WHAT IS NATURE?

“We’re talking about natural farming,” I say to Eilif one sunny morning, “So we must have some idea of what the nature in natural farming actually is. What is nature? And – therefore, the question must arise – what is not nature? Because surely, by non discriminating knowledge, well, everything is nature isn’t it?”

I’ve been burning with this question for weeks. I remember, distinctly, a conversation with Laurent in the valley where we go to pilfer avocados from the communal avocado tree – we are sitting in a stone circle, with a fire all ready to go for the evening. There are no sandflies and I sit perched on a giant log lying on its side, asking so what’s nature, Laurent? Or, if that’s too difficult to define, what’s not nature? Because if we say something is nature then something else must surely be not nature, no?

He muses, perhaps it is that things which are transformed are ‘not’ nature.

 I grin, but nature is in constant flux, nature is constantly transforming everything. Your cells change completely every seven years – you’re not even composed of the same stuff you were made of seven, fourteen, twenty-one years ago. So then what?

He pauses.

Maybe, he concedes, there is Naturethe sort of big Nature, the suchness, the everythingness, the word that encompasses everything – and then there is nature, which is separate from non-nature, like the nature of things, how they would ordinarily be.

I reply, but any thunderstorm, earthquake, eruption, hurricane can ‘destroy’ the ‘nature’ of the things very easily – the ‘nature’ of things isn’t static is it?

He doesn’t reply.

I look out into the enchanted valley, dappled light fading between the Stonehenge-like rocks and sunset now firing up the sky behind him. Okay, so what is this ‘nature’ that is apart from non-nature then? He is quiet. Is it to do with the level of transformation? The speed of transformation? Are those things non-nature therefore? Because you look at a phone, a tractor, a skyscraper – every element in that came from nature, right? I ask.

He says, well, yes, but it wouldn’t have been transformed in that way in nature itself.

 I play devil’s advocate, but, Laurent, we transformed it, right? Are we not part of nature? So isn’t everything we make therefore also part of nature?

Laurent nods, quickly. But it’s something about the kind of transformation – I mean, let’s say nature is going about doing her daily business. She wouldn’t just put all her elements together, her minerals etc, to make a cellphone would she? Those minerals and materials wouldn’t really come together in that way of their own accord.

We sit, in perhaps the most obvious and natural place, about to make a fire and ponder. Neither of us is completely convinced or completely comfortable with this definition, either, because it implies, ultimately, that human intervention to a large extent creates non-nature, which doesn’t make sense in light of the fact that both humans and the materials they use come from nature so it would imply, therefore, that non-nature could arise from nature – a bit like saying an apple tree could somehow produce peanuts or a pair of socks. It seems obvious, however, that there is a grey area, that there are things which are more nature and those that are less nature. It seems a strange question to ask, living as we are with the barest of human creations, but an important one. Because, well, how can there exist natural farming if we don’t know what nature really is?

Weeks later, I look up the definition of nature online. Everything seems to point to it being anything other than humans or their creations, and dictionaries miss the inherent contradiction in this.

Google says:

noun

  1. 1.

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 breathtaking beauty of nature”

synonyms: the natural world, Mother Nature, Mother Earth, the environment; More
  1. 2.

the basic or inherent features of something, especially when seen as characteristic of it.

“helping them to realize the nature of their problems”

synonyms: essence, inherent/basic/essential qualities, inherent/basic/essential features,charactercomplexion More

Wikibooks writes:

Nature is everything that was not made by man. So the definition of nature excludes all things that where introduced by mankind. All those human developments are summarized as culture. The definition of nature summarizes natural objects, e.g.

  • stones
  • animals
  • plants

It also reflects on events in nature like

  • the wind
  • the rain
  • earthquakes
  • food

Nature can be divided in a living and a not living (abiotic) part.

 

Merriam-Webster defines nature similarly: “the physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people.”

Meanwhile, The Systems View of Life denotes where and how the division may have occurred:

“The shift from the organic to the mechanistic worldview was initiated by one of the towering figures of the seventeenth century, Rene ́ Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes, or Cartesius (his Latinized name), is usually regarded as the founder of modern philosophy, and he was also a brilliant mathematician and a very influential scientist. Descartes based his view of nature on the fundamental division between two independent and separate realms – that of mind and that of matter. The material universe, including living organisms, was a machine for him, which could in principle be understood completely by analyzing it in terms of its smallest parts…. Shallow ecology is anthropocentric, or human-centered. It views humans as above or outside of nature, and as the source of all value, and ascribes only instrumental, or “use,” value to nature. Deep ecology does not separate humans – or anything else – from the natural environment. It does see the world not as a collection of isolated objects but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life.”

Most definitions define nature as synonymous with whatever that is not created by humans, and secondary definitions treat it as the ‘essence’ of something, be it in the physical world or human world, including ‘human nature’ – as if these things are not in constant flux or as if these things cannot be destroyed in an instant yet we would still call the changed product ‘nature,’ – if a thunderstorm pulverizes an orange, the resulting product is still, well, ‘natural’. Moreover, whatever science – or rational, discriminating knowledge – holds as the ‘nature’ of things, or the laws of nature perhaps apply as immutable regularities in the realm of physics and chemistry, but come biology and ecology, and we’re dealing with more complex, adaptive systems and either there are no laws, or there are changing laws / dependent laws, or those laws are as yet unknown to us. Similarly, not everything created by man is, well, not natural – how about a fruit salad, comprised of all natural fruits? Or does the knife used to cut the fruit and the bowl it sits in de-naturalise the salad somehow? And what about human intervention in conservation and reforestation projects, where the aim is, well, to create more nature – bird sanctuaries, breeding programs, tree planting: so can it really be said that everything humans do or create is not nature?

It seems, though, that some cultures have no concept of nature or culture. I loved this article below so much I couldn’t help re-posting it in near-entirety here, because it points out how absurd trying to define nature really is (emphases mine):

In some societies, there is no concept of nature. Nor any concept of what is not-nature, whether “culture” or “society” or “human”.

So why do we need a concept of nature? When we grow crops, are we dealing with nature or something that is not nature? Rice, potatoes and maize have been with us for millennia, we influencing them and they influencing us. When we look at a forest, we are almost always looking at something that has been shaped by millennia of human burning, planting, sharing, cultivating and gathering. Are we looking at nature or at something that is not nature? Or at both? Why would we even want to ask such questions?

Everything we do every day is a mixture of things that our schoolteachers told us are supposed to be separate. What is it for me to remember my way home? I see this rock, lift my head and there is that old tree in the distance, and after that there will be two more streets, the bend in the road and then the white house on the corner. Is my memory something that I have inside me that is separate from nature, or is my memory also in the pathway, the rock, the tree and the streets?

Our schoolteachers told us that behind all the different things that human beings do there is an unchanging background consisting of things like atoms, genes and energy. Human societies are like the characters in a cartoon. The animator draws Mickey Mouse and Captain America walking around in the foreground, but leaves the background exactly the same from frame to frame. This background, our schoolteachers told us, is called “nature”. So we are surprised when we learn that for many Amazonian societies, it is the unchanging background that is human, and what move around in the foreground are natures.

Of course, if you really want to, it’s always possible to divide human from nonhuman things, society from nature, and to say that this is the most important distinction that there is. If you want, you can sift through everything that happens to you and try to decide which part is nature and which part is not nature, and recategorize the whole world into two parts. But why would you want to do this? You wouldn’t, unless you had a special agenda.

Capitalists do have such an agenda. By definition, they need to divide human beings from land and forests so that they can put them to work and make profit out of them. Capitalists accumulate surplus by trying their best to create nonnature humans who can make commodities out of nonhuman natures. Everything that is not human is taken out of one context and put into another, an abstract category called “possible resources”. By definition, these natural resources are always passive and always under threat from society. If they are to be protected, they have to be cut off from contact with their supposed eternal enemy – ordinary people – and put in national parks or other special reserves. Or their enemy’s population has to be controlled. Or they have to be “managed sustainably” by experts.

This is the “nature” that educated people talk about today. It is a nature that can only be manufactured by dismantling millions of different little relationships linking humans and nonhumans and replacing them with other relationships. When human beings move off the land and into cities, the land changes as well as the humans. Fertility changes from being a matter of manuring and rotation with local cultivars to being a matter of importing guano from Peruvian islands, saltpeter from the Atacama, or Haber-Bosch nitrates from oil extracted in Ecuador. Each import entails brutal treatment of human beings and land far from the fields where the new fertilizer itself changes the soil structure. Animals change over time too. The 20th century saw a huge rise in brutality to animals when they were isolated and amassed on feedlots, their recourse to the commons cut off, and their very rates of growth reorganized under the logic of capital. The beast-which-can-be-tortured was a new beast – a new nature – as new as the “managed wildlife” that lives in national parks under the watchful eyes of natural scientists.

Today yet another, even more abstract nature is developing. This is the nature that consists of ecosystem services. This nature is made up not of species, but of “species-equivalents” that can all be traded one for another to provide the same services to society. It is made up not of molecules but of “molecule-equivalents” (for example, 0.003 CO2/0.114 CH4/1.000 NO2/17.953 CFC-11) that are collectively certified to be equally destabilizing to the climate. It is a nature that consists even less of particular places and things, and even more of abstract space, than the nature that consists of natural resources. The society that is being invented in tandem with this new nature is new too, of course. It is a society that cares more about “equivalents to being poisoned” than about poisonings, and in which “Yasuni equivalents” are legally exchangeable for Yasuni itself.

Does nature have rights?

There are many natures around today. And for some people in some places – in particular certain indigenous peoples – there are no natures at all. So what nature are we talking about when we ask whether nature has rights? Or is this maybe a bad way of phrasing the real questions we are trying to get at?

Do natural resources have rights? That sounds like a strange way of talking. Natural resources are there to serve industrial development. This particular nature did not exist until the 19th century. Any “rights” that are granted to it could never, ever be allowed to interfere with the end of capital accumulation. Can we accept a notion of nature’s rights that is closed off in this way?

Do ecosystem services have rights? That sounds even stranger. We can say that workers have rights, but what would it mean for capitalist work itself to have rights? And yet that is what ecosystem services are – the work of nonhumans, organized around the goal of helping to immunize private, or public, industry against the environmental laws that governments have been pushed into passing since the later 20th century.

So maybe it is some other nature that we are suggesting should be the subject of rights. But which one? One suggestion above was that in 99 per cent of the everyday life of ordinary people, there is not necessarily much point in talking about what is nature and what is not-nature. So maybe when we ask whether nature has rights, we are just asking whether we can adopt more mutually respectful ways of living tout court. Maybe we are just asking what kind of civilizations we want. In that case, maybe we can avoid talk about rights of nature altogether.

But that is to forget that many of us who participate in movements that criticize natural resources and ecosystem services long ago came up with our own concepts of nature. Like the concepts of natural resources and ecosystem services, these concepts are abstract, general and simplified. They have to be that way (or so we tell ourselves) in order to confront and put in critical perspective the abstract, general, simplified concepts of natural resources and ecosystem services.

So we talk about “commons”, adapting for general use a term specific to certain historical struggles in Europe and Asia. Or we talk about indigenous “territorios”, synthesizing a different tradition. If we are in Thailand, we invent the word “paa chum chon” (community forest) to facilitate the defense of a hundred different kinds of sacred forest, irrigation forest, funeral forest, mushroom- and-herbal-medicine forest, fallow forest, and so on that local people refuse to allow to be resources for industry or producers of ecosystem services.

Such villagers will not necessarily use such words themselves. And they might be puzzled if asked whether their lands or trees or mushroom grounds have rights. They might say: Sure, we treat our lands and waters and their plants and animals respectfully. They talk to us and we talk to them. And for sure we will defend them against being abused. But what is this stuff about rights?

So there might also be something a little strange about asking whether commons have rights, or whether territorios have rights. To do so feels unnecessary, even misleading, insofar as the relevant diverse notions of mutuality and respect are part of the concepts themselves.

Some indigenous leaders might go further. The cosmos is sacred, they might say. To say it has rights is insulting, like saying that God has rights. The concept of rights belongs to the wrong tradition, they might add – that of individualism and capitalism. Politically, it is unlikely to help us achieve what we are aiming at.

– Author Unknown (CornerHose UK)

At the farm, Eilif ums and ahs and says, “Maybe I could tell you about the three principles of Taoism.”

I lean in.

“The three principles,” he says, putting his bowl of rice-milk porridge with sugar and cinnamon down, “are first, no effort or less effort. This is also called wu wei – and there are different names in Chinese and Japanese. Second is harmony, which we have already spoken of in farming and third is reverence. When we deviate from these principles, we deviate from nature and separate ourselves from it – for example, the separation of home and agricultural work leads us to the image of the modern industrial farmer in USA, who leaves the house in a car, drives a big tractor around all day in the fields – apart from nature – and sells food he himself does not eat and meanwhile has an ornamental garden at home. He sees it as a sign of poverty to have edible crops in the garden, so there are only ornamentals – and this applies just as much in Peru.

“Meanwhile, the separation of medicine and nature leads us to the hospital system we have today – where both the prevention and cure could be found in nature but we are hell-bent in manufacturing it in a lab, putting IP on it and making a profit. In the past, anyone who knew how to look to nature for a cure – be it as simple as making a herbal tea or paste or wild foraging – was labeled a ‘witch,’ hunted and burned. So we have an intrinsic hangover from this time that plant-healing is somehow corrupt, un-Godly or dangerous.

“Fukuoka, meanwhile, writes that he should like to see up to 98% of people in agriculture. Most people would argue that would be an awful waste of time or human capacity – but look what happens now: we have an economic system divorced from nature, a social system divorced from nature, a medical and educational system divorced from nature and so no wonder we are causing environmental destruction, social injustice, facing numerous health problems and mass ignorance.”

“But –” I interrupt, wanting to say something about specialisation leading to efficiency leading to surplus and trade of surplus – a classic Economics 101 textbook response – but he carries on.

“Now just imagine,” he says, “if everyone were in agriculture of this kind, call it natural farming or permaculture. They would work out in the fields all day and be active and healthy, and they would have sunshine, good sleep and natural food. So there is no need for doctors or for their specialisation. They would learn directly from nature and work to regenerate and protect it – so no need for teachers or activists or NGOs. They would feel centred, at peace and understand the place of humans in the grand scheme of things, so social conflicts could also cease.”

I pause. He really does have a point – the specialisation is only necessary when we move so far away from nature. There is really no point in having doctors if you live in a place such as this, where the medicine cabinet grows in the sun and has roots – perhaps for accidents, trauma and acute injuries, but not for chronic nor degenerative conditions. Mostly, it seems, we make things harder for ourselves by separating ourselves further from nature.

Eilif says that Norway has an aging population and that many people are therefore required to work in hospitals, old folks’ homes and other care for the elderly. “But,” he presses on, “Imagine if these people where living in nature and had been, all their lives. They’d get their medicine from there, their stress relief. There’s this ridiculous notion that somehow with – and only with – modern medicine are people living longer. And so there’s the record that that woman in France who lived to something like 115 years old is the oldest living person on record. Well, you go to Wilcabamba in Ecuador, and there are many people living up to 150 years in the Church records, ignored by the current medical profession. Our nearest town, Yupan, also has people living over 100 years.”

I raise my eyebrows. I’ve walked the 27km to Yupan and back, seen the mud-brick houses and primitive conditions these people live in. I’ve also seen the sunshine, their fields and farming lifestyle, so I guess it could make sense.

“And also in Norway, we have all these people who go out during the winter, at all ridiculous hours, to remove frost from the roads with their machines. Well – as Fukuoka says, what for? How about just being in farming, not working during the winter, not using the car to go on the road, relaxing, reading, spending time sewing or knitting or making music or telling stories in the family, or studying, and then going out to work chopping wood in February then doing more work in April and May when the snow melts?”

I grin. I have no doubt in my mind this would be way more wonderful as a way of life compared to stressing out, driving to work in the snow and being caged up in an office job in front of a computer screen all day – just to earn money to buy food and necessities which, to be perfectly honest, you could just be happily producing anyway.

“Humans create more work for themselves than necessary,” he carries on. “We hail organ transplants and cancer treatment as the pinnacle of medical achievement when it’s all so easily preventable through good diet, exercise and the environment. Meanwhile, even the ‘indigenous’ people here have been colonised for too long – the people up in the hill use the ‘yunta’ – a couple of bulls to plough the soil – with five people working behind it to make sure it runs well, pulling the crabgrass only superficially. This creates more work in the long run, because it degrades the soil, means even more application of fertilisers and chemicals becomes necessary, and non-discriminately taking out beneficial weeds and native or indigenous plants further reduces plant diversity. Over time, the soil depletes, microorganisms disappear, we burn the mulch so fail to return nutrients to the soil and becomes nigh impossible to use – so our so-called ‘technological aid’ of the yunta serves for nothing. And do you know how much food it takes to feed the bull for the rest of the year? This is technically more work in the short term too – one person could do the same work picking out the crabgrass. Sure, it would take him a couple of weeks, perhaps, for the same area, but it would be better in the long term, and additionally, he does not have to pay for the food of the yunta for the whole year or pay the additional five people. He just needs to feed himself.”

I have a brainwave here. “So hang on, Eilif,” I say, “What you’re saying is that nature is basically the path of least effort – we could also call it least energy (or embodied energy). And I get that. But nature does things that require, well, a great deal of effort too – I think of migratory birds flying long distances, or whales or fish, or the enormous extent many animals go to create attractive nests for potential mates, and even the trees that grow to 200, 500, 2000 years old, the giant expenditures of energy in neutron stars where one element is transformed to the next – that takes effort, surely? So how do you define nature, then?”

“Perhaps,” he says, “You can think of it as regeneration or sustainability. For example, human-made meadows traditionally have lasted hundreds if not thousands of years compared to machine-made meadows which rapidly degrade. Also – diversity – food forests are diverse versus monocultures.”

“But,” I say, “Regeneration cannot be a fundamental quality of nature because rocks don’t reproduce and we generally consider them part of nature. Nor can diversity – there are many naturally occurring monocultures – think areas closer to the poles and especially Arctic and Antarctic regions. It’s mostly snow but it’s still nature.”

He pauses.

“Perhaps,” I muse, “there’s something to that, that less effort is a quality of nature. It’s funny, because modern folk would say a microwave, for example, is less effort, but I guess you and I would see it from the perspective of the initial effort required to create the machine in the first place, all the materials, the fossil fuels and so on, and then the final effort to cure ourselves from disease caused by modern convenience packaged food with preservatives heated in microwaves and then, of course, the waves themselves which cause a whole host of other problems. Plus, the issue of the tech waste after it dies or stops working. So in the long term, and in sum total, the microwave is more effort.”

He nods.

“And,” I continue, “one of the things I’m always struck by in the Magic Washing Machine is just how awesome a tool the washing machine really is – it liberates women from hours and days spent beating clothes on the rocks, allows them time and space for education and so on. But we’d argue still, that the washing machine is ultimately more effort because of the huge amount of energy that went into creating it (and then in degrading it once we toss it out), right?”

“Yes,” Eilif nods, “And anyway, you can power a very similar homemade mechanical device by water power easily, if you need.”

“Or bicycle power,” I say slowly. “And also – permaculture seems like an awful lot of effort in the beginning, taking out weeds, regenerating soil – but that is only because we have damaged the soil so badly in the first place. It’s less effort in the long run. Perhaps we could even add no waste as part of some kind of definition in nature, given that waste doesn’t really exist in close loop cycles?”

We’re not quite at a definition yet, but I feel we are getting closer.

“Also,” Eilif interrupts, “There’s something that technology does while supposedly making things ‘easier.’ It makes us forget. We become dumber, while our machines become smarter. The man who uses a tractor or computerized system to plough up his farm or plant rice loses touch with the environment itself, that acute sensibility of the nature of the soil, the seasons – he just applies fertilisers and chemicals according to prescribed schedules without considering his individual circumstance. All technology, to some extent, turns things that would ordinarily require consciousness into ‘magic’ so you do not have to think about it anymore.”

I nod. We here have to really think about our water consumption. We have to really be in tune with the sun and its position while out in the fields, as we have no electricity so must get things done in the light. Similarly, my food preparation time is multiplied threefold here.

I ask him about a conversation I had with Colin and Florent one day whilst weeding crabgrass. “But Eilif,” I say, “how about this – instead of a yunta, a big pull tearing up the soil, we want a human hand that can discriminate between beneficial weeds and crabgrass doing the work. How about a nice, silver, synthetic, robot-hand that gently does the same work and maybe charges itself with solar power?” I am fully aware of the embodied energy costs in creating such a device, but pop the question anyway. “I mean, weeding crabgrass is a boring and repetitive task humans don’t really need to be doing anyway, do they?”

He smiles, softly. “Yes,” he says, “In the short run, it sounds like a great idea – lets design a little human-like, gently disruptive tech solution for all our food forest and natural farming. But if this continues for many generations, knowledge is lost, consciousness is lost, and the practice requires less thinking. And anyway, it’s healthy for people to be out in nature all day, working with their hands. It brings so many benefits – spiritual, psychological, physical, physiological, educational, ecological. So I don’t believe in robots.”

I laugh. He’s right, in a way. I guess the robo-hand doing weeding would also create a wall between you and the personal experience – you would lose appreciation for the regenerative power of soils, the importance of not fucking things up in the first place, if you had a machine that could just easily fix things for you. It’s about taking responsibility, too.

“What about the plastic watering cans we use everyday to water?” I ask Eilif.

“Well,” he says, “there’s a way to make polymers from maize that the cans could be made of.”

“Like composites?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“But,” I puzzle, “wouldn’t that require, er, some kind of machine to make the composite in the first place, the mould and so on?”

He nods. “Still,” he says, “It’s a primitive device. Most modern farms don’t even have watering cans or if they do, it’s just for show.”

I press on. “Yes, but what about communication technology? Yes, we know the internet traps you, the phone traps you, that all of it requires huge amounts of energy to produce and generates e-waste, but also, while we are in the transition phase, surely you want to disseminate this knowledge, let the rest of the world know.”

Eilif doesn’t miss a beat. “Yes,” he says, “This is true. But we mustn’t forget the power of the human mind.”

I lean in and don’t miss a beat. “Yes?”

“Have you heard of Fallun Gong?” he asks.

I remember the Auckland Queen Street protests, the horrendous photographs of torture. “A bit,” I say.

“Well, they are a spiritual group in China. They have some practices, much like Buddhism. They go about their daily lives normally, do meditation, that sort of thing. One of the interesting things about them is that they could communicate by something akin to telepathy – utilizing the full power of their mind. One day, they organized a mass peaceful demonstration in the streets through telepathy alone, without phones or internet – both of which the government could tap. The Chinese government at the time became very surprised and suspicious. That’s when they started putting them in jails and concentration camps, and torturing them.”

The phone is magic, sure, but there’s a bigger kind of magic we’ve forgotten, it seems. And people are being killed for it. I’m suddenly reminded of Women Who Run With Wolves, wolf-mind connection and witch hunts. “So, like, it’s possible?” I ask, jumping in the deep end. “It’s really possible?”

He shrugs. “I can’t say for sure, but it’s worth exploring, isn’t it?”

I nod. The phone often does seem like an awful lot more stress than help. It sounds exciting, almost, like sorcery and fairy powers, and I have an absurd sense of playfulness when I think about trying telepathy one day, someday, maybe. As a what if.

“Okay,” I say, slowly. “How about the axe?”

“Well, in my grandma’s farm, there was a place for melting iron ore, for example. So it’s possible on site.”

Everything, it seems, is possible here.

I remember a conversation with Yely, on the floating islands of the Uros on Lake Titicaca. She sniggered and said to me, you know, you people in the west call things ‘organic’. For these people, it’s just what is, it’s the way things are, it’s nature. You say, ‘zero energy,’ but it’s just nature to them. You say, ‘bio-construction,’ but this is just nature and homes to them. I grin, thinking about all the other buzzwords we have in permaculture – organic, regenerative design, eco-agriculture, agro-forestry, bio-construction, zero waste, sustainability, food forests, biomimicry, cradle to cradle. Permaculture seems to make itself into something ‘new’ or ‘snazzy’ or ‘sexy’ or ‘progressive’ just by putting newfangled words around ancient practices. So people do a design certificate, learn some new words, work on some farms and think they ‘know’ nature. But every farm you arrive to is different, a mistake too many young permaculturists make in forgetting; my friend, Manuel, tells me look, you would never say to a new woman: I’ve slept with so many women, so I know what it’s all about. So you can’t just go around saying that to nature. In some ways, Manu argues, permaculture helps, because it puts words and frameworks around things. It tells you about hydrology, sun, slopes, winds and so on. But we should be careful that doesn’t distract from the main point, nor complexify it with words to the extent it becomes distant and inaccessible to the ordinary person, the indigenous and children. Nor should the generalised patterns and ideas pour water over the specific and localised realities.

I ask, a week later, Lucia in Lima, what is nature. We go through the same traps, the same circles and pitfalls, until she puts two conditions to what is not nature: more effort AND that this effort be conscious, intentional. The huge volcanic eruptions that result in large transformations could be said to use much physical ‘effort’ but there’s no consciousness nor intent to this. Likewise, she argues, with migratory birds or dolphins – it’s more instinctual than intentional. I am reminded of Krishnamurti, suddenly, and the idea of no struggle – as soon as there is intent, there is desire and as soon as there is desire, there is fear; the mind becomes closed, less receptive and we fail to see things as they are – we see them as we are. So even conscious environmentalism is, well, self-defeating. As with intentional action. There’s something jarring here, in all this, because it would then imply that we would not do things with the kind of conscious intention we do now – regenerating soils, rebuilding ecosystems and so on – but does that necessarily mean that the place it comes from is shallower? Could that instinct – openness or love, as an aside from consciousness and will – be an even deeper space to act from, an even deeper kind of ‘consciousness’?

I met the founder of Deep Ecology, John Seed, one year ago. He said, we need to move away from ecological ideas to ecological identity. And in doing so, he argued, we would become ecological being. No longer am I here and nature over there and I therefore need to somehow take care of nature – because in his model, you are nature so taking care of yourself and taking care of nature are synonymous. It removes the need for justifying altruism and debates about whether or not there is any such thing, and in doing so also removes need for morality:

‘Within the context of deep ecology, the view that values are inherent in all of living nature is based on the spiritual experience that nature and the self are one. This expansion of the self all the way to the identification with nature is the proper grounding of ecological ethics, as Arne Naess clearly recognized:

‘Care flows naturally if the “self” is widened and deepened so that protection of free Nature is felt and conceived as protection of ourselves . . . Just as we need no morals to make us breathe . . . [so] if your “self” in the wide sense embraces another being, you need no moral exhortation to show care . . . You care for yourself without feeling any moral pressure to do it.’

(quoted by Fox, 1990, p. 217)

What this implies, according to the eco-philosopher Warwick Fox (1990), is that the connection between an ecological perception of the world and corresponding behavior is not a logical but a psychological connection. Logic does not lead us from the fact that we are an integral part of the web of life to certain norms of how we should live. However, if we have the deep ecological experience of being part of the web of life, then we will (as opposed to should) be inclined to care for all of living nature. Indeed, we can scarcely refrain from responding in this way.

— Systems View of Life

I wonder, ultimately, if nature can ever really be defined. Is there any such thing, really, as ‘objective’ nature? Because the questions, so far, have all ended up down a rabbit hole – exactly as Fukuoka wrote they would: Once he inquires what nature is, he then must inquire what that “what” is, and what that human who inquires what that “what” is. He heads, that is to say, into a world of endless questioning. I think about this, walking along a highway for 27 kilometres to the nearest town towards the north and back. Kadagaya Project talked a lot about science and objectivity, but suddenly, it doesn’t make any sense any more, and I am reminded that, for most of the last eight years since I first read Krishnamurti, it never really has. One of the best books I read since on environmental justice was Schlosberg’s Environmental Justice and the New Pluralism: the Challenge of Difference for Environmentalism, realising that perhaps there is no Great Big One Whole Truth and I went on to write that year:

Pluralism has important implications for not only recognition of difference in ETS but also participation and procedural equity in ETS. Of course, spaces of fair process require democracy, inclusiveness, openness, equitable power and access (Walker, 2009), but also for this to be agonistic in respect and intersubjective in understanding (Schlosberg 1999), no characteristics of which are (nor can be) perfectly met in global ETS schemes. For example, international climate negotiations for carbon ETS may recognize diversity at different levels but approach it as with ‘tolerance’ at best and ‘ignorance/omission’ or outright rejection at worst. The former is insufficiently open and critical to foster any real recognition or comprehension of diversity hence can create injustices under the facade of addressing them. Furthermore, attempts to bring together difference under a united whole fail on practical, philosophical and psychological grounds – difference is real, as it is differential experiences of reality that matter, ultimately, not whether there is a ‘general/universal’ reality per se (Schlosberg 1999).

Hence it may be argued that there is no such thing as (general) climate change: there are only differential, partial and situated experiences of it at scales from the individual to the nation and beyond. Furthermore, any scheme aiming to address an ‘ultimate’ (or scientific) reality will by default fail to recognize diversity in experience of space hence fail to meaningfully involve participants…. only reciprocal agonistic respect is just. The latter is exemplified through critical recognition of and genuine care and curiosity for others, as well as through the acceptance of ambiguity and the changing nature of values. Intersubjective interaction can further aid this process through not only recognizing and comprehending others, but also enabling communication across lines of difference symmetrically via internalization of others’ thought process…

So if there is no objectivity, how can there be ‘truth’ or ‘facts’ (hence definitions)? I know, to some extent, it is ‘discriminating knowledge’ within me that is asking for an answer here. Fukuoka writes, after all:

“I often tell the young people in the huts on the mountain, who come here to help out and to learn about natural farming, that anybody can see the trees up on the Mountain. They can see the green of the leaves; they can see the rice plants. They think they know what green is. In contact with nature morning and night, they sometimes come to think that they know nature. However, when they think they are beginning to understand nature, they can be sure that they are on the wrong track.

“Why is it impossible to know nature? That which is conceived to be nature is only the idea of nature arising in each person’s mind. The ones who see true nature are infants. They see without thinking, straight and clear. If even the names of plants are known, a mandarin orange tree of the citrus family, a pine of the pine family, nature is not seen in its true form.

“An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.

“Specialists in various fields gather together and observe a stalk of rice. The insect disease specialist sees only insect damage; the specialist in plant nutrition considers only the plant’s vigour. This is unavoidable as things are now.

“As an example, I told the gentleman from the research station when he was investigating the relation between rice leaf-hoppers and spiders in my fields, “Professor, since you are researching spiders, you are interested in only one among the many natural predators of the leafhopper. This year spiders appeared in great numbers, but last year it was toads. Before that, it was frogs that pre dominated. There are countless variations.”’

‘The irony is that science has served only to show how small human knowledge is.’

He goes on to write:

‘People think that when they turn their eyes from the earth to the sky they see the heavens. They set the orange fruit apart from the green leaves and say they know the green of the leaves and the orange of the fruit. But from the instant one makes a distinction between green and orange, the true colours vanish.

People think they understand things because they become familiar with them. This is only superficial knowledge. It is the knowledge of the astronomer who knows the names of the stars, the botanist who knows the classification of the leaves and flowers, the artist who knows the aesthetics of green and red. This is not to know nature itself-the earth and sky, green and red. Astronomer, botanist, and artist have done no more than grasp impressions and interpret them, each within the vault of his own mind. The more involved they become with the activity of the intellect, the more they set themselves apart and the more difficult it becomes to live naturally.

The tragedy is that in their unfounded arrogance, people attempt to bend nature to their will. Human beings can destroy natural forms, but they cannot create them. Discrimination, a fragmented and incomplete understanding, always forms the starting point of human knowledge. Unable to know the whole of nature, people can do no better than to construct an incomplete model of it and then delude themselves into thinking that they have created something natural.

All someone has to do to know nature is to realize that he does not really know anything, that he is unable to know anything. It can then be expected that he will lose interest in discriminating knowledge. When he abandons discriminating knowledge, non-discriminating knowledge of itself arises within him. If he does not try to think about knowing, if he does not care about understanding, the time will come when he will understand. There is no other way than through the destruction of the ego, casting aside the thought that humans exist apart from heaven and earth. ’

There is no east or west. The sun comes up in the cast, sets in the west, but this is merely an astronomical observation. Knowing that you do not understand either east or west is closer to the truth. The fact is, no one knows where the sun comes from.

It makes sense, then, that the entire question, of what is nature, is moot. As soon as there is discrimination, intention, discernment and desire for knowing what something is (usually through simultaneously knowing that which it is not), real ‘knowledge’ sort of vanishes because things lose themselves in paradoxes, as they have here, in my conversations with Laurent, Eilif, Manuel and Lucia. So all the buzzwords of organic and permaculture and agroforestry and so on, and the illusion of knowledge created by them serve mainly to entrench this divisive intellect based in consciousness or intent and pointed towards a goal or objective (as also in the case of what we term intentional communities). Moreover, these buzzwords lie in the realm of what Fukuoka terms a ‘narrow’ natural farming:

“…among natural farming methods two kinds could be distinguished: broad, transcendent natural farming, and the narrow natural farming of the relative world (This is the world understood by the intellect.). If I were pressed to talk about it in Buddhist terms, the two could be called respectively as Mahayana and Hinayana natural farming.

‘Broad, Mahayana natural farming arises of itself when a unity exists between man and nature. It conforms to nature as it is, and to the mind as it is. It proceeds from the conviction that if the individual temporarily abandons human will and so allows himself to be guided by nature, nature responds by providing everything. To give a simple analogy, in transcendent natural farming the relationship between humanity and nature can be compared with a husband and wife joined in perfect marriage. The marriage is not bestowed, not received; the perfect pair comes into existence of itself.

“Narrow natural farming, on the other hand, is pursuing the way of nature; it self-consciously attempts, by “organic” or other methods, to follow nature. Farming is used for achieving a given objective. Although sincerely loving nature and earnestly proposing to her, the relationship is still tentative. Modern industrial farming desires heaven’s wisdom, without grasping its meaning, and at the same time wants to make use of nature. Restlessly searching, it is unable to find anyone to propose to.

“The narrow view of natural farming says that it is good for the farmer to apply organic material to the soil and good to raise animals, and that this is the best and most efficient way to put nature to use. To speak in terms of personal practice, this is fine, but with this way alone, the spirit of true natural farming cannot be kept alive. This kind of narrow natural farming is analogous to the school of swordsmanship known as the one-stroke school, which seeks victory through the skillful, yet self-conscious application of technique. Modem industrial farming follows the two-stroke school, which believes that victory can be won by delivering the greatest barrage of sword strokes.

“Pure natural farming, by contrast, is the no-stroke school. It goes nowhere and seeks no victory. Putting “doing nothing” into practice is the one thing the farmer should strive to accomplish. Lao Tzu spoke of non-active nature, and I think that if he were a farmer he would certainly practice natural farming. I believe that Gandhi’s way, a method-less method, acting with a non-winning, non-opposing state of mind, is akin to natural farming. When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings (In this paragraph Mr. Fukuoka is drawing a distinction between techniques undertaken in conscious pursuit of a given objective, and those which arise spontaneously as the expression of a person’s harmony with nature as he goes about his daily business, free from the domination of the volitional intellect.).”

“The reason for all the confusion is that there are two paths of human knowledge – discriminating and non-discriminating (This is a distinction made by many Oriental philosophers. Discriminating knowledge is derived from the analytic, willful intellect in an attempt to organize experience into a logical framework. Mr. Fukuoka believes that in this process, the individual sets himself apart from nature. It is the limited scientific truth and judgment. Non-discriminating knowledge arises without conscious effort on the part of the individual when experience is accepted as it is, without interpretation by the intellect. While discriminating knowledge is essential for analysing practical problems in the world, Mr. Fukuoka believes that ultimately it provides too narrow a perspective.). People generally believe that unmistaken recognition of the world is possible through discrimination alone. Therefore, the word “nature” as it is generally spoken, denotes nature, as it is perceived by the discriminating intellect.

“I deny the empty image of nature as created by the human intellect, and clearly distinguish it from nature itself as experienced by non-discriminating understanding. If we eradicate the false conception of nature, I believe the root of the world’s disorder will disappear.

“In the West natural science developed from discriminating knowledge, in the East the philosophy of yin -yang and of the I Ching developed from the same source. But scientific truth can never reach absolute truth, and philosophies, after all, are nothing more than interpretations of the world. Nature as grasped by scientific knowledge is a nature that has been destroyed; it is a ghost possessing a skeleton, but no soul. Nature as grasped by philosophical knowledge is a theory created out of human speculation, a ghost with a soul, but no structure.

“There is no way in which non-discriminating knowledge can be realized except by direct intuition, but people try to fit it into a familiar framework by calling it “instinct.” It is actually knowledge from an unnameable source. Abandon the discriminating mind and transcend the world of relativity if you want to know the true appearance of nature. From the beginning, there is no east or west, no four seasons, and no yin or yang.”

By the same token, there is no such thing as sustainability or the ‘environment,’ not really. The games of NGOs and activism and change-making all seem so strange, somewhat self-defeating, in a way, given that the very things they stand for don’t really exist or mean anything in particular. There is no such thing as waste – so how can there be zero waste? – and there is no such thing as permaculture because, well, there is and has never been a ‘permanent’ culture. Culture is always in flux and the social scientists will be the first to tell you we have no idea what culture really is.

And there is, therefore, ultimately no such thing as ‘nature.’

 

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