Ask any avid nature traveler how he or she first began to make a lifelong attachment to the outdoors, the natural world or a particular species of wildlife, and you’ll get as many anecdotes as the individuals you query. It may have started with a childhood, weekend camping trip and nights spent under the stars, a road trip to an iconic national park with parents, a first fishing expedition or even a backyard fort cobbled together on Saturdays with materials found in the woods.
But what exactly is nature, this thing that once experienced keeps drawing us in and tugging at our hearts? Is there one, conclusive definition of it?
According to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, nature is “a creative and controlling force in the universe,” “the external world in its entirety” or “humankind’s original condition.” The New Oxford American Dictionary describes nature as “the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations”; “the basic or inherent features of something, especially when seen as characteristic of it”; or “the innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal.”
By reading these official definitions, you might conclude that nature is what’s inside us, is everything but what’s inside us or is something external that controls our world.
I think it’s time we look to the poets for a better understanding of the term nature.
What the poets and artists say: kinship and clarity; communication and colors
In defining nature, 19th-century, American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson put it succinctly: “Nature is a mutable cloud which is always and never the same.” That may be the most lyrical description of the term that I’ve ever read.
Other attempts by various poets, nature writers and even songwriters fall into a category I call “kinship,” where nature acts as the connector between all things. As William Shakespeare wrote, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
The thought expressed by songwriter L. Wolfe Gilbert is along this same line of thinking: “Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself.” Natural-science writer Loren Eiseley wrote, “One could not pluck a flower without troubling a star.” And, 17th-century scientist Blaise Pascal expresses it this way: “The least movement is of importance to all nature. The entire ocean is affected by a pebble.”
A second group of portrayals for the word nature I would place into the “clarity” classification. Bill Watterson, creator of the popular Calvin and Hobbes comic strip writes, “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently.” Albert Einstein penned, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Artist Vincent Van Gogh once said, “I experience a period of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. I am no longer sure of myself, and the paintings appear as in a dream.” And this from John Muir: “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”
Auguste Rodin, a 19th-century French sculptor, voiced a third category In which we could place nature depictions: nature as communication. He believed that “the artist is the confidant of nature; flowers carry on dialogues with him through the graceful bending of their stems and the harmoniously tinted nuances of their blossoms. Every flower has a cordial word which nature directs towards him.”
But my favorite definitions of nature fall into a fourth set: nature as color. For example, French painter Edouard Manet wrote “there are no lines in nature, only areas of color, one against another.” Ralph Waldo Emerson mentioned that “nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” And child poet Mattie J. T. Stepanek said, “sunset is still my favorite color, and rainbow is second.”
Mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful
Mattie J. T. Stepanek, who died at the age of 13, was an exceptional young man in many ways. With nature words currently being deleted from children’s dictionaries, it’s difficult for most young people to develop a deep understanding about what nature is, such as Mattie did. Fortunately, nature preschools—preschools that seek to help kids develop a personal relationship with the outdoors—are on the rise in the United States. A 2017 national survey of nature-based early-childhood educators found that the number of nature preschools and forest kindergartens operating in the U.S. is at an all-time high: 250, which represents a 60 percent increase over 2016’s tally of 150.
That uptick is especially important today because weather events, such as hurricanes and the mounting evidence of climate change, could cause kids to view nature as threatening instead of welcoming. Developing a personal relationship with nature while young is important; it’s very hard to learn to love and protect something if you’ve never experienced it. And studies show that kids who learn outdoors have better academic results, including higher scores on standardized tests.
While nature preschools may not be available yet as an option for the majority of kids, there are things parents can do to help their children foster a love of nature. Read a book together outside. Turn over rocks and discover what’s hiding beneath them. Author Richard Louv, author of the 2005 national bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, suggests a “belly hike”: get down on your stomach in the backyard and have a close look at all that lives between the blades of grass. These activities will encourage children to develop a sense of the diversity and wonder of the natural world and their place in it.
I like to think that this is what E. E. Cummings meant when he wrote, “The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.”
Soul-stirring and throat-lumping
The exact words to use to define nature may always elude us. But I think we recognize it when we encounter it because nature is those things that cause a lump in our throats and a stirring in our souls. I believe that each of us instinctively constructs a personal definition of nature that in one way or another involves the concepts of kinship, clarity, communication and colors.
That’s probably why a sentence or two just doesn’t seem to definitively get to the essence of the word nature. To explain it, we need to tell our own, whole story. We need to express the thing by how we first made its acquaintance. And because of this we know that the children playing outside today will be the nature aficionados with the anecdotes tomorrow.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,