of the world referred to as nature . . . for example, when I think of “getting out in nature,” I’m not thinking of a trip to New York City.
But can we totally exclude humans from nature? After all, the human body must surely be a part of nature, if only because it works so much like the bodies of other animals. In addition, most dictionaries define nature as everything in the physical world, with the exception of anything created by humans. Seems reasonable . . . humans themselves are part of nature, but their creations are not. I can’t help but wonder, however, where something like a carefully tended garden fits into this definition. The layouts of gardens are certainly created by humans, but the plants themselves, as well as any animal visitors, are just as certainly part of nature. Perhaps such entities can be considered “partly natural” as opposed to “wholly natural.”
Other dictionaries define nature as any part of the world that exists independently of human activities or civilization; and a few define nature as a primitive state of existence, untouched and uninfluenced by civilization or artificiality. Interesting. Does this mean then that nature includes prehistoric humans and their creations?
And, if so, when, exactly, did humans begin separating themselves from nature? Was it when humans began fashioning tools to more efficiently hunt other animals for food? Or was it when humans began burning wood and other substances to cook their food and keep themselves warm? Or when humans began weaving grasses and cutting animal pelts for use as clothing, or when they began building structures out of stones or plant material to shelter themselves? The answer to all of these questions is . . . maybe, maybe not. On the one hand, no other animal creates fire or wears clothing of their own making, but on the other hand, the use of tools has been observed in certain mammals and birds, and many animals build structures out of rock, soil, plant material, etc.
Eventually, of course, humans began to organize themselves into increasingly complex societies, to engage in increasingly sophisticated forms of communication, and, ultimately, to combine materials in such a way that the final products no longer resembled anything constructed by other animals. Houses, skyscrapers, vehicles, machines of all kinds – nothing similar can be found anywhere in the world absent human creativity and effort. It was perhaps unavoidable that humans would begin to see themselves as different from any other animal and thus distinct from “nature,” an attitude that eventually developed into the belief that humans were superior to all other living things and therefore entitled to exploit “nature” as they wished.
But is viewing human civilization as separate from nature correct or even desirable? Yes, we may be the most intelligent and/or creative species on the planet, but:
(1) We and our creations continue to be at the mercy of many planetary phenomena (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.);
(2) Our bodies are certainly “natural,” in that we still rely upon the oxygen in the atmosphere for energy and upon other animals and plants for nourishment;
(3) Our psyches may also depend upon, or at least benefit from, other living things . . . a walk in the forest, for example, leads to a decrease in the bloodstream of the stress hormone cortisol and a reduction in blood pressure;
(4) No matter what artifacts we build or what fuel we burn, each of these human creations ultimately originated from natural substances, will often attract or be impacted by other organisms (think ants, cockroaches, termites, rats, etc.), and, like our own bodies, will eventually decompose or “return to nature” when abandoned by humans;
(5) We humans have had a tremendous impact upon other living things – sometimes positive, as when we rescue ill or injured animals – but far more often negative . . . as our increasing numbers have not only destroyed acre after acre of “natural” habitat to construct our homes, farms, and cities, but have also polluted our soil, water, and air with the by-products and waste of the materials we create and the fuel that we burn, harming both ourselves and other organisms; and
(6) It is tempting to surmise that, just as we humans look upon anthills and beaver dams as part of nature, a far more intelligent, technologically savvy species might look upon us as a particularly enterprising but still integral part of our planet’s nature.
So – is human civilization part of nature or not? Obviously, humans and their creations are not completely separate from nature, and the attitude that we are superior and entitled to exploit all the resources of our planet is not only causing other living things but also ourselves severe problems. Nevertheless, I believe we are different enough from other animals that the use of the word “nature” to refer primarily to those parts of the physical world outside of human civilization can still be justified. And, even if we aren’t that different, to include human civilization within the definition of nature would deprive us of a convenient shorthand for the vast number of living things and other objects/events in the universe that form and exist without any “help” from humans. Thus, I will continue to use the word “nature” in the traditional manner, but I also won’t hesitate to discuss human civilization in future posts . . . particularly as it impinges upon nature (or vice versa). In fact, to ignore the impact of nature-dependent humans in a blog regarding nature would, I think, be rather unnatural.