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  • Nature is what is in the physical world. I think that we are included in this definition, as well as the plants and animals that are often seen as being more part of nature than we are. The idea that we are somehow separate from the natural world is wrong. We are as much a part of it as bird living in the Amazon Rainforest. Historically I think we have seen humans as being the sole manipulators of nature and also the sole destroyers of it, but all animals and plants are manipulating the earth to survive, from the basics of photosynthesis to creating homes. Obviously human impact is fairly significant and often destructive, but one only has to look at the aftermath of a swarm of locus to see that we are not the only things on earth that can destroy.

    I would also argue that much of the things that we view as “unnatural” are also tied to nature. Most plastics come from petroleum, which comes from fossils fuels, which are formed by fossilized organic materials. So doesn’t that make plastic natural? Of course it does have to go through quite a bit of processing to get to its finished form and an empty water bottle on the side of a trail does seem to out of place, but isn’t that is based on how we are defining the wilderness. Have you ever really thought about what the food label “100% Natural” means?

    I agree with Cronon that how we view wilderness and the natural world is very much a human creation and therefore varies through time and place. My view of nature is going to be different from someone in New York City or a subsistence farmer in Bhutan. Cronon seems to leave with the idea that we need to put ourselves in nature, but I would guess that most Alaskans see themselves as part of it. We live in an area where you can head out your door and within a couple of hours have a view totally devoid signs of humans, except for the planes overhead. Seeing moose as you drive or ski by is a common occurrence. The fact that we are so surrounded by “wilderness” makes it seem less separate and makes it easier, for me at least, to see myself as part of it.
  • What is nature? That is an all together interesting thought that could provoke a great controversy. To me, nature is that which we live in. The word nature seems to be so close in form to natural which is untouched or the way it was created. From the time I was little, nature was that which wasn't in the house or in a building which man had created. As young children, my siblings and I played outside on my grandparents farm and went on vacations outside of Glacier National Park. So, to me that is nature. I don't think that nature is something that is unprocessed. To me, a wheat field is as much nature as Yellowstone. There are many who may argue that a wheat or barley field isn't nature, but I think that it was created to survive outside of a building or greenhouse, so it is part of nature. It was not originally grown in the places it is grown now, but there are many species of plants that are now growing outside of their native lands and they thrive.
  • Steve---excellent thoughts of man IN nature and not separate from it. I read your entry and the next thing on my email was this article. I just have to post it:

    The Case of the Vanishing Vultures

    Copyright 2010 - Eco-Justice Ministries

    "That nature is a community is the scientific discovery of the twentieth century. That earth, human society included, is also a community has not yet registered with us. At least how to sustain it as a community has not." -- Larry Rasmussen

    People who pay attention to the news have countless opportunities to see how humans are part and parcel of the Earth community. Human impacts on the biosphere range from the global to the local, and human dependence on the natural world -- whether thriving or diminished -- should be self-evident. But that knowledge is often confined to our heads, and does not make it into our hearts and souls. It can be so complex that it is difficult to grasp.

    A clear-cut, dramatic example that shows how thoroughly we are entwined in the web of life can nurtured an eco-justice worldview. I offer one such story today. I'll call it The Case of the Vanishing Vultures.

    + + + + +

    Our story is set in India, Nepal and Pakistan. (I'll simplify, from now on, and just refer to India.) In that part of the world, vultures have been plentiful and useful for thousands of years. Like their carrion-eating kin around the planet, the big birds serve as nature's garbage service. Dead things become dinner, instead of lying around for a drawn-out process of decay that would be messy, smelly and prone to spreading disease. Vultures maintain public health in an efficient way, at no charge to local communities. (They are one example of what environmental economists call "ecosystem services" -- the things that nature does for free that would be very expensive if we had to do it for ourselves.)

    The vultures are especially important in India. The predominantly Hindu population shies away from killing animals and eating meat. Cows, camels, and such are raised for milk and to do work on farms, but they are allowed to die of natural causes. So, there are many more bodies of large animals than would be found in most other parts of the world. (In an illustration of the fine line between ecology and economics, when people eat the bodies of dead farm animals, it is called "agriculture" and involves the exchange of lots of money.) And it is not just livestock that is involved. Followers of the Parsi religion feed human bodies to the vultures, so that the bodies are not defiled by earth or fire.

    This abundance of vulture food led to an abundance of vultures. They were a common sight in trees and on buildings all over the sub-continent, and had become a hazard to aviation. A big bird can cause big damage to an airplane.

    That's the way it has been, until very recently. In the late 1990s, a sudden decline in the vulture population was noticed. There was no shortage of food -- indeed, the change became evident when deceased critters started to linger longer by the roadside. In tropical heat, lingering livestock bodies will catch your attention after a day or so! The dearth of carrion-eaters was showing up all over the region.

    When biologists examined a few of the vulture carcasses (which, I understand, are not easy or pleasant to collect), they found dramatic evidence of kidney failure, which was quickly lethal to the birds. What was very odd, though, is that there was no evidence of any of the diseases that would ordinarily cause such a condition. Why were the vultures vanishing?

    The clever researcher who solved the mystery -- after lots of dead ends -- asked if there was anything new and different about the bodies being eaten by the vultures. A change had occurred because Hindu farmers were taking better care of their animals. They were giving them drugs, and one of those drugs was the culprit.

    Pharmaceutical companies in the US have developed (and patented) a product with the alluring name of diclofenac. It is an anti-inflammatory medicine used to treat arthritis and other painful conditions. It has been approved for veterinary use, as well as on humans. At the time, India was not enforcing international patents. Lots of creative laboratories in India manufactured the drug, and they were able to sell it really cheap, since they had almost no development costs. Farmers could afford to buy the drug and treat their ailing livestock.

    What nobody expected -- and certainly nobody had tested -- is that the residue of diclofenac found in the body of a previously sick cow would be fatal to vultures. But it is. And it only takes a very few drug-laced bodies to do in lots of vultures. In a little over a decade, 99 percent of the vultures are gone.

    "Just 15 years ago Indian Gyps vultures were thought to be the most numerous large raptors on the planet," according to biologist Richard Cuthbert. "In a single decade they've undergone the most rapid population collapse of any animal in recorded history."

    The sudden extinction of one of God's distinctive creatures emptied a very large and important ecological niche. In a city, if all the sanitation workers died or quit, help wanted signs would be posted everywhere. So, too, in India, nature put up notices, "Wanted: carrion eaters." The eager applicants have included lots of dogs, and growing numbers of rats. These mammals are not as well-qualified for the job as the vanished vultures, though. They spread rabies and plague, and are susceptible to some of the same diseases that kill livestock, such as anthrax. They're also nowhere near as efficient in providing prompt and thorough service, so carcasses accumulate. Farms and towns are having to burn or bury livestock bodies, at considerable cost, and demanding substantial amounts of valuable fuel or land to do what the vultures did for free.

    Changes are underway to deal with this crisis of public and ecological health. The deadly drug is far less available to farmers, and an urgent program of captive breeding and controlled feeding is keeping the few remaining vultures from going extinct. They're slow breeders, though, so it will be a very, very long time -- if ever -- before vultures are once again common in India.
  • I don’t mean to play semantics because there are obvious meaningful differences between a human dominated environment such as New York City and a “natural” one such as wilderness in Alaska. However, I think it is important to keep in mind a basic truth that has often been denied or overlooked in Western history and thinking. This is that HUMANS ARE ANIMALS! We are sons and daughters of this world, and as such, we are animals in every way grizzlies or salmon are. Thus the works of man are the works of nature. I think this is the heart of what Cronon was saying, in cautioning us against creating a false dichotomy between untouched and human influenced elements of the natural world.

    All this does not discount that we understand something meaningfully different from human driven forces and products in the word “nature”. I would argue that what we are connoting is all the other elements of the natural world besides our own. This is a usefully way to conceptualize and understand our world. I like how Worster distinguishes these two spheres by the terms “natural” and “cultural”. But in doing this we must not lose sight that humans, and their creations, are a part of nature to. In the words of Worchester, “Though something of a human artifact, the agroecosystem remains inescapably dependent on the natural world…. It is a rearrangement, not a repeal, of natural processes.”

    I think keeping in mind the central fact that humans are a part of nature, is not a semantic or trivial exercise, but central to approaching how to incorporate environmental history into our teaching. As animals, humans are inextricably linked to their environment. Just like any other animal, humans depend on the natural world they are a part of for all there needs. Further, every thing humans do directly affect other elements in the natural world, and conversely, human communities are directly affected by any changes that occur in the natural world (not the least of which being human driven changes). As a result, a fundamental way to understand any historical period, is understanding the interactions and relationships of human communities with the environment they inhabit. Traditional historical narratives have been very anthropocentric. A more complete historical approach will involve also looking at human communities as the biological communities, which they are.
  • I don't know if I agree with nature having to be 'unprocessed', but I see that every place has its own nature. Nature is everywhere around us. New York city has a nature of its own, Alaska has a nature of its own, Idaho has a nature of its own. Nature has a lot to do with the people who live and interact in it. What I might view as nature may differ from what another person views as nature. Before moving to Alaska, I had a different view as to what nature was. Living in Alaska for a few years, my idea of nature has changed. It has changed into a much more simpler and purer idea. Personal experiences alter the way individuals view nature. I view nature as a simple place: birds, streams, mountains, trees, the vast tundra, etc. My personal nature lacks factories, roads, the stress of having to places at a certain time and maybe that is why I love the life I lead in Bethel. Yes, there are roads and stresses of being a teacher, but the constant distractions and movement is a lot lower than what it was like in Michigan. Not only did I move cities, I moved natures and love the one I am in.
  • Well, I agree with Cindee in that it's anything unprocessed. I see nature right outside my window now. Trees are growing, birding are living, bears are hibernating, etc. It is a gray area to me however regarding what exactly is included in nature. Is it anything that is grown naturally without the assitance of humans, ie. a forest, a nature preserve, the ocean, a wild stream, etc. But then I think the local park, and the nature that is behind my house also counts. Eventhough it is kept up by forest service workers and neighborhood help. So does that mean man-made obviously is a no, but man-kept up, yes? I don't know what do you think?
  • Wow, I have a great simulation that examines this very issue. Kill the mouse. Kill the snake. Kill the wolf. Sell the gold, sell the coal, sell the water. (Alaska is in the process of selling water to China. They are going to fill a giant bladder and tow it over there. See BLUE GOLD, the movie. Maude Barlow just talked at UAA on Tuesday night) Nature is for sale. Then there are a few folks like Teddy Roosevelt that see things differently. He was all about Conserve and started that trend. But interestingly, it is NEITHER conserving or killing. It's about living within--as a part of. Not above it (dominion), not outside of it (fallow), but within as if we are PART OF nature.

    So what is nature? I'd say it's anything unprocessed. Kraft cheese is not nature, but homemade cheddar is. Trees are nature, but plywood is not. Mud is nature, but bricks aren't??? Hmmmm. I'm not sure if it works.

    Somewhere in all of this is also Sustainable USE and the tragedy of the commons. How do we regulate sustainable nature when humanity is inherently GREEDY! :-)
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