One of the things that has bothered me for a while about paganism, environmentalism, and really, the way so many people in postindustrial cultures approach nature, is the concept of “natural” vs. “artificial”. In short, this is usually defined as anything made by humans, particularly things that can’t occur in any other way, such as petrochemicals or double-paned glass, being artificial. Artificial things are especially seen as bad things, so the emphasis is often put on human-made things that cause significant, widespread destruction to other parts of the environment, such as pollution or strip mining. I’ve seen many pagan folk refer to anything “artificial” with a sneer.
I just don’t like that at all. Here’s the thing. I am fully behind evolution as a base explanation for how various living beings came about. While I feel there is subjective value in things like creation myths, and I think they tell us a lot about the human psyche and methods of meaning-making, they do not replace evolution as the generally objective explanation for how we all got here in the first place. Stories of dragons do not carry more scientific weight than the fossil record.
Looking from an evolutionary perspective, humans are animals. And we evolved big brains as our single most important adaptation to the environmental pressures put on us. Everything we have created, from culture to architecture to medicines to religion–all these are the product of the brains we’ve evolved. Not every product of the brain is immediately noticeable as having pragmatic purposes, and indeed there are some interesting extrapolations of survival instincts repurposed into impractical (and yet sometimes incredibly fun!) pursuits. However, there is nothing that we do that did not come about as a result of our evolutionary history.
So put in that framework, all the things we build–homes, roads, cars, computers–are just extensions of the instinct to have shelter, get food and mates, raise young, etc. We have taken the basic need to build a nest and turned it into an unthinkably complex system of shelters and things to acquire shelters (and other resources). For brevity’s sake, I will be referring to this as the human nest-building endeavor.
So it is that humans make VERY big nests. And it just so happens that we are better than any other animal at excluding other species from our nests at will. Birds, for example, will remove parasites and other unwanted critters from their nests to protect their young; so will mammalian parents. We’ve just gotten really damned good at the same thing. We are weatherproofing and removing plants that could undermine foundations and keeping out other animals that could introduce disease or be a threat to us and our families. And so our weathertight buildings and better mousetraps are just the natural result of taking those instincts toward nest building and funneling them through our brains.
Because we are also conscious beings aware of the many layers of cause and effect involved in our actions, we can perceive the impact we have on those other species over time, and many of us feel a sense of responsibility for that. And so we retell the story of what we have done. Because we have taken nest building to such an extreme degree, we set ourselves apart from all other animals.
But this doesn’t stop the fact that we are animals, and that ultimately what we do is natural. Overwrought, perhaps, in the same way that cancer is an overwrought creation of cells–but cancer is still natural, too, even if it is a horrible thing to have. (If we could create cancer at will instead of having it begin on its own, would we then refer to cancer as artificial?)
Now, all that being said, I still love my John Muir quote at the top of the page–”In the silence of the wild, we find the home we lost in the city”. It is healthy to get out of our nests for a while and experience what ecopsychologists refer to as “soft fascination”. Soft fascination is a quality of something which draws the attention without demanding it; wild places have a tendency to be less demanding and more intriguing. There’s a lack of stress of the sort that we often find in our human nests, what with all the obligations and schedules and factors that we have to keep track of on a conscious level, as opposed to the largely unconscious awareness of our senses, where we are so used to processing sensory input that we don’t have to put much effort into paying attention for the most part. It just happens.
And yes, being out “in nature” is a different experience than being in, say, an urban community garden, or sitting with a pet in a small apartment. Nothing in urban Portland can duplicate for me the experience of standing at the very top of Kings Mountain, in hip-deep snow, with the wind blowing all around me and the sky blue up above, with the awe and terror of a place that could kill me if I didn’t take care.
But the “natural” vs. “artificial” divide undermines efforts to reconnect with the world around us no matter where we are or where we’re trying to connect . It still promotes this idea that we are separate from “nature”, and even if we idealize that nature, we are still setting ourselves apart from it in our perceptions. It’s just a different ideal than other people who separate themselves out because they see nature as bad, or dirty, or inconvenient, or only to be exploited. Separation is still separation.
Plus, as has been mentioned by numerous urban pagans and others, non-human nature is everywhere. A pot of geraniums on a porch is just as much nature as a grove of old growth conifers. Pigeons may be ubiquitous in the city, but they are as much blood and flesh and feather as the albatross sailing solitary over the ocean. Bricks and asphalt are ultimately made of stone, reconstituted. So why, surrounded by these plants and animals and minerals, do we not feel that we are natural, just as much as when we are far away from human influence?
If you want to differentiate between things humans create and things that occur without our help, that’s fine. But I would argue against this divisive duality of artificial vs. natural, where anything artificial must necessarily be not only antithetical to nature, but also subjectively wrong and loathesome. We also need to stop seeing ourselves as “unnatural” simply because we are so different from the rest of nature. If we are to reconnect with everything else, we have to stop perceiving ourselves as separate. That’s the first step in remembering that we never really left in the first place. From there we can then proceed to remembering those connections that remind us of the effect we have on everything else, which is the point that proponents of “artificial” vs. “natural” are often trying to make in the first place.