"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)


"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Monday, 23 February 2015

Culture and Nature

Walt Whitman, walking across an ‘empty’ landscape and seascape in New Jersey in 1870 commented on the disjunction between Culture and Nature with these words:

The attractions, fascinations there are in sea and shore! How one dwells on their simplicity, even vacuity! What is it in us, arous’d by those indirections and directions? That spread of waves and gray-white beach, salt, monotonous, senseless - such an entire absence of art, books, talk, elegance - so indescribably comforting, even this winter day - grim, yet so delicate-looking, so spiritual - striking emotional, impalpable depths, subtler than all the poems, paintings, music I have ever read, seen, heard. (Yet let me be fair, perhaps it is because I have read those poems and heard that music.)


The afterthought is significant. Often we seek a cultureless experience from the natural world, an ‘escape’ from the urbanised world we all inhabit even those of us who live in rural areas. So how much are we conditioned to see nature through the lens of the literature we read, the films we watch and the art we view? How much through the expectations which might be created by indirect consumption of cultural products: prevalent attitudes, views and shared prejudices about what the ‘natural world’ actually is?

Mountains stretch as if to infinity, stand against the sky as immutable objects with a continuity that seems unchallengeable. Text books of Geology tell us that this is not so. They were once sea bed, thrown up in violent changes in the shape of the landscape. There are fossils to prove it. That may seem inconceivable as we stand overawed by its splendour, or even simply contained by its familiarity. So what do we ‘know’? If the story we have to tell ourselves is one we have learnt, but not one which we feel as we take in the landscape around us, of what value is it to us spiritually? (Its material value is of course unchallenged - this is no argument for Creationism).

Stories are as important as facts. They have their own truth, their own use-value; they tell us who we are and they construct the world we inhabit. Knowing that we are homo-sapiens on an Earth with a particular place in the Solar System and the wider Universe valuably shapes our awareness of our world in a way that places us in the eternity of Space. Some would say that this too is a ‘story’ as much as the creation myths of religions. Whether or not either one is ‘true’ is not the point here. For we live on Earth and need to have a sense of its significance as well as its factual existence. What is the truth-value of significance?

Centring around different senses of the idea of value emphasises what we bring to experience of what seems, or what we would like to seem, like a direct perception of nature constructed if at all only by own inner response to it. But what we recognise is what we have already learnt - only we see it again as if for the first time because sharpened for us out of the fuzziness of familiarity.

1 comment:

Lorna Smithers said...

Lots of complex issues here about how nature and stories shape and reshape each other. I'd certainly argue that we value storied landscapes more, and the landscapes that have the most stories 'appear' to be to most sacred!