Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The grammar of Nature - gift or product?

Richard Mabey explains an important idea about our changing relationship to trees in his book "Beechcombings":

The fundamental grammar of our relationships with trees changed.  Before, 'growing' had been an intransitive verb in the language of woods.  Trees grew, and we, in a kind of subordinate clause, took things from them.  In the forest-speak of the Enlightenment, 'growing' was a transitive verb.  We were the subject and trees the object.  We were the cause of their existence in particular places on the earth.
Mabey thinks that somewhere around the second half of the 17th century the way we refer to trees, the way we speak about trees and woodland, and therefore the way we think about trees, began to change.  And that has changed the way we behave towards trees and how we value them.

I feel this attitude can be applied to all Nature.  Nature changed from being a gift, such as in the act of foraging, where we can seek and find things that we can use and are of value to us, and we rejoice in the finding of these things.  Now Nature seems more like a product, like so many items on a market shelf.  Something we can produce ourselves and "perfect" (whatever that may mean!), something we can acquire.  From Capability Brown's creation of "natural" vistas in landscape design to today's contrived cottage gardens, we have embraced Nature in a strange way which both admires its random beauty and yet seeks to control it.

I love my garden and the careful trimming and pruning of this and that.  I love the joy that I get from a plant that rewards my efforts.  But this is a very different experience to being somewhere like on the River Nene.

In our River Nene project Three Jos in a Boat, we have very much had the sense that we are in another world.  A world of Nature.  A place that we are not of.  A place that has its own rules, rhythms and lives that continue regardless of and indifferent to our existence.  A place where we have little influence.

Man's relationship to Nature (in our Western culture, anyway) has become separated - it is in the grammar we use, the way we speak about things.  Man and Nature.  Two different, separate, opposite nouns.  In gardening and in agricultural practices we spend our time battling with Nature's way to make it work to our own rules.

This may be changing.  Attending a conference in Leeds a few years ago on Design Activism, I met people from the Permaculture Association.  Permaculture is about sustainability, a word we hear all the time these days.  But it is more than that.  It seems to me that the principles of Permaculture are about integration, about us becoming more integrated with Nature's laws once more and becoming a part of that system, instead of our continuing to try to be a dominant and controlling force.

Perhaps we need to change our use of language again.

(All the images in this post are a gift from the River Nene.)

1 comment:

  1. I think you are right, it's almost like we have become detached from "nature" whilst thinking we are cultivating it. I spent some time on the River Yare in Norwich last year and got this same awareness that you are describing - taking boat trips made me much more aware of the rhythms and ancient secrets that the river holds. Your photographs are beautiful!