What is Nature? Traditional Definitions of Nature in America

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The American idea of “nature” is rooted in the vision of early settler-colonists as they crossed over to the Americas in the 1600 and 1700s. With many settler-colonists arriving from countries like England, the expanse of seemingly open space was shocking and exciting to the founders of colonies like Jamestown, Williamsburg, and later Boston and New York. Despite Native American inhabitants on the land, it seemed open and free to settler-colonists, promising endless access to natural resources and the resulting capital. There was little open countryside, filled with dense forests and abundant natural resources available in England, so colonists saw these resources, stunning landscapes, and vast forests as profit.

As industrialization boomed in the 1800s, powered by the quest for wealth and the idea that industry could never use all the natural resources present in North America, a first wave of preservationists emerged including John Muir. These preservationists visited destinations now known as Yosemite National Park and the Adirondacks and understood the beauty of the natural landscape and felt they must protect it. With such stunning views, they felt it was important that the land remained an escape from society and the growing industrialization of the world. The wilderness was the ideal nature, removed from society and “pristine,” untouched.

This concept of “pristine wilderness” was flawed from the start; this land was not uninhabited, I had been lived in, improved, and changed by indigenous groups for decades. Early preservationists fought to create their ideal, “untouched” landscape, free of indigenous inhabitants and the perils of the industrial world and dirty city life. Fighting not only the indigenous inhabitants to remove them from the landscape, but the constant consumption of natural resources to fuel the industrial revolutions, preservationists and conservationists like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Thoreau, and others developed the concept of “nature” that remains today.

National Parks and vast swaths of forests, mountains, and ocean fill the imagination when we think about “nature.” We think about the stunning vistas at the Grand Canyon, standing at the top of Mount Rainer, or the dramatic cliffs in Acadia National Park. We think of the hikes where nobody else is on the trail, and the stillness of the forest takes over. We think of canoeing on lakes where all you can see is water or standing and watching grizzly bears roam Glacier National Park. We do not think about the trees along the sidewalk in our neighborhood, or the river that runs through downtown. We might remember the local nature conservancy and wildlife refuge but would write this as second rate compared to nature uninterrupted by planes in the sky, telephone wires, and the sound of traffic on the highway.

The American concept of nature embraces the wild west, the unknown and unexplored, the magnificent geological features scattered around the country, and the sense of freedom one gets when surrounded by nothing but trees and animals. This concept of nature needs to become outdated, however, as humans are confronted with the all-consuming and extremely important battle against climate change. No longer can “pristine wilderness” be the dominating image of nature in our heads, no longer can we ignore the presence of and need for nature in the cities.

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