During a fascinating podcast I heard a few weeks ago, the speaker mentioned that as humans, we have essentially “written ourselves out” of the definition of nature. In fact, he pointed out, nature is currently defined as being in opposition to humanity.
Shocked, I insisted to myself that this could not possibly be true. So, I followed up with what any curious human in the 21st century would do: I Googled it.
Sure enough, according to Google, ‘nature’ is defined as the following:
“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.”
As a source for this definition, Google cites its English dictionary, provided by Oxford Languages, claiming it is “the world’s leading dictionary publisher, with over 150 years of experience creating and delivering authoritative dictionaries”.
But, in these days of disillusionment with big tech, I thought I’d fact-check Google against a more independent source – just in case Google’s definition of nature could be considered ‘misinformation’.
So, I moved on to the Cambridge English Dictionary website, where I found nature similarly defined:
“all the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all the features, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth”.
Cambridge English goes on to contrast the above with a secondary definition of nature, in which it is spelled with a distinguishing capital N:
“The force that is responsible for physical life and is sometimes spoken of as a person: Feeling tired-out is Nature’s way of telling you to rest”.
Of course – we’ve all heard of Mother Nature. Yet, how can we personify or parentify Nature if we’re convinced we humans aren’t essentially of Nature? You don’t need to be a Star Trek fan to question the logic in these definitions.
My biggest concerns here are not related to confusing semantics per se. Instead, I’m troubled by the human behavior that consistently fosters such confusion. As humans, we are inevitably susceptible to the same laws of nature to which all living things are beholden. Yet, we continually exclude, reject, and alienate nature in our lived experience. We fear the sun, the wind, and the rain. We isolate indoors. We seldom move our bodies. We ingest processed foods. We are terrified of microbes, dirt, and contamination. We search for fountains of youth and stigmatize death. We abandon rituals and traditions that bind communities to the natural world and honor the life cycle. The list goes on.
Why are we so insistent upon our separation from nature? If we revisit the concept of nature as Mother, then humanity’s current opposing stance may represent the adolescent child’s need for individuation from a parent. Perhaps collective humanity is in the throes of a moody teenage identity crisis, desperately attempting to achieve independence and control.
If so, I’d like to hope that humanity will resolve this crisis and evolve into its own adulthood. To achieve this, we adult humans will need to face the wounds of our past and accept individual accountability for our actions. Perhaps then we’ll recall that humanity and nature are inseparable, and that a return to nature is, In fact, a return to the authentic self.
And as far as lexicon is concerned, I believe that ‘adulting’ in this manner could lead to championing a dictionary definition of nature that is inclusive of humanity. For a word to make it into the dictionary, according to Miriam-Webster, it must not only be in widespread use among a group of people who agree upon what it means, but also needs to have staying power.
May we all agree upon the staying power of humanity’s inherent connection to nature – and dare to define nature as such.