We associate nature with serene streams, towering trees, and majestic peaks. Nature is a compilation of images, associations, and definitions. Each person has a unique definition of nature depending on his or her experiences and backgrounds. Memories of grass stains, rolling down a sand dune, or a t-shirt soaked through from an impromptu swim help to shape our perception of nature. Personal associations aside, there are overarching themes regarding the nature of nature.
I set a blank sheet of paper in front of four people and asked them to draw nature. The resulting drawings were all different but maintained some common characteristics. Three of the drawings featured vegetation and the sun, in addition to unique elements like mountains or the ocean. One person wrote the word nature in block letters. This representation demonstrates the fact that nature is not a concrete object or environment. It is just a word, a signifier. I asked each person why they depicted nature the way that they did. Junior Dorsa Djalilzadeh said the drawing was her, “traditional understanding of nature forever. It is a pretty basic understanding of it. Everybody can relate.” She illustrated the common impression of nature in our society. Although there are variations, the word nature typically connotes an image of mountains, trees, and sun.
Words enable the brain to make common associations. Nature is usually associated with classic landscapes as opposed to extreme forms. How can one word encompass the vastness and diversity of nature? The word nature has more than one definition. “Nature is everything, you know what I mean?” said first-year Joe Vuchetich when asked for his definition. “Because nature has so many definitions. You could say that nature is plants and stuff but you also have human nature. That’s an instinct. You could say the nature of such and such activity as well. Everything has a nature to it.” The meaning of a word is dependent on its context. The problem with the word nature is that it can encompass every natural aspect, but the common, therefore, conceptions center on only a few. The word can limit our understanding and cause miscommunication. When referring to environmental protection or natural adventure, clear communication is essential.
Because the word has many applications, how do we define something as “natural”? All things come from the earth, so everything must be natural to some extent. Sophomore Jenny Ross defines natural as, “less contaminated by mankind’s dirty, sweaty grasp, less refined, less processed.” The very concept of nature was born from the development of the unnatural. Why is there a distinction between humans and nature? Are humans not also part of nature? The idea comes from the human desire to control the world. By creating a dichotomy, humans distance themselves from the environment. The idea of nature is a result of humans attempting to categorize the world in binary terms. When talking about conserving nature, the very words we use to encourage unity actually create distance.
We as humans establish an overarching meaning for words aimed at creating common ground between each other and between ourselves and nature. Yet acknowledging the numerous definitions of nature is not feasible in normal conversations. Therefore, the common ideal is needed, but there are gaps in general understanding. Language is innately symbolic; there is no escaping the gaps it gives rise to but they must be acknowledged. Nature is not a single concept or truth, but merely a signifier. Understanding the arbitrary nature of the word nature may improve communication regarding the environment. Breaking down the binary between natural and artificial might help us come to recognize that humans are nature.