WHAT’S NATURE? Scientists and Poets Struggle to Find the Answer, but Each of Us Must Capture the Mystery

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

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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.

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 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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Click here to take C&NN’s Vitamin N Challenge
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

Photo credits: Twenty20, Stocksy


  1. Nature = unaltered by man at any level; as originally designed, programmed and created. Man, as part of the creation of nature and programmed to be caretakers of nature, has exerted his will over nature to alter it to accommodate his immediate desire rather than to nurture it for his own long term benefit.

  2. To a naturalist, and specifically a religious naturalist, there isn’t anything that isn’t nature. Everything on our planet and in our universe falls within the category of nature. We humans like to think that we are not part of nature, and we certainly act like it, too. We build huge skyscrapers and infrastructures that attempt to seal us off from nature, but this is pure ideology being put into practice. Therefore, any conversation that attempts to categorize what is and what isn’t nature, is absurd.

  3. But if you define nature as absolutely everything then we would need another word to describe the very real concept that we are talking about. As a child I longed to understand and experience what was out there beyond brick walls and paved streets, loved walking on the beach finding shells and sponges, lying on the lawn at night watching the stars, picnics in the bush where there were still native shrubs under the trees, watching wild birds and insects … If we don’t call this nature to distinguish it from the built-up environment then what do we call it?

  4. I can’t remember where I read or heard it, but as I know it, there are some Native American/Indigenous Peoples who do not even have a word for nature. They don’t have a word for it because they never made any distinction between themselves and all of nature. Once you name it, then it is “something else” out there. Maybe we should just eliminate the word altogether!

  5. We really shouldn’t be attempting to define nature without also first considering the lens through which we view the world. Because, if you ask me, if you deny that you view the world through a specific lens you’re being rather naive. After reading Richard’s definition of nature, I couldn’t help but think “Why didn’t you say that YOU are nature?” You claim to be “in nature” when surrounded by other species in a “shared habitat”, but could you also be “nature itself”? I live on planet earth, therefore, I know I am always in a “shared habitat”. And I know I see nature when I simply look in the mirror in my very own bathroom. Perhaps your ideology Here’s an example of ideology at work in our public schools: In fifth-grade, teachers in the state of California who implement the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) are required to read through a scripted reader’s theater lesson for a Language Arts classroom writing activity about the water cycle. At one point in the narrative teachers are instructed to: “Lead the students to the understanding that when humans use water it is taken out of nature’s water cycle for a period of time but it ends back in nature’s water cycle later.” That’s pure unadulterated ideology. Any good naturalist knows that water (or even a single water molecule) could never be taken out of nature. And if humans are taking it out of nature then we must ourselves be outside of nature, too. When I read this passage to my students in my classroom during standardized test week, I make certain to let them know that once again, our nation’s government is promoting a belief based on an ideology that places us humans in an “exceptional” position above and outside of nature. And it’s doubtful the authors of the short narrative even know it.

    • Richard Louv

      Good points, John. But I did use the phrase “I exist in nature.” Usually, I talk about the human connection to “the rest of nature.” And our connection to “other animals” (because we are animals). In this case, I was talking about our personal definitions of nature, indeed as seen through our own eyes. Yes, some cultures have no word for nature, as some avoid naming God. In a theoretical world, we could do away with the word — but then, how would we go to a school board and suggest that schools include natural play and learning spaces, if we have no name for nature, or rather, the rest of nature? Sometimes practicality helps. Our cultural languages and perspectives do trip us up, on this question. Which is all the more reason to ask it.

      • I do agree with you Richard that it is an incredibly important question to ask; for practical and theoretical reasons. And I also agree that schools need to include more natural play and learning spaces. However, I obviously have a somewhat visceral reaction to the question and the answers we provide, especially if it becomes obvious that the answers reveal what I believe is an outdated and obsolete perception of nature and our relationship with it. Now I do believe in giving people the freedom to have their own opinion, however, I also believe that any perception of nature that places ourselves outside of that sphere is one that will not allow us to live sustainably on our planet, or enable us to reverse the trends of the sixth great extinction. To accomplish these two great tasks, we really will need to transform our ideologies, world views and behavioral practices. We will need to author and enact an entirely new narrative that places the human species firmly within nature and the animal Kingdom. We will need to construct our own living spaces to become “self-organizing wild places”. Otherwise, the rest of the population will wind up believing, like the ignoramus Donald J. Trump, who claims to be living in a space in his luxury apartment, where the aerosol from his hair spray has no possible way of making itself to the outside natural world.

        • Richard Louv

          Well said, John. I agree with the gist of your comment. But I also believe we need to meet people where they are, in their interpretations of nature — personal or otherwise — and then move forward from there, rather than dismissing their interpretation or the question itself as absurd. I know that many people in the children and nature movement struggle with the question, particularly when they try to make progress with city councils, school boards, the medical community, and so forth.

  6. I found Max Oelschlaeger’s “The Idea of Wilderness” to be very useful in understanding how man’s conceptualization of nature has shifted over time. This is not simply an intellectual exercise; our concepts of nature have important environmental and personal consequences.

  7. Considering your topics and interests, you might also want to check out the new anthology Wildness: Relations of People and Place . I think you’ll be nodding your head a lot. Some of us wrote about working with the wild. Others, indigenous authors, come from cultures with no word for wilderness because it is part of us and visa versa. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gary Snyder, Robert Michael Pyle and many others~
    This is all a valuable discussion!


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