Monday, 26 April 2010

Is Nature Our Home?

The Benjmain scholar Shierry Weber Nicholson talks about the ‘psychic numbing’ of the mass of the population in the face of the ecological crisis. For her, we deny ecological devastation in order to avoid ‘painful feelings’ associated with the destruction of our 'primordial home'. Nature here is the original world, the world of our personal and collective childhood; and if we are to maintain our psychological health when faced with the impending ecological catastrophe we need to learn to mourn the loss of this world.

But what about urban experience? Isn't this primordial for those for whose home is the bus, shops, cafes and shops? For me, the countryside is strange and alienating - the modern city feels more like home. Is it legitimate then to simply assume that nature is our primordial home? What kind of assumptions are being made here? Might human beings be technological beings as much as natural ones?

Neil Turnbull


  1. As one who feels equally at home in the town and country, and sometimes yearns for the albiet somewhat civilised nature on offer in Britain's countryside, especially on a sunny spring day such as this one, this is an interesting question if it is to be pursued from a subjective point of view.
    Of course, people have largely migrated from country to town living, certainly in this country, but perhaps humanity has been shaped by technology to the extent that it is now difficult to subsist without it. There is frequently a sense of displacement for those who rely on their technological devices, for example, and few "civilised" people are equipped to live in anything other than a very tamed version of "nature".
    For me, the country is a space for escape from the everyday constraints of technology amongst other things, an escape from the computer screen which dominates my working life. (At least one can mark essays in the garden, but even this freedom from technology other than the pen will be eroded when online marking is finally implemented)
    When walking in the hills or along the coast, one's mind clears and philosophical contemplation is enabled without the distractions of the urban. Who wants to listen to sirens when there is the sound of the sea? (well, Neil and many others, I am sure!)
    On the other hand, we need to be careful not to idolise the countryside. The notion of the rural idyll beloved by the middle classes, setting up a vineyard in Provence, for example, when the actuality proves to be somewhat more brutal than anticipated, is symptomatic of a romanticised nostalgia attaching to the country which we should beware of. Rural poverty has been as much a reality as the urban variety. Starving in a potato field in winter or dying of plague in Eyam, is hardly more romantic than dying of dysentry in the slums of Manchester! So, I am aware that this romanticisation of an imagined past where life was simpler in the country (a nostalgia disingenously invoked by such programmes as Lark Rise to Candleford) is at best a myth.
    Technology, and life in the town, has wrought many benefits. Furthermore, technology has brought benefits to rural life also, enabling the forces of nature to be tamed to some extent so that farmers are no longer wholly at the mercy of a sometimes malovolent nature as they once were.
    So this is not simply a matter of where one feels most at home. This will differ according to personal taste to some extent. It would be downright wrongheaded to deny that life lived in the town has become natural to many.
    I shall now escape to my sunny suburban garden to mark assigments revolving around technology (film and media)!

  2. If we make a Nature / Technology divide then are there anymore natural spaces? I think not. We have national parks and conservation areas, preserved beyond their time in to unnatural old-age. The wild is a playground for those with enough money to spend their free time swinging from the trees. Just another tool.

    If we don't make this divide though and say that both humans and their technologies are natural then urbanised areas become more than just machines for living but an expression of something primordial in their designer like a desire to master our surroundings or for closeness to the group.

    I think pretty clearly I prefer the later option here.

  3. I agree with Ruth that the romantic image of rural countryside might be obtuse and dangerous. We are no longer hunter-gatherers, and there cannot be a return unless a catastrophe makes us. However, I am not an ardent supporter of urban lifestyle whatsoever. As it is present in all urban environments, detachment from nature leads to mental diseases and clinical depression, and in particular, an emotional deprivation. They have been and are causing people loose meaning in life.

    I think the problem of the modern world is the presentation of images. We have built so many things that we have really forgetten about our intrinsic tastes that evolution provided us. I have personally become weary of big, aesthetically incorrect buildings, which increases my anxiety, and for sure, they don't not give me that lovin' feeling of life. Just going to the downtown Nottingham is enough for me to experience this anxiety.

    Nature matters to us. Huge trees and small trees, glistening water, chirping birds, budding bushes, colorful flowers— these are really important ingredients of a good life.
    And yet these seems to be more than aesthetic preferences. Perhaps we as a species find tranquility in certain natural environments — a soothing, restorative, and even a healing sense. If so, contact with nature might be
    an important component of well-being.

    I remember environmental therapist Howard Frumkin quoting on E.O.Wilson's Biophilia hypothesis; Wilson tells that certain key features of the ancient physical habitat match the choices made by modern human beings when they have a say in the matter - a pattern that repeats in parks, cemeteries, golf courses, and lawns.It seems that whenever people are given a free choice they move to open tree-studded land on prominences overlooking water.

    I guess we will always look for those patterns that would give us that homely feeling we had felt when we were primitives at the dawn of civilization.