I didn’t hate Peter Coates’s Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times, but it wasn’t a particularly engaging read, either. It reminded me of papers I had to read for my honors tutorial class Science & Religion–applying a scientific method of interpretation to an abstract concept. I had to plow through quotes and references and patiently wade through Coates’s simultaneously dry and verbose style to get to the main points, but I did find some interesting/pertinent points:
- Understanding of nature in the Western world being divided into 5 categories: “nature as a physical place; nature as the collective phenomena of the world or universe; nature as an essence, quality, and/or principle that informs the workings of the world or universe; nature as an inspiration and guide… and source of authority; and nature as the conceptual opposite of culture” (3). I feel that these 5 categories are the basis for the book.
- “Nature is in some senses an irrevocable dictate… Nature is also incontrovertibly indifferent to human fate.; But the ‘laws’ of nature’ are formulated by certain groups for specific purposes. Nature has been attributed with approved human values and ideals to validate and raise above debate particular visions and ideologies” (5). This was one of those sentences that brought what I subconsciously knew to the forefront; sentences like these are always jolting to read because when I read them I stop and go, whoa! I knew that but I never thought about it!
- “At that time (1920s), images of nature were used for purposes of reassurance, to smooth they way for modernity and to soften its shock. Nowadays, they are deployed to seduce customers enchanted by modernity. Nature can sell cigarettes, cars, and shampoo as effectively as can sex” (9). So true. For example, the Aveeno skin care line has the catch phrase “ACTIVE NATURALS” as a registered trademark.
- The concept of “topophilia” and the “development of a feeling for nature [through] the shaping and expression of preferences for particular aspects of the natural world” (14).
- “Some ecofeminist theorists have interpreted the overthrow of female deities as the fateful moment when ‘humankind’ gave way to ‘mankind’, which began to isolate itself from the rest of nature” (30). An interesting take, but I don’t really put too much credence into it.
- The anecdote about a tree growing in front of a statue of Sylvanus (31). Apparently Sylvanus was “a Roman tutelary deity of woods and fields… [who] delighted in trees growing wild” (Wikipedia).
- The “stewardship tradition”. “The view that man is higher than other creatures but does not possess absolute sovereignty over them… According to this way of thinking…, abuse of nature is attributable to human sin, not divine purpose” (50). I like this view; it makes humans accountable for their actions, but also has a religious aspect to provide incentive.
- Anecdotes about St Francis (54). They reminded me of a book I read as a kid called Animalia, by Barbara Berger. The book was a compilation of short tales depicting man’s peaceful interaction with nature and animals.
- “The national park enshrines nature’s recruitment for patriotic purposes” (110). I wonder what Ed Abbey would have to say about that…
Interesting specifics aside, all I’ve really gleaned from this so far is that the concept and definition of nature are complex, and throughout history people’s perceptions of nature have changed (influenced by factors such as religion or industrialism).