What exactly is this thing called nature? “Saving (protecting) nature” is the cliché used by many, but what exactly is it that we are trying to “save”, and, importantly, who are we saving it from, and for whom are we saving it? Is it an it? Or is it a complex mosaic of creatures, places, energies, and elements all emerging, flourishing and decaying in their own unique way? Is it nature or natures?

There are many ways in which the word nature is constructed. It is a “resource”, (something for us to exploit), a playground where one can test one’s strengths and survival abilities (wilderness), as a place of scientific enquiry and the domain of “laws”, a source of medicines (and more recently property rights), a place that provides “environmental services”, places defined by the absence of human impact, and probably in many other utilitarian and not so useful ways. One thing in common in all these constructions is the way they are so human-centred.

Many approaches to nature conservation require that humans be separated from it – so we have “protected areas”, “nature reserves” etc – places where human impact is supposed to be minimal, as a result of the area being artificially enclosed by lines on a map. Our task is to then “manage” (whatever that means) this defenceless thing . But nature may be more resilient that we think, and indeed may even be capable of defending itself!

There’s nothing wrong with separating places from destructive human impact, but it’s not a long-term solution, as nowhere is protected or safe under the current exploitative system. It also encourages a view that we (culture) are radically separate from nature.
Many of these views of nature must seem strange indeed to those who live alongside (or within) nature and are trying to derive a living from the land. Perhaps this explains why farmers, native peoples, and those who live closest to nature, (often portrayed as inferior to those (city folk) who have the greatest distance from nature), have so many problems in understanding romantic urban “greenies”.

The strangest construction of nature, and perhaps the most dangerous to our humanity’s precarious existence, is when nature is seen as an inferior other in stark contrast to the domain of culture. This construction allows us to background and dominate nature without remorse.

There are much more beautiful, much more poetic, ways to view nature: Nature as our home, the ground that supports us. Nature as that which nurtures and sustains our lives. Nature as the magic and mysterious other on which all life depends. Nature that contains place-based stories and wisdom. Nature as revelatory. Nature as enchanting. If we have the capacity to listen, nature is a communicative subject that speaks to us. It can anchor our lives.

Perhaps we need to kill off some of the definitions of nature that obscure our radical dependence on it for our very existence. And kill off definitions that situate us as something other than nature, or necessarily separate from it.

Nature is the beauty that births us. It is the place under our feet and the sky above. It cannot be contained by any definition or construct.

It is, in the final dramatic act, the place we return to.