Nature – Peter Coates

After reading this book, I can now offer anyone who asks me what “nature” is about a hundred different definitions, opinions, arguments and insights that would certainly conflict with at least one persons own feelings about the word. Coates illustrates for us the evolution of philosophical, social and scientific meanings of nature over the course of history and has left me to believe that any way of thinking about this subject is subjective to how one feels is his place in the “grand scheme of things.” Coates says the Greeks believed nature consisted of all things that are in existence, hence nothing could be unnatural.

Yet, humanity seems to have always identified it as opposite to civilization, whatever it is that is outside the walls of our city. Still, everything we do is governed by the laws of nature; some economists have concluded that the economic trends and social class is determined by the natural process of survival of the fittest.

Natural processes seem to pervade civilized processes

We use words like barbaric and primitive to describe people who lived more closely off the land and did not have such complicated social structures and politics. So keeping in mind the Greeks’ definition, seeing as how we so quickly like to think of ourselves as outside the realm of nature, are we natural?

Another idea closely related to the Greek philosophy is the Gaia Theory (newly published collection of MIT Gaia Theory essays). James Lovelock believed that the earth, as a whole, operated as a single organism. So, just like the human body, it breathed, rested, moved, and even had a heartbeat in a way. Natural disasters would be the earth’s way of dealing with problems and sicknesses, like an immune system. If something is going wrong on the earth, throw a hurricane at it or something. This brings up many negative ideas about humans and how we live on the planet. With this theory in mind, overpopulation can be seen as a disease that is harming “Mother Gaia” and that one day she will be cured by whatever means are effective. So then, if we are the problem, does that mean we are not part of the natural processes of this organism? Or is there just too many of us, and it is creating an imbalance in the organisms bodily functions? The Gaia Theory is a very spiritual philosophy that, although it places a great deal of blame on humans, really makes me think about how everything is interconnected, and there is such a fragile balance that continually changes and re-balances itself constantly. That’s how I see nature working, but separately.

One quote I found very interesting was When Coates speaks about George Economou and his discussion about the usage of Nature versus nature. Economou said:

“if the role of capital N nature in works of art cannot be concretely depicted or articulated, can we be certain it is there? In effect I am asking when is a raven a raven, and when is it a symbol of a larger unit of meaning? When is the sea the sea and when is it nature?”

So it got me thinking whether what we interpret nature as is what nature really is. How can we know such an abstract concept if we cannot distinguish in definition our ideas about nature and just what nature is in and of itself? Do we really have to give nature a meaning? That spider on my wall is nature and so is a spider I see under a log in the woods. As the Greek philosophers would say “it exists, so it’s a part of nature,” right? But, obviously humans aren’t satisfied with such a simple answer, so we have to give meaning to the spider’s existence and why it is nature. It can’t be part of nature just because it’s hanging on my wall and being its natural self. Or can it?

'Cosmic Frog' - One of Thaneeya McArdle's pieces in her "Nature in Art" collection. The artist is giving that frog a meaning. What does that frog have to do with the formulas? Is this getting at the capital N nature?

We discussed at the beginning of the semester about the American perspective about nature. Coates says Americans tend to assume the pre-Columbian era of history as a more natural time. Now, realizing that not much remains in terms of wild areas from that time, we have tried to set aside these wild places, mostly so that we can visit them and be awed by them, but perhaps remind us that there are not many places left, if any, that are truly “wild.” Coates goes on to say that Americans like to consider Native Americans being closer to nature and feel inspired by them.

“We can never know what the natural world of the Americas would be like today had Europeans never appeared, not least because Indian populations would have kept growing.”

However, though we may relate nature to Native Americans, we they truly as in touch with “Gaia,” which we idolize them as being. Coates relates a story about hunting practices on the plains. Evidence of 600 buffalo bones were found at the base of a cliff. The only way this could have happened is if someone intentionally herded them off in a controlled fashion. On top of that, no evidence of usage of the animal was found on the bones themselves. This goes to show, as Coates says that every human has the capacity to alter and damage any part of nature, be it the soil, or wildlife, or whatever.

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