Nature of Americans

Nature of Americans, a landmark study on the connection Americans feel with nature, is sweeping through the recreation and natural resource sectors of governments across the United States. I listened to a presentation of the study findings last week. Here is the gist of it.

The Americans who participated in the study feel that they are disconnected from “nature.” They told researchers that their neighborhoods feel artificial, that they don’t have enough time to go outdoors. But, at the same time, Americans across demographic lines strongly identify with nature. They see it as an important contributor to their mental and physical and well-being, and as an essential element in the development of their children.

I have some problems with the data collection methodology of the study, but what I really want to talk about today is the meaning of nature. Researchers were interested in how Americans define nature, so participants were encouraged to supply their own definition of the term at the heart of the study. Many of the results indicate that participants felt that they didn’t spend a lot of time in nature, but that they spent a fair amount of time outdoors playing sports or working out.

Something’s wrong here. Participants didn’t reflect upon the differences and similarities between playing at the park or walking through the woods, and the researchers didn’t help them. Instead, they interpreted this as direct evidence that Americans aren’t spending enough time in nature. But is the treed fringe at the edge of the baseball field any less “natural” than the carefully managed nature trail at the end of the road? If you ask State and Federal government park planners, the answer seems to be yes. So the first recommendation the authors of the study suggest is for outdoors advocates and natural resource stakeholders to “redefine nature” to include the state forest or Wildlife Management Area around the corner.

What the researchers found, overwhelmingly, is that Americans identify “nature” with the vast, charismatic open spaces of the West. This is nothing new for students of environmental history. Roderick Nash, Bill Cronon, and others have shown how John Muir and his Progressive era counterparts identified the vast Western expanses of Yellowstone and Zion, mountains and redwoods, with nature. Before Muir and the onrush of modernity after the First World War, Americans saw nature as a darkened frontier of devilish savagery, a place where the devil and his helpmeets dangled temptation and damnation from the trees. After industry, immigration, and war pulled more Americans from farm to city, they came to see nature as an escape. The religious metaphors remained, however. From an imaginary landscape of the damned, rich with demons and temptation, nature became for Americans a sacred temple of the heavenly sublime.

What this history really shows is that nature is constructed. Nash argues that wilderness was the “basic ingredient of American culture,” the construct upon which all of the other American cultural constructs were layered. Think about the “frontier spirit.” The “errand into the wilderness.” Daniel Boone. Lewis and Clark. Confronting nature is a main ingredient in the American cultural stew—the bones flavoring the broth. Now think about driving to Yellowstone. Sitting in the driver’s seat behind a line of RVs looking at a bear in the distance. Think about your backyard. Nature is what we say it is.

Bill Cronon put it best in “The Trouble with Wilderness” when he argued that wilderness is made, not simply preserved or restored. It is not “an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity,” he says, but instead holds up a mirror in which “we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.” Perhaps this is why Americans persist in identifying nature “out there,” far away from home and city. They want to get away.

It’s too bad, then, that we advertise a sacred temple in the West and offer a crowded museum instead. National and State parks are all too often a “zoo for land,” to put it in Nash’s words, “exhibited in legislative cages, clearly mapped and neatly labeled.” This is only natural when everything in the park is a “resource” to be managed; when paychecks and light bills depend on management dollars from the congress or legislature. But it is unfortunate when the study’s authors also conclude that the promise of exploration is one of the strongest factors pulling children into nature. Instead of redefining nature, then, to include your local state park, take another look at the backyard, too. Look at the woods at the end of the street, the tree in the planter on the sidewalk, and the local park. Nature is what we say it is.

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