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¶1 For many people, the word “nature,” like the word “home,” calls to mind mostly positive and nurturing images. “Mother Nature” is often spoken of as a mythic force that sustains life on Earth. Natural landscapes, too, are spoken of with emotion and are tied to the concept of home and natural identity. Consider, for example, the landscapes evoked by the songs “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.” In these songs, love of country and the idea of home are clearly connected to love of the land.
¶2 The natural world is also often described in spiritual ways. In the popular media, references to nature are frequently used to evoke images of purity, innocence, and peace. Of course, drawing connections between nature and spirituality is nothing new—most ancient belief systems valued and even worshipped the natural world. Writers, spiritual leaders, and naturalists throughout history have given moving accounts of the power of nature as a source of life and as a source for learning important life lessons. Among Native American cultures, there is a long tradition of speaking in spiritual ways about humankind’s relationship to nature. Luther Standing Bear, at one time chief of the Oglala Sioux, wrote several books in which he describes the reverence his people felt for the natural world. For the Lakota people, he wrote in Land of the Spotted Eagle, “Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle.” These views have been expanded on by many naturalists and environmental activists. In the opening chapter of his book, Our National Parks (1901), American naturalist John Muir describes the public’s embrace of national parks in terms of a religious conversion:
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.
In Muir’s view, nature can save people from materialism and destructive habits; it can cleanse us and help us lead better lives. There is no doubt that people draw much wisdom about life from the natural world.
¶3 Nevertheless, one pitfall of assuming that nature is spiritual or nurturing is that such a view romanticizes nature. In his essay “The American Geographies” (p. 486), Barry Lopez observes American pride in “our rolling prairies, free-flowing rivers, and ‘purple mountains’ majesty.’” Yet Lopez argues, these images of national geography are in fact creations—fictions constructed by politicians, marketing firms, and the entertainment industry—meant to give people a false vision of an unspoiled, untroubled landscape. What is lost in this view is the hard reality that humans have—for both good and ill—permanently altered the natural landscape. Prairies have been fenced and forests clear-cut. Rivers have been dammed or diverted to bring water to arid regions. Cities and industries have created mini-climate zones. Farming practices have become increasingly high-tech and involve the use of genetically modified crops. Lakes and rivers have been invaded by nonnative plants and fish, brought in on the hulls of ships from international waters. “The real American landscape,” contends Lopez, “is a face of almost incomprehensible depth and complexity.”
¶4 A further consequence of the romanticization of nature is that it can lead to thinking of natural disasters like drought, hurricanes, blizzards, tsunamis, and tornados as examples of Mother Nature’s dark side. Again, such a view masks humankind’s impact on the natural world and any human responsibility for the overtaxing of the environment, through industrial practices, for example, that may lead to some destructive natural events. Although humans do not cause tornadoes or tsunamis, there is no doubt that human practices, such as unregulated industry, alter the environment. The temperature of the ocean is rising, the use of fossil fuels is affecting the planet’s climate zones, and the interdependence of the world’s economies has had a far-reaching impact on the plant and animal world.
¶5 Love and respect for the land and for nature resonate in the American national consciousness, but this very set of emotions should encourage us to question our assumptions about nature. Romanticization of nature can prevent investigation of the complex and conflicted relationships humankind has with the natural world.
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