By Christy Tidwell
What is nature? What do you imagine when you think of nature? What are the qualities of nature (better yet, of Nature with a capital N)?
Pause now and think about that for a minute.
What is the image of Nature you hold in your mind? Picture it.
Did you imagine something like that? Maybe not that exact image, but something similar? If so, consider this response more fully. What are the qualities of this representation of nature? It’s beautiful. It has lots of elements of the natural world (I know, that seems circular, but stick with me), like trees, mountains, a lake. It’s pure and untouched. It’s wild. Notably, there are no humans in this image.
I ask this question of many classes and this is almost universally our starting point when we define “nature.”
- Nature = wilderness.
- Nature = not human.
- Nature = aesthetically pleasing.
But what does this leave out? And at what point does nature stop being natural or pure? At what point does “wilderness” stop being “wild”? When humans change it in any way? If so, are national parks really nature? Is there any nature remaining on the planet?
In “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon writes about the limitations of this vision of nature as wilderness, arguing that wilderness “is quite profoundly a human creation – indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.” It doesn’t exist outside of us, therefore, but is shaped by us and our ideas.
To be clear, Cronon does not argue that trees, rocks, etc., do not exist outside of human perception. They are real on their own terms. However, the concept of wilderness is one that we came up with. Given this, nature cannot simply be defined as wilderness.
In Environmental Literature & Culture (ENGL 300), which I will be teaching in Spring 2022, we begin with these questions and concepts and then explore even more complex questions that follow from this. For instance:
- What elements of nature do we fear and what elements do we value?
- What kinds of stories do we tell about the natural and/or nonhuman world, and what are the consequences of these stories?
- What responsibility do we have toward the others – human and nonhuman – with whom we share the world?
To give one example, consider Jaws (1975, dir. Steven Spielberg). This movie both reflects and creates a fear of nature – sharks, specifically. Sharks weren’t exactly embraced before this movie was released, but fear of sharks rose significantly afterward. Even more significantly, sharks have been hunted and killed in greater numbers after 1975 than before. That may not be only Jaws‘ fault, but it certainly didn’t help. This movie tells a story of fear that has had real-world consequences and that we – as a species – ought to take responsibility for. What happens if we tell the story of Jaws from the shark’s perspective, though? How does that present the natural world, and human/nonhuman relationships, in a different light? In this class, we will consider Jaws as well as a retelling from the shark’s perspective that I have gotten permission to share.
More generally, we will explore these questions through novels, poetry, comics, film, music, painting, photography, and more, aiming to learn from a wide range of voices and perspectives and to explore how representing the environment in different media and forms shapes our responses to it.
Environmental Literature & Culture will be offered in Spring 2022 at 9:30 am TR. Required books are Appleseed by Matt Bell, The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay, We3 by Grant Morrison, The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente, and Habitat Threshold by Craig Santos Perez. Movies will likely include Jaws, Grizzly Man, The Witch, In the Earth, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Godzilla (but these may change as I plan the syllabus).