Sunday, April 25, 2010

What is Natural?

Image from Azure's May issue on food and design.

On Earth Day last week I got a press release about a hotel in Baltimore planting a rooftop garden for its restaurant. The release extolled the value of food coming just feet from the kitchen (There is this competition, isn't there, to see how close we can get to a food source? How about inches? A garden cultivated in the diners' very table so he may pick and toss a salad at will.) Up the street from my home, a group of young adults adopted a vacant lot from the city and cleared it for a community garden. In the mail, my copy of Azure magazine arrived with a cover heralding The Urban Farm (and featuring an exceptionally well-heeled, chicken-wielding couple who look ready for brunch in Park Slope more than a day in the fields.)

Why has urban farming so captured the imagination of the American city?

Part of it is social. There is the benefit of putting hands in soil, turning an unused plot into a food-producing garden, and living in such close proximity to food.

Part of it, I believe, is our understanding of and belief in nature. The urban farm is reintroducing a natural state back into the unnatural, manmade chaos of the city. Or so we think. Americans have long held conflicting views of the city and the rural, believing the latter to be the more pure state. My father, William Evitts, explains this much better than I ever could in an essay published in Urbanite magazine titled "Reclaiming America's Stepchild."

Illustration by Cornel Rubino for Urbanite.

But what is "nature?"

William Cronon is an American historian specializing in environmental history and in the book Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, he challenges our notions of the natural. Cronon contends that humans have prescribed a rather narrow definition to what is natural and what is not. Simply put, he says that "nature" is largely a human idea. "Far from inhabiting a realm that stands completely apart from humanity, the objects and creatures and landscapes we label as 'natural' are in fact deeply entangled with the words and images and ideas we use to describe them."

When traveling inside the deep rainforests of the Amazon, or to places seemingly uncontaminated by man, "we cannot help experiencing them not just as natural environments but as cultural icons[...]we turn them into human symbols, using them as repositories for value and meaning[...]."

Man is seen as the contaminator—he creates things like chainlink fence and nuclear power plants. He can save himself, we believe, by becoming more natural. More farms, less ugly fencing. But remember that man is also organic. Man IS nature. So how is the chainlink fence any different from, say, an anthill? Both are structures created by living organisms meant to parcel space.

An actual anthill and a home design based on anthill form.

There is the truth of nature—the way its matter functions, the laws of biology and physics—and then there are the ideas we ascribe to it. We will defend the pristine landscape against development, but will fight like hell to eradicated the infectious disease. "It is in some sense 'natural' that very large numbers of human beings should die from epidemic disease each year, and yet this does not prevent the vast majority of people—to say nothing of the entire infrastructure of modern medicine—from trying to resist that fate," Cronon writes.

And what of farming? Manipulating the earth to realize crops is not "natural" in the purest human definition. Farming is a human invention.

In truth, nature is not this pristine, undisturbed state that exists in perfect balance save the meddling interference of man. Nature is both the truth of pure matter and how it functions and the ideas man brings to it. Again from Cronon:

"Yosemite is a real place in nature—but its venerated state as a sacred landscape and national symbol is very much a human invention. The objects one can buy in stores like The Nature Company certainly exist in nature—but that does not begin to explain how they came to inhabit some of the most upscale malls in modern America. The bomb that exploded over Hiroshima could hardly have been more material, expressing as it did some of the most fundamental laws of matter—and yet it also could not possibly have existed without the human ideas that describe those laws and applied them to this very particular piece of technology, to say nothing of the use to which that technology was put."

Like the bomb, we can manipulate matter and ignore its consequences (global warming). We can proselytize the pristine at the expense of finding true solutions to the state of the natural world today (dogmatic preservation and environmentalism). Or we can decide to question our concepts of nature and work towards a better, more clear-eyed future based on both human reason and natural process.