I mentioned in a recent podcast called Dreamworld IV how human attitudes towards Nature have changed over the course of prehistory and history.
My mother told me she had seen cave paintings of bison, deer, horses and hybrid human-animal figures in Altamira, northern Spain, that date back to 17,000 BC. That was a time before any animals had been domesticated. The people then living at Altamira were hunters and gatherers, and they had extraordinary artistic ability. They must also have seen humans as one species among many, in shared Nature.
Then in the 5th century BC, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus turned Nature into an abstraction, to investigate, to break down into smaller components, to theorize about.
The Bible starts off, in Genesis, with Nature as God’s Creation, setting humans at the very top of a hierarchy of creatures, poised to dominate them. Moreover, the Bible is full of examples of God intervening directly in Nature, at a local level, raising storms, launching catastrophic floods, sending pestilence onto the land, as well as seven-headed dragons, giants, monsters, demons and other improbable creatures.
In the 4th century BC, Aristotle writes of a philosophical God, the Prime Mover, who has brought all Nature into being and sustains it.
The fusion of Christian thinking and Aristotle dominated the Western world for about 1600 years.
I wonder whether Galileo was writing tongue in cheek in 1588, when he converted Dante’s Inferno into a mathematical exercise: he estimates the dimensions of each circle of Hell, and even the height of Lucifer (the Devil), which is 1935 braccia, or 1270 of our metres nowadays, or 4193 feet! Imagine the Devil being as tall as a mountain! Galileo’s mathematical demonstration nonetheless shows to what extent we project our own ideas and fantasies onto Nature. We can’t really get away from projections like that.
Different attitudes to Nature have developed since then, such as Darwin’s 19th-century Origin of Species, although Darwin still advocates a system of Nature organized vertically in a hierarchy of life forms, with humans triumphantly on top.
We have come a long way from shared Nature, Nature as an abstraction, God’s Nature and systems of Nature.
I am concerned most of all by our growing post-industrial alienation from Nature. We are now thrust into highly polluted, urban environments, where all that seems to matter is mass production and mass consumption. And damn the consequences! In recent years, I have seen first-hand thick dark-grey blankets of smog smothering Shanghai, Los Angeles and Mexico.
When I look at the impact of the current pandemic in the world, it seems humanity itself is on life support, hoping against hope for a vaccine that will eradicate the coronavirus.
Yet the human destruction of the environment – the sheer burden of toxic pollution – makes each of us more vulnerable to disease. If we are at the top of a hierarchy of Nature, it seems that hierarchy is now collapsing beneath us.
I love the English-language tradition of Nature writing, starting with the parson-naturalist Gilbert White in the 18th century. I want to do more Nature writing, as a way of closing the rift, at least for some readers, between humans and Nature.
The feature image at the top of this blog is in the public domain and was accessed on the website of NASA JPL.