A few years ago, I worked with a council of neuroscientists who were experts on childhood development. When I asked how experiences in the natural world shape young brains, they drew a blank.
“How do you define nature?” they replied, rhetorically.
Ironically, these same scientists were simulating what they considered “natural conditions” for control groups in their labs. But if asked to step outside the lab and define nature, the scientists were lost.
Scientific resistance to the word is, I believe, one of the reasons that the relationship between nature experience and human development has, as a focus of research, been neglected for so long. (The other reason being where research money comes from.)
Scientists aren’t the only people who struggle with the question.
By its broadest interpretation, nature includes the material world and all of its objects and phenomena. By this definition, a machine is part of nature. So is toxic waste. A friend of mine likes to say that nature is anything molecular, “Including a guy drinking beer in a trailer park and a debutante drinking highballs in Manhattan.” Technically, he’s right. Still, most of us would agree that nature is both more and less than beer and highballs.
Another definition of nature is what we call “the outdoors.” By this definition, a man-made thing may or may not be part nature. On its face, New York City may not appear natural, but it does contain all manner of hidden, self-organizing wild places, from the organisms secreted within the humus of Central Park to the hawks that circle above the Bronx. In this sense, a city complies with the broadest laws of nature; it is natural (as a machine is part of nature), but wild in its parts. Humans are among its parts.
However, for urban planners or academics studying the impact of nature, this definition — the outdoors — can be problematic. It places soccer fields and wildlife corridors under the same banner.
What about wilderness? If you Google the definition of wilderness, you’ll find such phrases as: “An uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region… a neglected or abandoned area of a garden or town…wasteland, no man’s land.” Other defining terms are more positive, but it’s curious and revealing that so many negatives pop up first.Some folks seem more intent on deconstructing nature than defining it.
The editors of the Oxford Junior Dictionary have already scuttled such words as “acorn’ and “buttercup” in favor of “broadband” and “cut and paste.”
Given our ambivalence about the natural world, it’s no surprise that, through the ages, we’ve pretty much left the definition of nature up to the poets.
The preeminent nature poet Gary Snyder attaches two meanings to the word nature, which comes from the Latin nature — birth, constitution, character, course of things — and beyond nature, nasci — to be born.
When considering children in nature, one hungers for a richer description, a definition with more breathing room — one that does not include everything as natural or restrict nature to virgin forest, a definition with room for the divine.
In that spirit, Snyder is drawn to poet John Milton’s phrase, “a wilderness of sweets.”
“Milton’s usage of wilderness catches the very real condition of energy and richness that is so often found in wild systems,” Snyder writes. “A ‘wilderness of sweets’ is like the billions of herring or mackerel babies in the ocean, the cubic miles of krill, wild prairie grass seed…all the incredible fecundity of small animals and plants, feeding the web….But from another side, wilderness has implied chaos, eros, the unknown, realms of taboo, the habitat of both the ecstatic and the demonic. In both senses, it is a place of archetypal power, teaching, and challenge.”
That more bountiful understanding of nature – as a wilderness of sweets – is helpful.
A consensus definition of nature will always remain elusive. But each of us can construct a personal definition of nature, based on our individual relationship with the world.
Here’s my personal definition: I exist in nature anywhere I experience meaningful kinship with other species and am humbled by our shared habitat. When I use the word “nature” in a general way I mean natural wildness: biodiversity, abundance — related loose parts. By this description, a natural environment is not required to be pristine, but does contain mystery.
It can be found in Yosemite or Yonkers, among the stars or in the galaxies that swirl in a pond behind a school. This nature is influenced at least as much by wildness and weather as by developers, scientists, beer drinkers, or debutantes. Most of all, this nature reflects our capacity for wonder. Nasci. To be born.
We know this nature when we see it. And when we need it.
Richard Louv’s newest book, VITAMIN N, offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life in urban, suburban and rural communities. His other books include LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age. Parts of this essay are adapted from them. He is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.
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Find out how can you help your family, school, library and community get a dose of nature.
More reading and resources
NATURE’S NEURONS: Do Early Experiences in the Natural World Help Shape Children’s Brain Architecture?
VITAMIN N FOR THE SOUL: 10 Ways Faith-Based Organizations Can Connect Children, Families and Communities to the Natural World
10 Reasons Children, Adults & Communities Need Vitamin N
CONNECTING WITH VITAMIN N: A Ten-Year Reflection from One of Canada’s Leading Conservationists
THE HELSINKI ALERT: Scientists and Health Experts Call for Cities Rich in Nature
New Initiative to Help Cities Increase Nature Access for Children Launched By League of Cities
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