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Nature is Here, Not There: Cosmologies and Biodiversity

person in park
© Creative Commons

According to Catherine L. Albanese, author of Nature Religion in America, the concept of nature “ a collective physical whole – an ordered cosmos comprising the animal and vegetable kingdoms on earth as well as the stars and other heavenly bodies – is a product of European heritage” (p.20). While this cosmology threads a beautiful tapestry that has inspired art, literature, and philosophy, it also has an important implication for our daily lives and the way we perceive the world: we often separate ourselves from nature.

medieval worldview
“Universal Correspondence” from Fludd's Utriusque Cosmi Historia, 1617. This image illustrates a medieval worldview and the order of the cosmosand how the elements of nature are ordered, such as the kingdoms of “Mineralia”, “Vegetabilia”, and “Animalia”. If you look closely in the “Animalia” sphere, humans, or “Homo” are included, however, the main figure in this image is set above the earth, one hand chained to the earthly primate below and the other hand chained to the divine above. Side quest: Spend a few minutes looking at this image and its different layers to see what interesting details you can find!

This is reflected in our language when we refer to the “wild” which inherently contrasts against the built environment such as urban, suburban, and agricultural areas. The term “natural” is often used to amorphously refer to things that are of the non-human world in contrast to things that are man-made or synthetic. These lines of thought build cognitive barriers, fostering the growth of an invisible membrane that separates humans from the rest of the world and its inhabitants.

Rescued Harbor Seal pup
Rescued Harbor Seal pup © The Marine Mammal Center

Whether consciously or unconsciously, this process of separation through thought, speech, art, etc. builds the illusion that nature lies mostly outside of city walls and blinds us to the other living beings that we share our spaces with. However, there is a grain of truth to the idea that nature is “out there” that is especially prevalent in the modern world. The built environment is often hostile and inhospitable for wildlife, plants, and non-living elements of the environment such as creeks and ponds. Lawns are functionally deserts, providing barely any food and habitat for wildlife. Urban conditions, such as the urban heat island effect, make it very hard for plants such as trees to survive and often have shorter life spans. Wildlife rehabilitation centers become inundated with injured and orphaned baby animals in the spring and summer, often from the consequences of human actions. Yet with all that said, life still thrives around us on levels we all underestimate, scientists included.

One of my favorite stories that I heard recently and think of constantly comes from Australia. Three housemates and scientists Matthew H. Holden, Russell Q-Y Yong, and Andrew Rogers were all shut in together during the COVID-19 lockdowns. To pass their time, they decided to document all species they could find in and around their suburban home. They initially estimated they would find 200-300 species. Within a year, they documented 1,150 species (read their article here).

Events like the City Nature Challenge can initiate the psychological shift from nature being “out there” to being here, all around us. By using apps like iNaturalist and attending local events such as BioBlitzes, I learn to see the biodiversity around us. The small grove of trees on the side of the freeway transforms into a mosaic of multiple species that interact with each other every day by providing food and shelter, and by communicating with each other through pheromones and mycelial networks. Learning to see is one of the most important life skills that people of all backgrounds use. Artists, naturalists, scientists (including community scientists), and more all undergo the process of learning how to see not only their surroundings but also how to see their worldviews and modes of perception.

What are the consequences of separating ourselves from the world?

A common sentiment I see online falls along the lines of “humans are toxic for the world” or “humans should leave nature alone”. To me, these lines of thought are sad, defeatist, and lead to shirking responsibility. Identifying humans as bad for the world denies us the ability to do good for the world, and to create relationships with animals, plants, and places. It denies us the ability to change our negative actions and choices and denies us the ability to fight against the systemic problems that have led to the environmental crisis and to create systemic solutions. By seeing humans as outside of nature, and nature as outside of the human environment, it means we keep the rest of the world and the human-caused environmental crisis both out of sight and out of mind. When nature is “out there”, so is its destruction. To see nature around us everywhere we go instead leads to joy, wonder, and solutions.


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