The Meaning of “Nature” (Warning: Not Even a Little Conclusive. But I Tried.)

Spring is slowly approaching Tokyo and in some parts of the city the first cherry blossom trees have already started blooming. A few days ago, while on a little morning walk, I actually spotted the first sakura in my neighbourhood, and as I was frantically taking pictures from every possible angle for my instastory (I’m such a victim of modern society, hah), I remembered something that my thesis supervisor mentioned during the introductory session of one of my classes last semester.

(Taken at Yasukuni shrine during last year’s cherry blossom season)

There are many different varieties of blossoming cherry trees, but the most common one in Japan is the Somei-Yoshino cherry tree. Each of its buds only holds one flower with five petals, and it grows relatively quickly and big, making it very suitable for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties. The Somei-Yoshino cherry tree is said to have its origins in the Toshima ward of Tokyo (though some people are disagreeing about that, but we’re not going into that because I don’t get most of this whole horticulture-plant-stuff *worst environmental studies major ever*) … but not really as “naturally” (oh lord, the quotation marks around “naturally” already give away in which direction this post is going to go … buckle up for some serious de-constructing [love this word]) as one would generally assume. The variety is said to be a cross of two other varieties (the Oshima cherry tree and the Edo Higan cherry tree), and while there are a few theories supposing that the cross occurred naturally, many more state that the SomeiYoshino cherry tree is in fact a (man-made) production. Crazy, right? What is even crazier to me is that the Somei-Yoshino variety cannot be grown from seeds. It is reproduced through essentially transplanting a part of the Somei-Yoshino tree into the Oshima variety. Which basically makes all of the Somei-Yoshino cherry trees you see around Japan … clones of one single “mother tree”? (Or genetically modified Oshima cherry trees?)

I was mind-blown when I first heard this because I certainly would have never imagined one of the most iconic symbols of Japan to have such artificial origins. It really got me thinking, because when I experienced my first cherry blossom season in Japan last year, I went to a lot of different places around and outside of Tokyo to see the cherry blossoms, and would refer to that as “getting a break from the city” or “experiencing nature” or something along those lines. When the cherry blossom trees that I was looking at and that evoked these thoughts and feelings in me were (and still are) in fact not really “natural” at all. This led me to ask myself the following question which I thought might be interesting and important to further explore on this blog because it is so fundamental yet so hard to answer, at least for me. I know what those of you who know me at least a little are thinking now … “let’s not go there, Simone, not another one of your ‘oh-em-gee, reality is so constructed’ rants” … pfft, but you know what, I don’t care about you haters, so I’ll totally go there and ask: What even is nature? A question that philosophers and other scholars and even normal people (…what) have been asking for decades, maybe centuries even. I mean, when researching for this blog post, I found an article on the “theory” of nature by some philosopher from 1938. But I didn’t really understand that article, to be very honest, so it won’t be featured here. Just quickly wanted to mention it to show that I tried. (Why am I like this?)

Anyway … back on track. Would you say that this is nature?

Or this?

Or this?

We usually define “nature” as a place that is untouched by people. If I google “definition of nature”, the following comes up first:

the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.

So all of the above images would appear to constitute nature, right? There are trees, flowers, water – no humans, also no houses or cars or any other “human creations”.

The first photo was taken at the summit of some mountain near Lake Sagami I hiked with a couple of friends in early summer of last year. Not pictured: how well maintained the hiking path was (definitely some human hands involved) and the ropeway chords nearby. The next two photos were taken at the Sophia Forest in Karuizawa, 5.3 hectares of national forest “given” to Sophia University by the Forestry Agency of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for the conduct of fieldwork and research. The forest is constantly visited by professors and students; when I was there in fall last year, there were also a lot of workers hustling about (I don’t know why I had to put these two words in but now I don’t want to take them out for some reason) building walking paths. The last picture was taken also in Karuizawa, at the Shirotaki Waterfalls to be more precise. Had I moved the camera a little more to the right you would be able to see the fence trying to keep the gazillions of tourists in check.

Maybe a definition like the above would have held true many, many centuries ago. (Well, maybe not even then.) But with the growth in human population, and with the advancements in technology and alterations in lifestyles, I would argue that the idea behind nature also has to change. Do the above pictures really not depict nature? In my opinion, they do. Why would they not? Do humans and their actions and impacts have to be left out of the equation? Are we not part of nature as well?

With these thoughts and questions in mind, I embarked on an explorative journey of the true meaning of nature (hah okay, said explorative journey merely consisted of reading and trying to understand a bunch of really confusing papers, but it sounds way more important and fancy worded like this) and quickly stumbled upon a really interesting paper by Bonnie Costello, professor of English at Boston University, titled “On Poetry and the Idea of Nature”, in which she beautifully writes:

[…]we are creatures of nature and […] nature is our construction. We arrange the physical world as landscape and invest it with meaning, but we do so in part for evolutionary reasons, according to deep biological, as well as social, need.Our built environments reflect changes in the history of taste and power, but our history is also geographically determined. We ‘control nature,’ but it continually subverts and even inverts our intentions.

TL;DR: We have an impact on nature, but nature reversely also affects us, and it is hard to separate these two camps, or at least that is how I interpret it. I find this idea of nature a lot less problematic than the above-mentioned definition that rejects any influence by humans. An “anti-human” definition like that would imply that the best way to protect nature is to leave it alone. Which does not always hold true in today’s world in my opinion. Though in most cases the reason for that (“that” referring to humans leaving nature alone in order to protect it not always being the right thing to do) is because of humans in the first place. Okay, this is getting confusing. Let me illustrate what I mean using the example of wildfires.

Wildfires can obviously pose a great danger to humans, animals and other organisms in their vicinity. Which is obviously why a lot of money and manpower is invested in extinguishing and preventing them. However, as Claire Asher writes in article for the BBC, “the more money we invest into stopping wildfires, the worse they seem to get.” Wildfires are a phenomena that has existed for at least over a hundred million years. This means that ecosystems that are particularly prone to those fires have also had at least over a hundred million years to adapt to this, to learn how to come back after a fire, because, evolution. For many of these most flammable ecosystems, the wildfires are actually very important. But because of humans starting to intervene and put out those fires, the “natural fire regime” of some ecosystems has been disrupted and changed. The plants and animals living in these ecosystems are not used to this new “fire regime”, and as a result cannot rebound after a fire occurs. They cannot do without human intervention anymore. But this is only because of humans intervening in the first place.

We are definitely going in circles here – well, by this point in time, the issue of wildfires has definitely turned circular, so maybe it is not the best example to base my thoughts on. But I hope that I am still getting my point across. I just think that all of the above constitutes nature. Even if us humans trying to stop and prevent wildfires was going against the grain – was “unnatural” okay, now I’m going all Heidegger-Derrida here (click only if you are ready to start questioning everything you thought you knew about language in your life, okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you) –, we are a product of nature, and our actions are our actions, so they are, too. My opinion. Fight me.

Maybe I should clarify that I am not totally against the original meaning of nature. Because maybe me writing paragraph over paragraph on this topic makes it seem like I am. I just think that we need a new definition for new times. Well, not a completely new definition, but a slightly altered one. With virtually no spot on Earth left untouched by human influence, it is hard to leave us out entirely from the definition. Our creations, yes, maybe, because if I start arguing that a building or a city is also nature because it is our creation from our action, then there’s no point in defining nature at all. I just want to be able to refer to my hikes as “going into nature”, dammit.

But at the same time, according to this adjusted idea of nature, I would not be able to refer to cherry blossoms as nature anymore, right? And, another problem: how to define human creation? Where is the boundary between “just” influence and “full-on” creation? Questions, so many questions. Well, the point of this post was not necessarily to find the right new definition for nature. Just to get us to realize the instability of the concept and the issues behind its definition. Jesus, I hate and love this kind of stuff at the same time. Anyway, if you have read this far, let me know what you think. Or where my reasoning does not make sense. I’m writing this on two consecutive nights of only four hours of sleep, so I’m sure there must be one unsound argument … or two. Hopefully not more. Be nice.

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