In 1870, an expedition entered the area we now know as Yellowstone National Park. There had been unsubstantiated rumors of remarkable natural features there, and so a team was put together to go explore and report. Early on, a man by the name of Truman C. Everts was separated from the group and went missing. None of the rest of the group knew if he survived. Initially, they rode around on their horses trying to find him. They were unsuccessful. As they continued to travel through the area, they left clues and supplies in the hope that Everts was still alive.
He was, in fact, but just barely. Over the next several days after going missing, Everts would find himself clinging to life through a whirlwind of what the wilderness could throw at him. His horse ran away with nearly all of his gear. He spent a night in a tree with a lion waiting underneath. He suffered severe frostbite on his feet. He took refuge next to some of the hot geothermal features, only to accidentally break through the surface of one of them and scald himself. 150 miles from the nearest settlement, Everts began hallucinating, promising himself that he wouldn’t die in the wild.
37 days after being separated, he was found on a hillside. With little to eat, he weighed just 50 pounds. Burned, frostbit, emaciated, delirious, he had barely survived. He slowly recovered, later writing a popularly consumed account of his lonely struggle in the elements. He prophesied that one day soon that area would be made comfortably “accessible to all,” and that when that day comes, “…I hope, in happier mood and under more auspicious circumstances, to revisit scenes fraught for me with such mingled glories and terrors.”
How should we think about nature? How do we think about nature?
The complex, decades-long march of technology has allowed us to comfortably settle into robust homes and cities, and most of the world seems easily “accessible” and safe. If we were to drive through Yellowstone National Park today, we would barely give it a second thought that at one time it would take all of the human ingenuity and willpower possible to survive through the often uncompromising harshness of the environment.
Is the natural world a kind of frontier? Most of the early European settlers of America thought so. Inspired by a Garden of Eden, providential vision for a “New World,” the continent seemed to be precisely what the book of Genesis describes–wilderness and waste–ready for them to cultivate and make flourish. They, of course, were either oblivious to or disregarded the indigenous communities–countless, diverse Native American tribes–that had been living on and with the land for centuries. If America was ordained by God to subdue, it was given to someone other than the Europeans long before.
Perhaps nature is primarily a romantic thing–a more John Muir kind of spirituality rather than a biblical one. There are mundane places and then there are transcendent places. Places like Yosemite, for example, that are a sort of secular cathedral where aesthetics, vastness, and remoteness are praised. In this view, true nature entails remarkable places that we choose to go into and out of to elevate the soul.
Or, maybe nature is only just a vast storehouse of resources–something to think of in utilitarian terms. Everything that is there–water, trees, animals, and the rest–are for our excavation and exploitation. A biological warehouse of sorts, for whatever endeavors we have in mind.
Notice that all three of these conceptions put human beings above everything else. There is us, and then there’s nature, whether it’s to be tilled like Adam and Eve, for spiritual transcendence, or for utilitarian use. Us and nature is another binary–a variant of us and them—applied to the world in which we live. We see ourselves as something more than nature: something higher, something else–a type of being that can use nature (whatever it’s best used for) as we please.
Missing, of course, is the simple realization that human beings are themselves one among many kinds of animals. A rational, self-conscious, complex animal, to be sure. But ultimately a creature that is a part of nature–not something separate from it. This kind of understanding might be called the ecological view of nature. Nature is to be viewed as a dense structure of relationships, of “complex, interpenetrating systems,” to use Jedediah Purdy’s description. His book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, outlines these four common conceptions of our relationship to nature: providential, romantic, utilitarian, and ecological.
Though it’s a relatively recent way of understanding nature, we need to take the ecological view because we live in a time when human activity impacts the natural world more completely and more dramatically than ever before. We are inseparable from the environment in which we live. It’s not us and nature, it’s just this. We need to realize that our attempts to master the natural world have not brought pure progress, and that because everything is related to everything else in complex ways, we need to be thoughtful about how any of our activity may harm or destroy in ways that may not be immediately apparent. Something here can significantly alter another thing over there.
Our supposed mastery has veiled us from the intense Truman C. Everts kinds of experiences of nature that now occur mostly only for hardcore outdoors people and survivalists, humans who’ve wandered off the beaten path and gotten lost, or people who’ve been tossed into a wild place in some kind of a disaster. But we are in nature all of the time. It’s not just awe-inducing vistas like Yellowstone or Yosemite. And it’s not just endless trees in a forest somewhere out there seemingly there to be cut down and transformed into “things that are actually useful.”
Nature always surrounds us. And we are, at all times, nature ourselves–embodying and impacting the whole interconnected thing in profound ways. How we think about ecosystems and animals and natural resources and the climate and ourselves as a relatively new species trying to survive on this planet is important. A proper understanding of nature and our place in the world is vital. There’s just this. Let’s think about how we fit in with the rest of it all.