Sunday, February 26, 2017

Nature and the English Language

The legendary Pizza Rat

Not too long ago I cobbled together a comic strip based on a couple of conversations I had at different times with different people. It's true that during one of these chats I uttered the word "bitches" rather glibly—but I think in the actual conversation I wasn't maligning any actual persons as "bitches," but rather referring to the "first you write the novel, then you get the bitches" lie that set me on the lonely, misty path I walk. And then we did volley some ideas back and forth about what "bitches" signifies, how its meaning and semiotic timbre change depending on who's saying it (and to whom), and how the singular "bitch" differs from the plural "bitches," etc.

Old news: language is labile. The definition of a word determines the circumstances of its use; over time, the idiosyncrasies of its use alter its definition. And "definition" is, well, difficult to define. Without getting into the "which came first, the word or the abstraction?" conundrum, let's just say that by "definition" we mean the physical object, quality, action, or relation, abstracted, that a word represents. ("Stone" isn't any particular object; it's the bundle of qualities common to the things we point to and say "stones.") A word's relative location in the involute webs of the lexicon can potentially have as much bearing on its meaning as Merriam-Webster's indexed blurbs. Just as we can better understand a person by the company they keep, we can clarify the meaning of a word by examining the words related to it.

The relatedness of words has as much to do with synonymity and etymology as with unconscious exercises of association on the part of speakers, and these linkages don't necessarily have anything to do with linguistics, per se. This most often seems to be the case when a word's referent is something that's neither tangible or visible, and also assumed to be ubiquitous, or fundamental in some way.

"Capitalism" is a good example. If you play a word association game with a liberal and pitch her "capitalism," her answer will probably be "greed," even though that isn't what capitalism is. Play the same game with a conservative, and his answer will be more likely be along the lines of "free enterprise"—which is hardly any closer to what the word "capitalism" actually means. Unless our partisans both dabble in political science or economics, any personal definitions of "capitalism" they submit will be reiterations of their first answers, elaborated into "greed system" and "enterprise system."

"Freedom" is a word whose meaning in most contexts is colored entirely by its associations and piled depositions of emotional content. It is employed so frequently and exclusively as a blunt rhetorical object that it's been pounded out of whatever shape it once possessed. Its closest synonyms are "we're number one" and "WHOO." As far as I'm concerned, the word is a lost cause. Approach somebody who habitually uses it in conversation or on Facebook. Ask them: "Freedom to do what and at whose expense?" Or propose: "if you grant that our actions are directly influenced by our genes and environment by any margin greater than 0%, it has to follow that nothing we do or think is not in some way determined by circumstances beyond our control, and so freedom is more likely a subjective feeling and not an ontological property."

The ensuing discussions will not be productive. But "freedom" is as locked into our discourse as MIDI is into our music, and so our ideologues and political leaders continue to harp on "freedom" as though it were something real, something quantifiable, when in actuality its has transcended all practical meaning and become an amorphous, religiously charged cultural totem.

We sure could use a man like David Rees again.

The word "nature" is afflicted much in the same way.

Not long ago a friend's textbook fell into my lap—Statics and Strength of Materials for Architecture and Building Construction (Fourth Edition)—so I spent some time leafing through it. Before the authors toss the reader into the turbulent depths of free body diagrams and live load requirement charts, the reader is invited to get his or her feet wet in some preliminary definitions and axioms of structural design. Rather than scrutinizing trussed bridges and cantilever retaining walls from the get-go, the text begins by calling the reader's attention to the characteristics of biological forms:
There is a fundamental "rightness" in the structurally correct concept, leading to an economy of means. Two kinds of "economy" are present in buildings. One such economy is based on expediency, availability of materials, cost, and constructibility. The other "inherent" economy is dictated by the laws of nature.

In his wonderful book On Growth and Form, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson describes how Nature, as a response to the action of forces, creates a great diversity of forms from an inventory of basic principles. Thompson says that
in short, the form of an object is a diagram of forces; in this sense, at least, that from it we can judge of or deduce the forces that are acting or have acted upon it; in this strict and particular sense, it is a diagram.
The form as a diagram is an important governing idea in the principle of optimization (maximum output for minimum energy). Nature is a wonderful venue to observe this principle, because survival of a species depends on it. An example of optimization is the honeycomb of the bee. This system, an arrangement of hexagonal cells, contains the greatest amount of honey with the least amount of beeswax and is the structure that requires the least energy for the bees to construct.
The word "nature" occurs three times here. In the first instance, "nature" is denoted (figuratively, we suppose) as a maker, enforcer, or figurehead of a kind of legal system governing horatos topos. In the second, "nature" is characterized as a creative agent, if not an entity. (In paraphrasing D.W. Thompson, the authors imitate him in capitalizing the "n" in "nature," which Thompson does when using the word in the same context.) In the third, "nature" is a setting, or otherwise a non-universal set of particulars. It follows that there are objects, relationships, and events that are of nature and those that are not; the "venue" of nature, we might suppose, is a/the zone where these particulars operate.

After an excerpt from Galileo's Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, the text continues:
Economy in structure does not just mean frugality. Without the economy of structure, neither a bird nor an airplane could fly, for their sheer weight would crash them to earth. Without economy of materials, the dead weight of a bridge could not be supported. Reduction in dead weight of a structure in nature involves two features. Nature uses materials of fibrous cellular structure (as in most plants and animals) to create incredible strength-to-weight ratios. In inert granular material such as an eggshell, it is often used with maximum economy in relation to the forces that the structure must resist. Also, structural forms (like a palm leaf, a nautilus shell, or a human skeleton) are designed in cross-section so that the minimum of material is used to develop the maximum resistance to forces.

Nature creates slowly through a process of trial and error. Living organisms respond to problems and a changing environment through adaptations over a long period of time. Those that do not respond appropriately to the environmental changes simply perish.
Here we have a "nature" that's not just a creative agent, but an intelligent one. Words like "uses," and "designed" are attributed to it, as the use of heuristic methods ("creates...by trial and error"). This reinforces connotations of agency in nature while also anthropomorphizing them. (Notice how the authors cleverly place "nature" at the beginning of each of the two sentences in which it appears, skirting the issue of whether to keep up the anachronistic capitalization, as per Thompson.)

I'm sure my frame of mind that evening had something to do with it, but these passages had me chewing on my tongue for a while.

So "nature" signifies, at once, an anthropomorphized metaphor for order in the world, an intelligent (or at least anthropic) agent operating on or in the world, and also a distinct (and therefore restricted) part of the world. Notice: when the authors of an architecture textbook wish to make a point about economy of  structure, they can avail themselves of a trope from the intelligent design narrative, and secular students probably won't even notice. Also: the dichotomy of "nature" and "not-nature" is an a priori that needs no explanation.

If we grant the authors' use of "nature" here is typical, we have reason to suspect the word's meaning has become a little bit muddled. First, a contradiction: "nature" represents a general principle of order; "nature" is also not everywhere. Second, an obstruction: "nature" is exalted as a designer, an architect, a creator—but the reader probably understands that he or she is not take the authors literally. (The authors probably aren't consciously espousing intelligent design or deism, but have no compunctions about clothing their abstractions in the trappings of such doctrines when it's convenient for them.)

Why dwell on this? Well, it insinuates that we might not be really sure what we're talking about when we talk about nature, and I think that's worth exploring a little. If you've been reading Orwell lately (a lot of people are, I understand), you've been given an object lesson in the function of language as a mediator of reality. Confused and inconsistent language is a token of confused and inconsistent thinking.

Pictured, R–L: Nature, Goulet

Merriam-Webster's entry for "nature" lists twelve possible definitions. Refracting a word into so many variegated shades of meaning is to risk divesting it of any specific meaning (incidentally, Merriam-Webster has eleven definitions of "freedom"), or to allow one hue to leech into the others (cf. Robert B. Moore's send-up of "white" and "black" in everyday use).

This is just the inexorable, conjoined advance of culture and language. We can call it necessary or we can call it inevitable. But I trust I don't need to explain how cultural evolution doesn't always lead somewhere good, or review how a culture's language exerts a persistent influence on its trajectory.

As long as we're on the topic of the evolution of language, we should take note of "nature's" origins, and how it never really meant one thing.

Nature. Noun. From the Latin verb natura, "to be born"—from the noun natus, which can mean "son," "birth," "growth," or "age" (as in the length of a lifetime). Nature belongs to the same linguistic clade as the Modern English words nativity, nascent, nation, naïve, and renaissance (re-nascence). It seems to have first bubbled up on the British aisles during the thirteenth century, via transmission from the French.

Obviously an animal squeezing her young out a birth canal isn't going to be the first image that pops into the average Joe or Jane's head when they hear "nature." The word has come a long way. And if the Online Etymology Dictionary [which, postscript, rips off its content wholesale from dictionary.com, etc.] is to be believed:
from Old French nature "nature, being, principle of life; character, essence," from Latin natura...
We can guess that it began to accrue additional meanings prior to its entry into the English lexicon, and even before it mutated from Latin to Old French. Lucretius's De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) presumably helped get that snowball rolling.

We don't need to know anything about ancient or medieval languages to infer how the process of conceptual association ramified the word's meaning(s). Birth; generation; things that grow; crops; springtime; changing of the seasons; weather; sky; birds; animals hatching from eggs; inherited traits; intrinsic characteristics; and so on and so on.

The etymology enthusiast will find few better touchstones than the works of William Shakespeare. Not only did his career coincide with the congealing of English in its modern form, but one would be hard-pressed to find any single author who left more of a personal fingerprint on the texture of the language. (If ever you're curious about where a figure of speech comes from, your first two guesses should always be the Bard or the King James Bible). A survey of the plays, facilitated by Open Source Shakespeare, allows us to glimpse into the mind and the lexicon of the early seventeenth-century Briton and get an idea where "nature" was situated within each.

Here we have Bottom chewing scenery (and fudging the word "devoured") in A Midsummer Night's Dream (nature as creative agent):
O wherefore, Nature, didst thou lions frame?
Since lion vile hath here deflower'd my dear:
Which is—
no, no—which was the fairest dame
That lived, that loved, that liked, that look'd
with cheer.
Falstaff talking shit in Henry IV, Part II (nature as arbiter, organizer; "law of" nature):
If the young dace be a bait for
the old pike, I see no reason in the law of nature but I may snap at him.
Lady Macbeth on Duncan's roofied guards in the Scottish play (nature as élan vital):
The doors are open; and the surfeited grooms
Do mock their charge with snores: I have drugg'd
their possets,
That death and nature do contend about them,
Whether they live or die.
Iago pondering how he'll get at his boss in Othello (nature as an entity's character or constitution):
The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are. 
Finally, Gonzalo waxes New World utopian in The Tempest:
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
Read that last one again. If you skimmed it, you might have imposed a modern meaning of "nature" on Gonzalo's spiel, and you would have been mistaken. He is talking about living on a deserted tropical island and living off the land, but the island, per se, is not nature, nor is any particular thing or things on it. Nature is process and principle.

In the interest of eventually getting some sleep, I haven't searched for "nature" in every play, but the ones I made a point of looking at closely were A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Cymbeline, King Lear, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, and The Winter's Tale. These are the plays in which a retreat from the city to the wilderness or a pastoral setting is integral to the narrative, and none of them, not a one, uses "nature" as a synonym for "the country," "the forest," "the outdoors," or any locale. In Shakespeare's time, the word had not yet come to be associated with ecology.

As You Like It, the manga. It's a thing, I guess.

Though its meaning was multifaceted, "nature" in the early seventeenth century, in all its aspects and uses, was tethered to a clear, unified, and consistent conceptual edifice. One Edgar G. Knowlton, writing for PMLA in 1936 ("Nature and Shakespeare"), maintains that Shakespeare's plays are representative of the intellectual/theological consensus on "nature" and its place in the organization of the universe in late-Renaissance Western Europe. Knowlton summarizes that consensus:
God is good, and so is Nature, the divine agent, His agent. Man must follow the law of nature, which is the same as the law of reason. This principle postulates the existence of free will, urges the ideal of the golden mean, and involves discipline not for its own sake but for a higher purpose. ... The purpose of conduct and art are to know Nature and to follow her, by reason to learn her principles, to practise them, and not to eliminate feeling. In this view nothing is incompatible with experiencing a sense that the innocent suffer and that life is stern and mysterious.
The main ideas represent the central thought of the Renaissance, as well as of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and mediæval speculation. To the tradition belong Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Alan of Lille, Jean de Meun, Chaucer, Dante, Petrarch, Castiglione, Rabelais, Ronsard, Montaigne, Sidney, and Spenser.
Saying this scheme of thought is consistent is not equivalent to stating it to be objectively true. After all, the geocentric model of planetary motion was pretty reliably predictive. Until Galileo came along and discovered irrefutable phenomena that the Ptolemaic system couldn't account for, epicycles and an axial Earth made perfect sense. For centuries, everything in the universe made perfect sense. The taproot of the medieval worldview was a conviction of certainty completely foreign to us today.

At any rate: Dr. Knowlton suggests attention to Cymbeline and King Lear, whose perspective on nature differs very slightly from the other plays. These are the plays of pre-Christian England; the characters can't invoke Christ or even the Abrahamic (mono-)God in their discourse, so "Nature" is sometimes substituted for the Christian godhead. One would expect lip-service to pagan figures, even on the stage, to not go over well in a kingdom that was just a few decades away from a Puritan coup. But this was not so:
The goddess Nature ... appeared in her creative function as equivalent to God or Jupiter in Seneca, and in the Middle Ages she was a vicar of God, executing as an angel the decrees of God. The particular function was emphasized in Old French literature, including the romances, an in the sonnet-tradition from Dante and Petrarch to the Italian, French, and English sonneteers of the sixteenth century. She was a familiar figure in Chaucer, Lydgate, Dunbar, and Spenser. The tradition was favorable to the goddess; she was not taken as an associate of evil or the devil.
Perhaps it was all to the same to the theatre groundlings, but to the learned caste it would have been a given that praise of nature was effectively praise of God, who created and acted through nature (circumventing its order when He saw fit). Even Isaac Newton, the man who simultaneously inaugurated the age of modern science and the metaphor of the clockwork universe—and is popularly imagined to have been a deist—saw no reason and had no desire to take the ghost out of the machine.

In one of his letters to Newton's Continental rival Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, we see Newton's disciple Samuel Clarke making the case for an active God in the universe. (Scholars argue about the extent to which Clarke is speaking on Newton's behalf, but evidence suggests Clarke was consulting his senpai as he composed his responses to Leibniz's philosophical objections.)
'Tis very true, that the Excellency of God's Workmanship does not consist in its showing the Power only, but in its showing the Wisdom also of its Author. But then this Wisdom of God appears, not in making Nature (as an Artificer makes a Clock) capable of going on Without him: (For that's impossible; there being no Powers of Nature independent upon God, as the Powers of Weights and Springs are independent upon Men:) But the Wisdom of God consists, in framing Originally the perfect and complete Idea of a Work, which begun and continues, according to that Original perfect Idea, by the Continual Uninterrupted Exercise of his Power and Government.
Clarke was making this emphatic case for a helicopter deity in 1715. But even before the eighteenth century began, an intellectual and theological counter-current was already gaining force.

Illustration of Newton by Jean-Leon Huens, for National Geographic's
wonderful Our Universe. (A very old fave of mine.)

Ernest Lee Tuveson's Millennium and Utopia: A Study in the Background of the Idea of Progress (1949) is interested in "nature" to the extent that "natural law" assumes a place in the Christian eschatological narrative of the Second Coming and in its secular reincarnation as (linear, perpetual) "human progress." But in explicating how the responsibility for humanity's final redemption was gradually shifted from God to "natural law," Tuveson offers some insight into how all (er, most, but we'll get to that shortly) the functions of a creator deity came to be foisted onto the machinery of "nature." Here he has us peer into Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681–1690), the opus of theologian Thomas Burnet. (Reminder: until the mid to late eighteenth century, science, philosophy, and theology pretty much constituted a single academic discipline.)
[Burnet] does not deny that some special intervention will be necessary to inaugurate the transformation of the Earth; but as a virtuoso he cannot rest content with such an explanation.
If we would have a fair view and right apprehension of Natural Providence, we must not cut the chains of it too short, by having recourse, without necessity, either to the First Cause, in explaining the Origins of things, or to Miracles, in explaining particular effects.
What Burnet is doing here must be fully understood, for it is of great importance to the future of Western thought. He like others of his way of thinking is transferring the burden of Providence to "nature," defined as a sequence of causes and effects, operation of which was determined and set in motion by God at the creation. As time went on, this transference was made completely and skillfully; so that to the positivists of the nineteenth century, Providence had disappeared as a factor openly operating historically, although it was present in a disguised form, being called "natural law."
In (what we tend to call) nature, a trickle of water over a stone surface can eventually carve out a precipitous basin. Analogously, the apparently innocuous argument that God's rule over His creation could be less direct than we believed slowly carved a fissure through the meridian of Western thought. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the findings of science seized more and more of the material world from God's immediate dominion. Samuel Clarke, who was perhaps aware of Burnet's Sacred Theory of the Earth during his correspondence with Leibniz, vehemently opposes any line of reasoning that would take an active God out of the universal equation, because he foresees its logical conclusion:
The Notion of the World's being a great Machine, going on without the Interposition of God, as a Clock continues to go without the Assistance of a Clockmaker; is the Notion of Materialism and Fate, and tends, (under pretense of making God a Supra-Mundane Intelligence,) to exclude Providence and God's Government in reality out of the World. And by the same Reason that a Philosopher can represent all Things going on from the beginning of the Creation, without any Government or Interposition of Providence; a Sceptick will easily Argue still farther Backwards, and suppose that Things have from Eternity gone on (as they now do) without any true Creation or Original Author at all, but only what such Arguers call All-Wise and Eternal Nature. If a King had a Kingdom, wherein all Things would continually go on without his Government or Interposition, or without his Attending to and Ordering what is done therein; It would be to him, merely a Nominal Kingdom; nor would he in reality deserve at all the Title of King or Governor. And as those Men, who pretend that in an Earthly Government Things may go on perfectly well without the King himself ordering or disposing of any Thing, may reasonably be suspected that they would like very well to set the King aside: So whosoever contends, that the Course of the World can go on without the Continual direction of God, the Supreme Governor; his Doctrine does in Effect tend to Exclude God out of the World.
And, well, that's basically what happened. You can read all about it in A.D. White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).

Go on, I can wait.

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768)

Rochelle L. Johnson's Passions for Nature: Nineteenth-Century America's Aesthetics of Alienation (2009) brings us ahead to the mid-nineteenth century, and to the transformations of this intellectual sea-change wrought on the discipline of natural history:
Increasingly, natural history changed from being an enterprise that assumed nature's truth to one that pursued a truth. This changed because natural history slowly became divorced from pursuits of morality. Natural history had long been considered one of the most moral endeavors; in fact, originally it was a religious pursuit, a point clearly demonstrated by its close relation to natural theology. The natural historian was a theologian of sorts——one who studied God through the works of His creation. However, during the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, nature's assumed meaning—that the truth of God is made manifest in the creation—became increasingly open to question. 
I wonder if anyone who's read this far (heck, I wonder if anyone has read this far) is raising their eyebrows at this point. Am I saying the scientific revolution was a net loss? Am I mourning for the fall of the medievalist Christian view of the world? Nope. What I am suggesting is that we downloaded a metaphysical OS update with which our existing software wasn't entirely compatible. The social organism of Western culture—its institutions, its laws and norms, its languages, and so on—crystallized around an idea of order in the universe that was possessed of an anthropomorphic morality and intelligence. That's not a Jenga block that can be pulled out without causing the whole tower to wobble a little.

Again, to clarify: I am not saying cultures are better off stagnating, and I'm certainly not saying Western civilization has been an unalloyed boon to the planet. The point I want to make is that when a culture jettisons a doctrine of life, the universe, and everything that informed and vitalized its activities for millennia, confusion must ensue—and the effort of restoring coherence won't just be resolved after a few generations, especially if the new ideology doesn't entirely fill the vacuum left by the old.

But: this is all part of The Process, is it not? Destruction, after all, furnishes the materials and the need for creation.

Johnson continues:
This separation of natural history from natural theology was a long and complicated process ... For centuries, the peoples of European cultures had studied nature as a means to praising God. Nature, they believed, was God's truth as it was visible in the Earthly realm. But as scholars of the history of science have shown, the direct connection between God's creation and the physical environment began to undergo scrutiny as natural historians discovered truths that challenged the static vision of life upon which this older assumption rested. ... While these issues would receive their most memorable attention in the work of Charles Darwin, who would publish The Origin of Species in 1859, they were circulating in scientific and public discourse well before his landmark publication. ...

Given these changing notions concerning the meaning of nature, the pursuit of natural history became, throughout the nineteenth century, the pursuit of natural phenomena in need of an organizing principle. In other words, natural historians sought a framework other than "God" through which to organize their many observations of natural phenomena. Some people thus sought another truth for nature.
I'm sorry to conclude that we never found it. No, that's not entirely correct—ideas were proposed, but none that were embraced by the mainstream. So we've muddled along, either irresolutely and habitually anthropomorphizing the cosmos (ie. the atheist admiring "the genius of nature"), breaking it down into sterile columns of numbers and equations, or avoiding the issue entirely, choosing to focus exclusively on humans, things humans do, and things humans make. (And some of us pretend to live in a world where the church told Galileo to shut his yap, and that was the end of it.)

Edwin Butler Bayliss, Evening in the Black Country (c. 1920?)

I remember watching a round of the Republican primaries with my ole friend James way back in 2007. When the moderator asked John McCain if he believed in evolution, the senator responded in the affirmative. He then added:
I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.
I don't remember anything else about the debate—just this grotesque utterance of McCain's. It is grotesque, politically, because it represents a bald, stumbling thrust at appeasing moderates and offering lip service to the religious right at the same time. And it is intellectually unseemly in that it espouses a pair of propositions that, at best, don't fit together, and at worst mutually negate each other. "I believe that the biological forms on this planet are they way they are because of eons of essentially random mutations that sometimes happen to increase an individual organism's chance of surviving, propagating, and passing on the mutation to its progeny, and this just happens, and happens and happens and happens, just 'cause; but I also believe in One God, humanoid and beneficent, that actively manages the world's affairs, has big plans for Homo sapiens, and may or may not have personally scooped out the Grand Canyon with His great big empyrean hands."

Sam Clarke would tell the putatively Christian legislator from the ostensibly Christian United States that he can't have it both ways: either the God of the Pentateuch and the Gospels has an active, personal role in His creation, or the thing runs by itself, without Him. Either God is in the universe, or He isn't. And, to paraphrase Clarke's letter to Leibniz, if God isn't in the universe, what need is there for God at all?

Just as Clarke augured, the ascendance of the scientific doctrine (that his senpai Newton unwittingly inaugurated) saw a world whose events and governing principles could be pretty well explained without supernatural intervention, and thereby without God. But what the accuracy and clarity of the scientific view could not replace was the WHY, the WHAT SHALL WE DO, and the WHAT'S THIS ALL FOR pulsing at the heart of a theistic scheme of things. A man like Nietzsche felt perfectly at home in this new paradigm (after all, he helped to delineate it), but not everyone is Nietzsche. (Thank goodness?) The inheritors of a civilization whose cultural myths formerly furnished its people with an explanation for existence and a reason for life now had to grope, more less blindly, for their explanations and reasons. I don't think we've found them yet.

This upheaval left the West's conception of an order in nature intact; but now the order had no point. Alfred N. Whitehead sums up the learned view of the material world once Newtonian physics and the philosophies of Locke and Decartes were integrated into the Western mind:
Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.
Before the eighteenth century, one in the West could say: "there is matter and spirit; events occur in which this matter and spirit is implicated; matter and spirit moves and changes with these events; these events were conceived and motivated by the grace an intelligent agent; there is a hierarchy of existence, and there is a plan for existence, a reason and a purpose that human beings can glimpse." Two hundred years after Newton, one could only say: "there is stuff; events occur in which this stuff is implicated; the stuff moves and it changes with these events; there you have it."

To recap: a personified Nature goddess/angel morphed into a mechanism Nature, engineered, powered, and manipulated by God; the mechanism Nature transformed into the mechanism nature, which just was, for its own sake (or for Fuck All's sake), and was to be dealt with insofar as it could be useful to us.

Our language about nature qua physical processes is confused; it hasn't adopted to our revised metaphysics—and given that most of contemporary thought's RAM is allotted to pondering questions of "humans in society" rather than "humans in the world/universe," we can anticipate a long wait before we get our existential shit sorted out.

To (finally) return to the authors of our engineering textbook: in casually describing a quasi-personified "nature" as a creative force, they are committing the first of the authorial sins Orwell enumerates in "Politics and the English Language:" namely, they employ a Dying Metaphor, plugging into a conceptual grid that has long ceased to be a complete circuit. But our language and our abstractions give them no good alternatives. How does somebody writing in English signify the mesh of processes that preceded the formation of a given recurrent biological form and allow for its perpetuation through time and space without resorting to fallacious mythological tropes or sedulous technical jargon? One is as bad as the other; both divorce us from the reality of the objects/events intended to be signified.

From D.W. Thompson's On Growth and
Form
(1917)

So! We've been talking about "nature," and by "nature" we've meant "reality, its contents, its processes, and the mechanics regulating their interactions."Or something along those lines, something sort of congruous with what the word meant to Isaac Newton and D'Arcy Thompson.

But to most people, the word "nature" means nothing of the sort.

Back in January, I picked up an anthology of essays from a conspicuously hip and socially responsible general store in rural Massachusetts. It's called The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing (2000) and, son of a bitch, I'm just realizing the title was taken from William Carlos Williams.

Anyway: The Alphabet of the Trees is basically a companion for teachers and workshop leaders brainstorming ideas for how to conduct nature writing sessions with students. (Jack Collom is among the contributors. I need to write him another letter.) "What can 'nature writing' mean if we're not clear on what we mean by 'nature'?" you ask. Well, one of the first pieces in the collection (author: one Matthew Sharpe) gets right to the heart of the matter:
"What is nature?" I asked a group of thirty or so seventh graders early one November morning. The air outside the classroom was frosty, and the deciduous trees on West 48th Street in Manhattan were just about done giving up their leaves for the year. I added that I myself was not a scientist or science teacher, but I did have some ideas about nature, which I wanted them to join me in grappling with. Several hands popped up.
"Nature," said one girl, "is anything that's natural."

"Okay," I said. "So what's natural?"

"Anything that isn't man-made," a boy said. The rest of the class seemed to like that answer pretty well.

Someone said, "A tree is nature," and someone else said, "Yeah, but not if it's planted and watered by a person. Like Central Park is not really nature. It's like nature because it has trees and grass and flowers and everything, but all that stuff was put there by somebody, so it's not really nature."
Ten pages later, Susan Karwoska recounts putting the same question to a room full of students in a Brooklyn elementary school:
"What is nature?" I asked the students on my first day there, a warm day in early February. "Nature? Ick, disgusting!" said a girl, a bright and outspoken first grader. "What do you mean?" I asked her. "Cockroaches!" she answered emphatically. "But what else?" I asked the students. Trees, they said, and grass, rocks, clouds, rats, parks. 
I flipped through the rest of the essays, hoping to find more reports of students' off-the-cuff answers to the "what nature?" question. No luck, regrettably. I'd have liked to conduct a classroom survey myself, but alas, I have no classroom. But I do have Twitter, and Twitter is a lot like a classroom—it's obstreperous, dominated by pedantic types, difficult to be in for long stretches without feeling insane, favors bullshitters, and is very sporadically and unexpectedly brilliant.

A few nights ago I opened up Twitter, punched "#nature" into the search bar, and scrolled through the top results. Here are some typical selections:








You definitely looked at that last photo and thought "MISTAKE," as I did. That is telling.

All in all, these and the rest of the photos I scrolled through (because there were very few tweets with a "nature" hashtag that didn't have at least one photo attached) might as well be pictorial supplements to the answers Kaworska and Sharpe got from their students. I don't suppose it's very scientific, but we can probably get a good idea of what people believe "nature" to mean by examining the contents of the photos they've tagged "nature." Moreover, our own "wait, what?" reaction to the final photo should tell us that (1) we recognize that most things in the world can be filed under either "nature" or "not nature;" (2) even if we haven't formal rules for distinguishing between the two, we can readily and confidently intuit which drawer a thing belongs in. Like so:

 A mountain is nature; a skyscraper is not.

 A Douglas fir is nature; a utility pole is not.

A creek in the woods is nature; a culvert in the suburbs is not.

A grassy plain is nature; a trimmed Kentucky bluegrass lawn is not.

A picturesque country house under the elms is nature; a recently built McMansion is not.

A deserted beach with sprawling dunes in the background is nature; a crowded beach with a resort town in the background is not.

A scenic vista with a highway cutting through it is nature, but would be more nature minus the highway.

A city avenue is not nature.

A cave is nature. A derelict warehouse is not nature.

Bats roosting in a cave is nature. Bats roosting in a derelict warehouse is nature, but maybe not as nature.

A rock is nature; a cinder block is not.

Butterflies are nature; humans are not.

A fawn in a grassy pasture is nature; a puppy on a blanket is not.

Chrysanthemums in a terracotta pot on somebody's front porch is not nature; chicory growing in the scree of a vacant lot across the street might be; chicory growing in a windy field that's not by a roadside is definitely nature.

A dirt road in a rural setting is more nature than an asphalt road in a similar setting. A grassy field in a rural setting is more nature than the dirt road. But if that same field is hosting a big music festival or a burn, then it is not nature.

Mice living in a burrow in a meadow: definitely nature. The mice who squat in my apartment during the cold months and get into my cereal boxes: less nature, but not not nature. Mice on a bed of pine shavings in a cage on somebody's clothes bureau: not nature.

Snow falling over the pines on the shore of a mountain lake: nature. Snow falling over Manhattan: grey area. Manhattan on a sunny day: not nature. The pines and the lake on a sunny day: still nature.

Which is more nature: a proud peregrine falcon perched on the roof of a Philadelphia museum or a common mallard swimming in a Pocono pond?

The lush green tomato, kale, and basil plants growing in a community garden patch, or the haggard, greyish little weeds pushing up out of the sidewalk cracks down the block?

A human in the woods, or a raccoon in the city?

Is there more nature in that photo of the stratified ravine up above, or in the Pizza Rat video?
 
Who is appreciating nature more: somebody watching Planet Earth on Netflix, or somebody observing the starlings and gulls in the Shop Rite parking lot?

Question: if human beings aren't nature, at what point did we stop being nature? What was the tipping point?

Who was more nature: an American family living on a remote small farm in Oklahoma circa 1900 or an Aztec family living in the heart of the Tenochtitlan metropolis circa 1500?

Do you get the sense that our ideas about the world are predicated on a false dichotomy?

I forget where I found this. Apologies.

Jack Collom does. And in his piece for Alphabet of the Trees (a version of which can be found here), he sets us straight:
[Nature] is seen as something pretty one might sniff in passing, or as something disastrous such as a flood——in any case, as something secondary to the world and culture of Homo sapiens. It's something, in fact, that we're busy replacing with pavement, hydroponics, genetic engineering, zoos, animation, tree farms, and virtual waterways. It's something too dumb for irony.

In truth, nature is everything. It gains breadth from its subsidiary, limited meanings: beauty, wildness, source-of-life, and all their specifics. It gains poignancy through its contradictions. It's the big matrix; we're a few dots not only in it but of it. The "of" is what we forget. "Of" is identity of processes. Recognizing "of" is the springboard of love, without which there's only destruction, of ourselves and others.
I must split one of Collom's hairs here: the numerous "subsidiary" meanings of "nature," and all of their baggage, doesn't give "nature" breadth, but nebulizes it, distorts it. As we've seen, the subsidiary meanings don't mesh together anymore. The word rings with dissonance.

Dictionary.com claims "nature" took on this dichotomous meaning (ie., those places and things existing in contradistinction to Homo sapiens and anthropized ecosystems) during the 1660s (two decades before publication of the Principia, incidentally). I've had no luck ferreting out additional details or conjectures so far, but I think we're up to the task of imagining how that meaning became the meaning through the ensuing centuries of industrialism and colonialism, the burgeoning of urbanism and the withering of agrarianism, and our success in placing technology between ourselves and the dirtier, bloodier, more unsavory parts of nature, and from those consequences of terrestrial cycles that cause us discomfort or inconvenience. (What difference do seasonal variances in daylight really make when we have electric lamps? What does the frost matter to us when we get our food shipped to our neighborhoods from places with a twelve-month growing season?)

Our language not only indicates this estrangement, but reifies it.

When the authors of an architecture textbook call "nature a wonderful venue" for observing economical structures and cites honeycombs as an example (for instance), we are reading that there are bees, and they make honeycombs, and they do it somewhere else. They do it Outside. It has no bearing on us. (Where do we get honey from? Trader Joe's, derp.) It has no meaning.

Nature is everything; also, nature is Outside. Everything but ourselves and our images are Outside.

There are very practical contrasts to be made between wild spaces and anthropized spaces (not the least of which is the tendency of our settlements to destroy biodiversity wherever they take root). But our language and our abstractions don't just differentiate them. Consciously or not, we place them in altogether different layers of reality.

We will turn once more to Mr. Collom to get the truth of the matter, and blockquote him purely for emphasis.
no separation between humanity and nature is possible.
It is incumbent on us to stop viewing the global ecosystem as a background to human activity when the reality is that Homo sapiens is intertwined with it, as an organ in a living body is intricately bound to the others. I expect we'll be reminded of this fact rather suddenly and very harshly. I am not looking forward to it. (Hey: have you thought about our strained topsoil lately?)

Since this whole thing thus far has (allegedly) been about language, I'd like to conclude with a few changes to our language I think would be helpful in nudging us toward the reorientation we sorely need in our relationship with The Big Matrix. Not that substituting old words for new will immediately get the excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and oceans, nor will it dismantle the apparatuses that are putting it there—but framing the general situation in terms that don't insulate us from it couldn't hurt.

Not asking for much: I'd like to see the word "biosphere" circulating more. It's simple: the atmosphere is the airy part of our planet; the biosphere is the part of our planet that's alive. It interacts with the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere, as those three parts interact with each other. Anything to train us to think of the Earth in terms of interdependence and process. 

Asking a lot: I'd like for us to devise clearer words for the types of environs we might call "wilderness/outdoors/open spaces" and "artificial environments/civilization/anthropized spaces," and terms that can express the mutualism and intermixing of the two. And I'd like "nature" to completely stop referring to any kind of place.

In my dreams: I would very much like a new vocabulary with which to describe certain natural processes (such as those denoted way up above by phrases like "nature creates") that doesn't anthropomorphize or oversimplify the matter, and doesn't employ any specialist parlance that abstracts from it its eminent meaning.

As things stand, this is practically impossible. It would necessitate nothing short of a full-spectrum paradigm shift in our perception of the world and how it works—which can only proceed from a revolution or a cataclysm. Here's hoping we'll be capable of staging the former without compulsion from the latter.

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