“Human place in nature” is a topic I’m semi-obsessed with right now, and though it seems sorta esoteric, I think the issue has huge implications for gardeners and designers.
Here’s what got me all stirred up this time.
I just finished showing the 2005 film Grizzly Man to my English classes as part of a unit on documentary film. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s the story of the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a self-proclaimed “kind warrior” who lived with the Grizzly bears in Katmai, Alaska for 13 summers in order to study and protect them.
Although Treadwell had a genuine love for animals and appeared to have better relationships with the bears than with other humans, he was actually killed and eaten by a Grizzly in October 2003.
Treadwell’s violent and somewhat ironic death is part of what makes the film fascinating, as is the question of whether he was a courageous hero or a lunatic narcissist. But as I was watching the film with my classes this week, I was more intrigued by something else.
The director of the film, Werner Herzog, clearly felt that Treadwell was — if not a lunatic — at least a misguided idealist. Though he might have had some sympathy for Treadwell, Herzog did not share the “kind warrior’s” warm fuzzy feelings about the natural world. In his narration of the film, Herzog makes some bone-chilling statements about nature — statements that are in direct opposition to Timothy Treadwell’s romantic view of wilderness. After a segment of the film in which a male grizzly kills a cub, Herzog reflects:
“I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”
When Treadwell looked into the eyes of a Grizzly, he saw a kindred spirit, a friend, a brother. Herzog saw no such thing, just “the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
Wow. Did you get that?
The overwhelming indifference of nature.
This is what fascinates me — one man perceives nature as pure, life-affirming, vital, uncorrupted, beautiful.
And another man perceives it as chaotic, indifferent, hostile.
There’s more to be said about the folly of such extremes in perception, but in the meantime, I asked myself what all this had to do with gardeners.
I think gardeners, more than most people, exist in both of these worlds — Treadwell’s and Herzog’s. It may seem like a stretch to compare living with Grizzlies to planting a row of carrots or potting up a bunch of petunias, but I’m going to go there anyway.
Gardening requires a person to step into the natural world in a way that hikers and even campers don’t often do. A good gardener knows the soil, the seasons, the habits of grackles and grubs, the timing of bud break and leaf drop. We have a long-term relationship with a piece of land — never mind that it’s a quarter acre in Cleveland and not a vast expanse in some national park — the point is, like Timothy Treadwell, we draw pleasure and inspiration from the world of living things. And we feel connected to something larger than ourselves.
Gardeners are also all too familiar with nature’s “indifference.” Though an outbreak of the Leaf Notching Beetle on our peonies may not bring us to our knees, our romantic ideas about nature and gardens are often kept in check by such disappointments. Vegetable gardeners, especially, must have the backbone to deal with Nature’s cruel disregard for all our toil and passion.
All of these different perceptions of nature are very much at play in the world of design, as well. The recent emphasis on “sustainable” landscaping puts us smack-dab in the middle of this Humanity/Nature debate, which is why the topic interests me so.
So yeah…for now I have to wrap up this brain dump, but be on the lookout for a “Part II” on this topic!
I enjoy all your posts both humorous and serious, but as an ecologist, I particularly like this post’s ruminations! One question it brings to mind is, for whom is a sustainable landscape sustainable? We design ultimately for people and what we like to see or experience in our gardens, not for “weeds”, poison ivy, Japanese beetles, nutrient loving algae, or deer ticks. Is it right to favor some species over others? I think that if we find human health or conservation of biodiversity to be our primary goal it probably is, but I don’t think we can justify our decision by saying that is Nature’s goal.
Oooooh, some interesting ethical questions there, Sylvan. You’re right, though, the reason most of us want to maintain biodiversity is that it ultimately benefits US. And I’ve always thought of “sustainable” as being a sort of balance, but a certain amount of imbalance is normal in nature, for sure.
These waters can get pretty murky.
1. Indifference and hostility are mutually exclusive.
2. In my experience, truth rarely lies at the extremes. It usually lies somewhere in the middle. “Nature red in tooth and claw” achieves a kind of balance and harmony.
3. Humans are part of nature.
Agree on all three counts, Deirdre.
“Mother Nature’s a bitch”
Mike deGruy 1951-2012
Thanks for sharing the link, Kenneth. Looks like he led a pretty amazing life.
Just a couple of thoughts. I am not sentimental about mother nature. She has tried to kill me on more than one occasion (through her indifference of course). I accept her nature for what it is and I also recognize myself as a part of nature, not something apart from it. Like the Burdock weeds with foot long roots that struggle against my tugging to remove them, I am also stubborn. It is my nature to bring into my garden what I want and not what someone views as “native” or natural. I am a part of whatever nature is. Therefore, whatever I choose to do because of my nature is natural. Coming to this point-of-view was not easy for me as I watched other men remove the mountains of my youth in order to get the coal out from under them. They too are of nature; doing what is in their nature, and that too is natural. I should no more hate Mr. Peabody’s coal company than I should hate the glaciers that scraped the earth for millenia or the comets that changed the existing natural order on a much larger scale.
I am a bit tired of the sustainability talk. Nothing is sustainable. The rugged, wild part of Virginia that I occupy is nothing like what my Native American ancestors knew in their time. Change is the constant in nature, even within her patterns of seasons and cycles. Native people say “you can never wade the same river twice.” Change is long term and short term and ever present. So long as I can coexist with the rest of “nature” without bringing harm, the world is in harmony. But when I am threatened or denied the success I desire in gardening or in life, I will compete with whatever nature throws in my path. That is my nature and I am of nature and I conclude that this is the natural order of things. If the grizzly thought at all, I believe it would agree.
Wow, thanks for this passionate and eloquent reply. I hear you on the idea of seeing ourselves as part of nature and therefore anything we do is “natural”…though I suppose if you took that to the extreme you could use that to justify just about any behavior, couldn’t you? A society has to have some sort of value system in place by which to judge people’s actions, don’t you agree?
Love this! I a firm believer that mother nature isn’t all that nuturing — she’s out to kill you. And yet, she does also sustain and feed us, and is no less (perhaps even more?) entrancing and beautiful because she is so lethal. It is that paradox at the heart of the natural world that makes is so deeply fascinating and wonderful to me.
I know what you mean, Joseph. I think that many people are drawn to nature simply because it offers danger and unpredictability. I prefer to keep that side of nature at arm’s length, but I can understand why people go rock climbing, chase tornadoes, etc.
I somewhat agree with Herzog, but he’s still looking at it from a human bias as he’s applying humanistic terms to things that just aren’t human. The whole “if a tree falls in a wood and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound” betrays our narcissism and sense of ownership about the world. Our mistaken presumption seems to be that if we can learn about and understand natural processes, we can learn to control them and ultimately enforce some sort of stasis. Nature is change. Just because you lived with bears for 13 years and nothing has happened, doesn’t mean that you won’t suddenly turn into dinner. Gardening should teach the gardener that change is the only constant, so stop worrying about it.
You are right, Susan…we do certainly have a human bias on this issue. On the other hand, we HAVE learned about natural processes and have certainly controlled them…not necessarily without screwing something ELSE up, (see: Hoover Dam) but still…. the idea of enforcing “stasis” is kind of fascinating. Do you see that as the goal of today’s environmental movement?
I have to agree…the universe is indifferent to us…and everything else, to think otherwise is vanity. As many have said here, we are indeed part of nature…not apart from it. The difference is we’re the only beings (that we know of) capable of comprehending the impacts our actions (and those of others) have on the rest of the world. This does put us in a peculiar spot, to be sure. I think gardeners are, perhaps, especially aware of such things as we’re always OUT in nature…and are so directly affected by its nuances. Sadly, “green” and “sustainable”, though admirable goals in their best incarnations, have become mostly marketing ploys and a means for some people to feel superior to others. Even the best-intentioned gardener can, at times, do things that are damaging to the environment…which mostly stems from not fully understanding how even the smallest decisions can add up over time…the Butterfly Effect and all. Yikes…that may have been a bit of a tangent 🙂
How right you are about marketing ploys that use “green” and “sustainable” to sell products and to sell self-rightousness as well.
On the other hand, Americans’ tendency to take basically good and worthwhile ideas (like sustainable landscaping) and commercialize them and beat people over the head with them, should not lead us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It would be a shame if the backlash against native plants, sustainability, etc. because so strong that we started embracing McMansions and giant lawns again.
Oh, totally! I think the basic principles are good and can have very positive effects…I only question those who flaunt it for the recognition 😉 It’s rather like the “native nazis” and other absolutists driving people away from something that is positive (using natives) due to their almost religious zeal…deep sigh.
Nice perspective, and how true.
Your students are so fortunate…
THanks, I only wish they’d show me even a shred of the thoughtfulness and intelligence of my commenters…
Delusional Scpirohhzenic is my guess.Once his subconscious drove him to it, it kept hammering the buttons in panic to avoid taking blame for an incredibly stupid act. Once he came out of his delusional fugue, he noticed his wife wasn't moving, and called 911.His wife was probably missing more than a few screws as well … when you are the neighborhood crazy cat lady, your partner options are kinda limited.
Nature has given most humans the intelligence to recognize that grizzlies are wild and unpredictable, and that it is wise to give them a wide berth. When the grizzly attack him, it was not “nature’s indifference” at work. It was nature helping to assure the weak links in species are not the ones that stick around.
Oh my, Stacy! So I’m guessing you’d put him for a Darwin award?
I’m kind of with Stacy here. This man’s story reminded me of a series on Animal Planet; the real name escapes me, but I call it “People Who Think It Would Be a Great Idea to Keep a Tiger as a Pet Because They Think They Have a Special Relationship With Tigers and Understand Them but the Tiger Always Ends Up Eating Them Anyway.”
As a gardener and a human being, I’d have to agree with Herzog. We are part of nature, and as evolution has demonstrated, the universe is indifferent to us, isn’t even aware of us, because to say the universe is aware is to anthropomorphize nature. Fact is, we’ll never know for sure. There are limits to our knowledge. Of course, I’d like to think there is something like a generosity in nature, a generosity that brings life into being and sustains it, not through an act of some god or omnipotent being, but through natural process (birth of stars, death of stars, planets formed from stardust, humans formed from planetary materials, etc.).
I’d like to never hear the word “sustainability” again. All things change, including the climate, plant distribution, what’s native, what will be native in 30 years. We can’t stop natural processes, even those helped along my natural, automobile-powered, carbon-fueled human beings.
Nature simply is – it’s not out to kill us, nor is it out to support us. Even to say it’s indifferent to us is to grant it more of a human understanding than I think is warranted. How we respond to nature and reflect what we perceive and see of nature back to ourselves and to those around us says much about us but it doesn’t change nature. I live in Nashville, and one aspect of Nashville likely not exclusive to this little neck of the woods is the impressive invasiveness of one or two Asian honeysuckle species, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t those around who celebrate the same invasive species (the shrubby L. mackii I think) as an excellent element of their landscape. Bottom line is that if one who has a garden area doesn’t stay on top of weeding out the honeysuckle, along with several other invasive exotics and a host of more native weedy plants, the garden area disappears in a matter of fewer than ten years. Our gardens have little to no sustainability without significant activity on our part – and we have a particular ecosystem type around these parts that similarly needs our interference to remain. “Sustainability,” like any other catch word, can certainly be abused and overused. However as we continue to expand our human range across the planet, more and more habitats and ecosystems may need our help, since we’ve already interfered with natural processes, in order to be sustainable. So I have no problems with the word or the activity behind it, though perhaps some frustration with its overuse and abuse.
There’s obviously many different possible tangents and side-streets to this overarching umbrella-like train of thoughts – I’m already far afield from where I started or where I thought I’d get to, but enough said for one post.
This post makes me think of an idea in Michael Pollan’s book the Botany of Desire, of how some plants have coevolved with us. They have used us and we have used them. The most successful of crops have worked with us humans. HOw successful would the apple be without us?
Yes, I was just reading this book and I had the same thought when reading this post! Pollan talks about humans’ problematic characterizations of nature as well in his earlier book “Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education.”
Yes, both Treadwell’s and Herzog’s views of nature seem to be projections stemming from their cultural and life experiences, as other commenters said. I’d say “indifference” comes closest to describing nature as experienced by gardeners. One of the key traits of a good gardener, I believe, is adaptibility. To be a successful gardener, one must adapt to and try to anticipate the vicissitudes of nature (including, since humans are part of nature, the rampagings of small children or pets!).
At the risk of venturing into deep waters over my head, I would argue that the concept of humans as standing “outside” nature, and the personification of nature as a (divine?) source of inspiration can be traced back to Christian philosophy. Treadwell’s view of nature recalls 18th century writing about the “sublime” (what is staggering, inspirational but at the same time frightening, perhaps an example of the supreme power of a higher being). See the writings of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, John Dennis, and Joseph Addison. These men were also writing from the position of their cultural and life experiences–as wealthy (Ashley-Cooper was an earl) white Englishmen. We humans seem to have difficulty–and perhaps it is impossible?–seeing nature without the filter of our experiences getting in the way. And, I would argue, that can be part of what makes our experiences in nature wonderfully rich and varied! It can also, depending on the person and their experiences/cultural background, lead to a view of nature as menacing, destructive, out to get you.
Thanks for the thought-provoking posts, Mary! I always enjoy reading your blog.
Beautifully written and important, Mary. And it’s almost Earth Day (and Earth Hour at 8:30 PM tomorrow). Thank you!
Dear Mary, Your thought-provoking posting, and the equally thought-provoking comments from your followers make me anxious for Part 2. P. x
Reblogged this on Sweet Hollow Almanac and commented:
A topic I’ve been thinking about lately as I reclaim my garden from the woods. I think people often get so wrapped up in the “rules” of sustainability and forget that at root, “sustainability” is about sustaining *our* lives and communities within the natural environment. We are most certainly not separate from nature, no matter how comfortable we make our McMansions or how much plastic we wrap our food in. And we’re not separate from each other, either–what one set of people chooses to do with the tops of their mountains (or their upstream water, or their grizzlies) can have a significant effect on their neighbors. So no matter how crazy the stinging nettles get, I pull them by hand, because Roundup will go in my well water, and probably into the creek, down to my neighbors, too. I should probably be worried about whatever red-legged frogs and salamanders might be harmed in the process, but harm that comes to them from nasty chemicals in my garden would just be a signal of what’s to come for me. Advocacy for healthy soil and “sustainable” gardening practices is just selfish (in a delightful way.) Since, as many here have said, and all of my daughter’s collection of dinosaur books reminds me daily, nature is indifferent. Adaptability is survival.