Earlier this summer, I was walking by a patch of woods near my home, in a huff about something and muttering viciously to myself, when I heard a tremendous racket up ahead. I squinted to make out the source of the noise, but when my eyes lit on the unusual scene, my brain needed a moment to process it fully. Two pileated woodpeckers were flamboyantly abusing the wood base of a mailbox about forty yards up the hill, and as soon as I reconciled that image, a third woodpecker popped its head cheekily up over the far side of the mailbox, staring at me defensively as if to say, “Got a problem, lady?”

I froze, my head cocked to one side in that curious way we mammals have. (Had my dog been with me, we surely would have stood together, staring, each of our heads tilted to the side in befuddlement.) The woodpeckers quickly decided I wasn’t worth their attention, and resumed their violation of the mailbox frame. Pileated woodpeckers are not small birds, or graceful ones. A fourth soon joined them, though there was hardly any room left, so the big bird kept slipping off the box and clumsily flapping its wings to stay aloft in between pecks.

The mailbox was outmatched. I watched the display with amusement for a few minutes, before species solidarity kicked in. I felt sorry for the homeowner who might come home and reasonably wonder why her mailbox was sitting atop a pile of sawdust, so I moved toward the birds. At my approach they flew away with great flapping and annoyance, and I took the opportunity to inspect the now-visible mailbox more closely. The frame was dotted with a number of large oval-shaped holes. I suspect the wood had become infested with ants or some other insect, and I remembered something I’d read about woodpeckers once: “Pileated woodpeckers have a powerful ability to alter entire ecosystems.” No kidding.

I walked back down the hill in amazement, the foul mood that brought me there having long since evaporated. Who could be upset after witnessing such a thing? (Well, maybe the mailbox owner.) By the time I reached the bottom of the hill, a light rain had begun pelting gently down. At that moment two owls – each occupying a tree on either side of the road – started calling to one another, as if discussing the change in the weather. I stopped in the cool shower to eavesdrop on the discussion. It didn’t last long, but it was enough.

I had completely forgotten what had been bothering me, because I had overdosed on one of the most intoxicating of the myriad human experiences – the wildlife encounter. Seeing wild animals, witnessing their behavior, getting a peek into their mysterious world, is thrilling, exciting, occasionally comical, and feels, in a way, like an honor. That’s because human-animal encounters to some extent violate the order of nature. They are a little bit against the rules. Wild animals are to be properly afraid of humans, for their own safety and well-being. We’re often a disaster for animals, with our weaponry and our superior brains and sometimes, our mere malevolence. We are at once the best and worst of species. But when we see a woodpecker feast on a mailbox, or hear two owls having an avian discussion, we get the sense of having peeked behind the door that nature usually keeps closed to us.

And so the question pops up again, like the woodpecker on the other side of the mailbox: What is nature? What is not? The question itself presupposes an answer other than “everything”, and implies that humans are not part of nature, when we really are, of course. This question of what nature is reminds me of the word “chemical.” (Bear with me for a moment.) When I hear someone tell me they want their home to be “chemical-free”, the hyper-technical jerk in me wants to ask whether they’re going to remove the water lines into their home, too. But I don’t, because I know exactly what they mean, and I try not to be a pedantic ass. In this context, the word “chemical” is a near-useless term when used with technical accuracy. But it does make sense when paired with its colloquial meaning: That group of substances which humans have incorporated into our lives with very little scrutiny or consideration, because at first glance they appear to make human lives easier (and are therefore profitable), but may in fact be harmful to our health and welfare.

We’re part of nature, just as water is a chemical, even though people almost universally use the term “nature” to exclude what is human.

What of the close association of nature with the outdoors? That’s another common interpretation, but it fails to take into account the many natural processes and things that occur within the walls of my home, like the Venus Fly Trap that used to live in my windowsill, and kindly kept the fruit fly population down near the compost bucket. Or the dog, who, like me, lives mostly indoors but loves spending time outdoors. The tendency to think of nature as outdoors arises mostly because buildings are a neat shorthand for that which is civilized – meaning nothing more than human-created or influenced.

So here we are again; we define nature in the negative, as those things that are not human, not created by humans, or not emblematic of humans. But it’s here you get the inevitable protests from the people who say “But humans are part of nature! A huge part of our problems today is that humans think they can separate themselves from nature!”

I have some sympathy for this point of view, but ultimately don’t really agree with it, mostly because I really am a precise, pedantic ass. My problem is the implication that people’s attempts to separate themselves from nature are themselves unnatural. I could just be picking nits, but I think other species try to manipulate the natural environment just as much as we do. They just do it in a different way. Beavers build dams. Humans build skyscrapers. Neither is more natural than the other. The real source of our problems is that our developed forebrain, which makes our manipulation conscious instead of instinctive, never considers whether the alleviation of our troubles via concrete, steel and petroleum might have other, more long-term negative consequences to the environment we must still live in. It’s the fault of the primitive, natural brain. We think only of our short-term problems, and we mostly think only of our own, or of those within our circle. Our big brains may be our undoing in the end. But they’re not unnatural.

Another reason for the common sense of “nature” as being something separate from people is not just because we need to see ourselves as above its tyranny, but also because the other is often more interesting to us. Beaver dams are interesting because we know less about them experientially, at a core level. I doubt there has ever been a human who has chewed up a tree, built a dam and lived there. Experiencing nature as distant from civilization is a way to connect with something inside us that was diluted millennia ago by the development of our intellect. It’s also a way to step outside ourselves and into the dazzling array of diversity offered by the natural world.

You know, to hang out with the woodpeckers for awhile.

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2 thoughts on “What is nature, anyway?

  1. I enjoyed the essay, but I had to comment that as it appeared in my inbox, Thomas appears to be posing the question, in a very professorial way, as his picture appears directly to the left of the title. Somehow, that made it even better. “What is Nature, Anyway?” by Thomas, Ph.D.og.

    1. You know, this whole what is nature stuff seems on one level to be hopeless mental masturbation (although it really is going somewhere, I swear). So it seems perfect to me that Thomas appears to be posing the question. I’m so not changing that pic. Ha.

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