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  • Writer's pictureRitchard Allaway

16/06/21 - Re-connecting with 'Nature'

“No part of the natural world tells us how to value it, let alone how to live and relate to one another.”

Sketching the Ruins of Tintern Abbey by Samuel Colman (1780 – 1845)

With my interest around the anthropocene I have set myself the research task of trying to discover an understanding on how humanity can re-engage or re-live with nature. I touched on this briefly within 'Field Work' but with this blog post I will analyse from an article I came across recently.

In 2015 Rob Anderson for the Atlantic interviewed Jedediah Purdy about his new book 'After Nature' . Jedediah Purdy is an American legal scholar and cultural commentator. He is professor of law at Columbia Law School where he teaches courses on American Constitutional Law, Constitutional Law and Democracy and its Crisis. First impressions after reading his biography would raise questions about how this relates to contemporary art, but as with my research (and what should be clear with all research) all though it is easy to go off on a tangent, it is also important to bring in perspectives from different academic subjects. I would suggest that you read my blog post 'Cultural Ecology & Cultural Critique' to give yourself a little more insight on my approach towards a rhizomatic theoretical methodology.

What I found interesting with this article interview was how Purdy broke down 'nature' and how the American people worked 'their' landscape.

Providential, where nature is a wild place set apart by God, for human cultivation.

Romantic, where nature is a place of aesthetic and spiritual inspiration, a “secular cathedral.” Utilitarian, where nature is a storehouse of resources, requiring expert management.

Ecological, where nature is the totality of many interdependent systems.

I would see this as a chronological system of order where religion takes precedence over mans value of what systems appear in nature but I want to highlight the 'Romantic'. Now with the romantic period, artists of all medias attempted to encapsulate the beauty of the aesthetic appeal, the place of wonder, the place of awe, the place of solitude, 'the dwelling place of God' (Donald 2010), all principle qualities of Kantian and Burkian sublime. With man's destruction of the natural landscape and its erosion from nature, national parks or wilderness areas were formed from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a means to preserve and 'frame' landscapes of significant aesthetical importance. Now lets think about that for a second. Humanity is pushing back the natural landscape and so the only thing to do, is for the government to step in after it realises humanity is A; destroying its own world and B; humanity needs a place of natural beauty (this depends on what is categorised as the correct landscape of importance and which will serve humanity). It rather is an almost surreal concept that we have arrived at this point but it is a positive one, that we can protect and preserve areas of beauty but one that is too late. We have our live paintings to experience in a physical form but as a tourist attraction, crowded by other humans, where one can yes, connect with nature but can we REALLY connect with nature? As Purdy states 'These parks were created by acts of Congress to approximate a painterly ideal. Of course the landscapes were already there; but now they are managed as secular cathedrals, our answer to the Sistine Chapel, the place where a person of a certain turn of mind goes to see the hand of God.'

The freedom for the natural landscape has been claimed and imprisoned by humanity. We have decided that we are the 'Gods' and we own this planet. We understand the Earth's appeal, which is as Purdy states, 'terrible, familiar and alien, cruel and generous' but we have a bond with a familiar set of people, we position ourselves within certain spaces and we become a-tuned to what is called our 'natural world'. There is a bond that is embedded so strongly within our lifestyle and our archaic view we have come to perceive this concept as the only way to live with the natural landscape. Purdy later discusses Alaska's Athabascan people and how they (although stuck to their archaic ways of living with the landscape) have understood a more sustainable and ethical way to work and remain in-tune with the values of our planet.

'Alaska’s Athabascan people is that these “animist” folks don’t revere an abstract Nature, nor do they see it as just a set of resources and logistical problems. They have relations to it, rather like the relations you might have with your partner’s family, or the neighbours, or your co-workers: a bit opaque, touchy, a mix of affection, obligation, and prudence. And these relations are specific—not with Nature, but with the salmon, or a river, or a tree. They are on many scales, again, much like our relations with individuals, institutions, countries, cultures, in our human-on-human lives.'

Unfortunately for us, our political hierarchies have yet to take note of the indigenous people, instead hundreds of years ago they decided that they were of little concern to the white European and that they were not utilising the landscape to the best of its ability and so must be removed. Years later, and still with racial and geographical issues apparent why aren't government officials taking more ethical and open-minded approaches to how humanity can re-live with the nature? The natural world is a dangerous place, but it is not our place to decide on what we take and remove from it, more so we should learn from it and let nature be a natural nature within and with us.

Below I have copied in some passages from the article that I have compiled into a segment titled 'Humans Being Idiots'

'For others, talking about the Anthropocene smacks of anthropocentrism and arrogance: To their ears, the terms seems to celebrate human control and putting selfish human interests first. This is a more or less traditionally environmentalist objection to human selfishness and hubris. E.O. Wilson, for instance, takes many swipes at “Anthropocene enthusiasts” in his forthcoming book, Half-Earth, as does Elizabeth Kolbert in her work for The New Yorker. Wilson and Kolbert are identifying “Anthropocene” with anthropocentrism, meaning some mix of (1) the idea that people decide what matters, and what is worth saving, according to our own lights; and (2) the idea that we're in charge, that technological mastery is just going to keep on rolling, even deepen. Geo-engineering! Robots! Martian colonies! To hell with nature, anyway! That sort of thing.'

'Peter Kareiva, a senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy who has tried to brand (I hate this word, but it’s exactly what he’s doing, so he deserves it) his frankly anthropocentric, business-friendly, wilderness-bashing agenda, “conservation for the Anthropocene.”

'Finally, there are those for whom the Anthropocene perspective deepens the philosophical mistake of humanism, which is to emphasize what makes us special, what sets us apart from everything else, when we should be trying to move beyond that idea and explore what we have in common with the rest of the living world, including, obviously, animals, but also perhaps mushrooms, forests, supercomputers, etc.'

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