“Nature” is Right Here, Right Now, Every Day

The “Essential Wisdom” that Haupt promotes in the second chapter of her book is one I’ll have to admit I probably often overlook. Because I’m a lover of Nature, I’m afraid I too am guilty of romanticizing Nature as Haupt points out:

ln his essay Home Economics, agrarian writer Wendell Berry defines nature this way: “What we call nature is, in a sense, the sum of the changes made by all the various creatures and natural forces in their intricate actions and influences upon each other and their places.” In other words, for humans, how we live where we live is what makes us part of a natural ecosystem. It is also the source of our most profound impact on the more-than-human world. We love our vision of untouched nature and cling tightly to images of pristine wilderness or desert or ocean as solace for our souls, as places of peace and transcendent beauty to which we can turn as a diversion from our cluttered, material lives. We believe ourselves to be intimately connected to wild places, as indeed we are.

When I think of Nature, I do envision wildernesses I’ve hiked and backpacked in the last forty years not my backyard. I imagine most people do. I’ve donated more money to organizations like the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, or The Nature Conservancy than to organizations like Environmental Defense.

I suspect that Haupt herself has occasionally been guilty of seeing Nature this way:

Too often, though, nature is romanticized as the place out there, the place with all the sparkly trees in the Sierra Club calendar, the place we visit with a knapsack and a Cliff Bar, where we stand in awe of the beauty and refresh our spirits. But it is a kind of hubris to pretend that we come to such places unencumbered, that we can leave behind the snares, entanglements, and activities of our everyday lives and return to a kind of purity when we drive our SUVs (or even our hybrids) up to the hills for a subalpine-meadow hike, no matter how far we walk. Such sojourns are nourishing and necessary, but it remains our daily lives, in the places we live, that make us ecosystemic creatures; these are the seat of our most meaningful interactions with, and impact upon, the wider, wilder earth. We are connected by the ways that we choose, consume, and share water, food, shelter, and air-just like all the other animals. We cherish the few, sweet days we manage to escape to places we consider true wilderness, but the most essential things we can do for the deeply wild earth have to do with how we eat, how we drive, where we walk, and how we choose every moment of our quotidian urban lives.

This almost makes me feel guilty about wanting to visit parts of the country I haven’t managed to see before, i.e. my recent trip to New Mexico and Arizona. However, I’ve long been aware that the way I live, the economic choices I make, affect the world I live in. My son referred to me as a “granola” when he was in high school, and I was proud to claim the title. A life-long city gardener, I discovered Rodale and organic gardening nearly forty years ago and started recycling long before it was collected along with the garbage. My Honda CRX got fifty miles per gallon long before people seemed concerned about gas consumption.

I still have a hard time thinking of Tacoma and Seattle as “Nature,” but I agree with Haupt that our everyday life plays a critical part in altering, destroying, or consuming nature:

When we allow ourselves to think of nature as something out there, we become prey to complacency. If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here doesn’t really matter. Jennifer Price writes in Flight Maps, her eloquent critique of romanticized nature, that modern Americans use an idea of Nature Out There to ignore our ravenous uses of natural resources. “If I don’t think of a Volvo as nature, then can’t I buy and drive it to Nature without thinking very hard about how I use, alter, destroy, and consume nature?” In my urban ecosystem, I drive around a corner and a crow leaps into flight from the grassy parking strip. We startle each other. If nature is out There, she asks, then what am I?

My camping and hiking trips stand out in my memory, but the time I spend doing those things is dwarfed by the time I spend driving my car back and forth to the YMCA, the grocery story, or the mall. And that is dwarfed by the time spent on my computer or watching television. It’s naive to believe that the time I spend NOT camping or hiking doesn’t determine my overall effect on the ecosystem.