There are three questions that can never be answered:
What is the meaning of life?
What is love?
What is nature?
I don’t dare attempt answering the first two, but I will take a shot at answering the third.
Landscape architects and hipsters alike occasionally take a pilgrimage in search of the #authentic. Defining nature is like finding an authentic taco truck: it’s authenticity is solely within the parameters in which you examine it.
Looking to Merriam-Webster, “nature” is defined as inherent character or basic constitution, also as the external world in its entirety.
So, nature is everything outside? This makes it seem as if nature includes plants and animals in all exterior spaces; parks, conservation areas, recreation areas, plazas, any exterior space.
Let’s dive deeper.
The Cambridge Dictionary gives us a more interesting definition:
“All of the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all of the features, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth.”
That’s a mouthful. Even Dictionary.com offers a definition that refers to nature as a phenomena of the physical world void of the human impact or hand. That is one heck of a lens in order for us to focus upon the authenticity of nature.
According to this definition, nature is a state of untouched beauty. Although there are still places on Earth that have not been touched by humans directly, it is important to note the impacts upon the planet are never localized to our physical footprint. Thus we must consider that our impact upon these “natural” processes is felt well beyond where we live. Small things done locally have impacts on a global scale, and can alter the future.
In 2016, the Washington Post published an article about “untouched nature”. The article notes the impact humans have had upon the earth, and also how untouched landscapes haven’t really existed for thousands of years. Of course the validity of this perspective depends on your definition of human impact and how you judge the human footprint, but the discussion brings other questions to light.
If we are all part of nature, what is the tipping point where technological advancements and the accompanying wastes related to these systems warrant the label of “unnatural”? Is it mass farming? Species extinction? Animal husbandry and domestication? Hybridization and species introduction? The Industrial Revolution and fossil fuel usage? What were the anthropological moves that started this deterioration of the pristine landscape?
I propose instead of searching for an authentic, pristine nature of yesterday, designers should adopt the responsibility to protect the clean air, water, land, and species still existing today. We should take the opportunity to understand what works in these new environments we have created, specifically what is adaptable and what is resilient.
I did not answer the question, did I? Truthfully, I never really wanted to. My goal was to offer a departure point for the reader to discover their own definition. Like life and love, it is more important for each of us to develop our own definition and meaning, back it up, and finally believe in it. It’s in our best interest and nature.