virus: WHOSE 'NATURE'? Reflections on the Transcendental Signified of an Emerging Field

Date: Sun Jul 28 2002 - 21:46:43 MDT

                          WHOSE 'NATURE'?
            Reflections on the Transcendental Signified
                       of an Emerging Field
                         by Adrian Ivakhiv
             Invited comments for a panel on "'Nature Religion' as a
                Theoretical Construct," American Academy of Religion
                                                 Annual Conference,
                                     Orlando, Florida, November 1999.

Practitioners of 'nature religion(s)' and 'earth
spirituality' often assume that their beliefs and practices
bring them into closer alignment with nature and with
the rhythms, seasons, forces and/or divinities of the
earth. But what exactly is the 'nature' that acts as a
'transcendental signified' (in Jacques Derrida's terms)
for these forms of religiosity? Recent debates within
environmental thought and social/cultural theory, in the
broader environmental activist movement, and even in
scientific ecology, have shown that the idea of 'nature' is
a much more diffuse, fractured, and contested site than
has previously been assumed. If our concepts of nature
are social constructs, as many argue--constructs which
have always been defined within and shaped by relations
of power among contending social groups, classes,
genders, and so on--then to what does the 'nature' in
'nature religion' (or the 'earth' in 'earth spirituality')

The category 'nature religion,' defined rather loosely,
refers to forms of religious practice which are based on a
celebration or worship of 'nature' and/or those which are
aimed at bringing their practitioners in closer alignment
with 'nature' and with the rhythms, seasons, forces and/or
divinities of the 'earth.' As such, 'nature religion' is
frequently presumed, at least by its practitioners, to be a
more ecologically and environmentally benign form of
religious practice, and therefore a natural ally of the
popular environmental movement.
But environmental thought and scholarship has recently
been grappling with a series of questions opened up by
poststructuralist, feminist, and postcolonial forms of
scholarship; by the emergence of Third World
environmentalism and 'environmental justice'
movements; and by recent developments in ecological
science, developments which have questioned earlier
concepts of 'nature' as balanced and harmonious in
favour of a new view that sees nature as dynamic and
unpredictable. I will look at the issues raised by each of
these developments.
In a sense, the question I intend to raise--in the hope that
our consideration of it will enrich our thinking about the
category of 'nature religion'--is, whose 'nature' is being
referred to in the term 'nature religion'?

'Nature' in general
In his historical overview of the meanings of 'nature,'
Raymond Williams calls it "perhaps the most complex
word in the [English] language" (1976:219). He traces
out three general "areas of meaning" of the word: nature
as "(i) the essential quality and character of something;
(ii) the inherent force which directs either the world or
human beings or both; (iii) the material world itself,
taken as including or not including human beings'"
(1976:219). Each of these meanings, or at least the first
two, convey the sense that 'nature' is a kind of organizing
category, referring to something essential or
foundational; and this alone makes its continued
currency, in our skeptical and anti-foundational times,
something that should interest social scientists. As Neil
Evernden argues in The Social Creation of Nature
(1992:20-21), once we have articulated a concept of
'nature' as distinct from 'all things' or 'the world as a
whole,' it becomes possible to speak of some things as
belonging to nature or being natural, and of other things
as being unnatural (or supernatural). 'Nature' has
therefore come to function as a boundary term
demarcating a primary realm (which can consequently be
elevated or downgraded) from a secondary realm of the
'human,' 'cultural' or 'unnatural.'
A genealogy of western concepts of 'nature'1 would have
to include reference to several distinct models or
metaphors that have functioned as images or stand-ins
for this idea. Nature has been conceived as a divinely
ordained system of norms and rules, rights and
obligations; a book to be read, divined, and studied; a
motherly female, nurturing and providing for the needs of
her children; a body-like organism, whose features mirror
those of the human body; a clock-like object or machine,
to be studied dispassionately, taken apart, and
manipulated for human benefit; a ruthless and harsh
kingdom, 'red in tooth and claw,' from which humans
should distance ourselves through the 'social contract' of
civilization; a flourishing web of life; a store-house of
resources; an Edenic Garden that should be set aside in
protected areas, to be visited periodically for the
replenishment of one's soul; a museum or theme park for
curiosity seekers, or an open-air gymnasium for trials of
masculinity; a cybernetic system or data-bank of
circulating information; a spirit or divinity, or a locus for
the residence of many spirits; and an avenging angel,
capriciously and unpredictably meting out its inhuman
justice to a humanity that has transgressed its natural
Each of these images carries its own assumptions and
histories of social interests and uses. And each leads to
divergent understandings of what kinds of action are
considered appropriate in relation to nature--ranging from
subjugation and domination, classification, measurement,
prediction, and management, through to aesthetic
appreciation and contemplation, segregation and
protection, public 'consciousness raising' and active
resistance to or interference with inappropriate activities,
and 'letting nature be.'
All of this leads us to ask which of these 'natures' is being
invoked in the term 'nature religion'--either as it is used
by practitioners of or by scholars describing (and, in the
process, legitimizing) the said phenomenon? Is it, for
instance, the European Romantics' idea of nature as a
source of healing, wholeness, purity--the same (more or
less) idea that spawned the original nature preservation
movement of John Muir? Close scrutiny of the
conservation and preservation movements' usage of terms
such as 'nature,' 'wilderness,' 'pristine,' 'primeval, 'virgin'
and 'ancient forests,' and the like, has shown that these
have all been implicated within social and political
agendas, enmeshed within relations of
power/knowledge.2 If 'nature' is motherly and feminine,
for instance, does this not presuppose certain ideas of
what women are or should be like? If natural wilderness
is to be preserved as a remnant of an 'Edenic garden'
from which we have 'fallen,' who is to have access to that
wilderness? Are all social groups positioned equally in
relation to it? Or are there clear differences, as Giovanna
di Chiro (1995:311) suggests, with indigenous peoples
and Third World natives (and women) identified as
closer to it--and therefore expected to behave that way--
while 'poor communities of color living in contaminated
and blighted inner cities or in the surrounding rural
wastelands' are classified as people who are 'anti-nature,
impure, and even toxic'?
Apart from such clearly cultural uses of nature imagery,
popular environmentalism has drawn on the science of
eco-logy to articulate its ideas of nature. Specifically,
since at least the 1960s, environmentalists have made
good use of the ecological idea that nature, when left to
its own devices, tends towards exhibiting a dynamic
balance or equilibrium among species, ideally
manifesting in 'climax ecosystems' of maximum diversity
(for a given climate), harmony, and stability. From this it
has been easy to presume that humans, in an ideal,
primordial or 'primal' state, lived in a way that conformed
to the lawful regularities of a given ecosystem.
Unfortunately, this image of nature has been all but
rejected within the ecological science of the last twenty-
five years: instead of a 'balance of nature,' the natural
world is now seen as a profoundly unstable and nonlinear
one, characterized by a ceaseless movement of individual
organisms, species and communities, whose overall
trajectory is directionless and, in fundamental ways,
unpredictable and 'chaotic.' Even tropical ecosystems--the
paragons of nature's flourishing and harmonious
'balance'--have been shown to have undergone extensive
climatic and ecological change and to have been
influenced for millennia by human beings through
hunting and fire.3 If nature, as ecologists like Daniel
Botkin (1990) point out, is always changing and always
being re-made by human activities, then how can it
function as a 'transcendental signified'--a source of
values, direction, and religious inspiration or guidance?

'Nature' in its specificity
The risks of speaking of 'nature' in such generalized
abstractions can be minimized if we consider it not as
some overarching category, but as the more-than-human
life that lives and expresses itself locally, in specific
places, in ways we can come to know in our everyday
lives. We don't, after all, need an airtight definition of
'nature' to know that certain things (plants, trees, wolves,
blood) are more natural than others (cars, cell phones, the
Weather Channel). Or that certain ecosystems (such as
the Carolinian forest in southern Ontario or the mangrove
forests, everglades, and other subtropical forests and
wetlands of Florida) are more 'natural' than skyscrapers,
bank towers, and Walt Disney World; that native plants
are preferable over 'foreign invaders' like purple
loosestrife or Norway maple; and biodiverse wetlands or
permaculture farms are better than monocultural crop
plantations and endless lawns of Kentucky bluegrass.
The difficulties start to pile up, of course, when we
include people among the animals and plants that might
constitute our ideas of local, bioregional 'nature.' One of
the dilemmas for neopagans and 'nature religionists' has
been the question of whether to look to their own
(generally European) traditions for guidance on how to
practice nature religion in North America, or to look to
Native Americans--a solution fraught with its own highly
charged cultural politics. In a recent article in Gnosis
magazine, Chas Clifton proposes a laudable solution to
this dilemma--one that has often been suggested by
environmental philosophers and deep ecology advocates--
which is that of coming to know the ecological features
of our own bioregions and watersheds, and making these
central to the practice of nature spirituality.
But even this solution is more complicated than it at first
appears. To the extent that contemporary North
Americans can, as Clifton advises, come to "feel" the
"tides" and learn "the flow of water, the songs of birds,
and the needs of grasses" of our ecological communities,
such a bioregional solution is eminently practical. But
when it comes to making actual decisions about what to
do, how to shape and design a landscape, we would have
to grapple with the dilemmas regularly faced by
ecological restorationists in their attempts to 'restore'
'damaged' ecosystems back to a semblance of their
'original' character. The question is: which original are
they restoring them to? That of a hundred years ago, or
two hundred (often quite different)? The time of the
arrival of Europeans? A thousand years ago? The peak of
the last glacial era? Which foreign and exotic species
should be uprooted, and which left in place?
Should we even try to 'restore,' or should we 'let it grow
wild' (in which case the results will be entirely different
from how they looked when Europeans arrived)? The line
between uprooting species and uprooting peoples is, of
course, one that few would suggest crossing (except
racists on the far right), but it is a line made thin both by
certain environmentalist arguments which would extend
human rights or responsibilities to the nonhuman world,
and by the rather different social-constructionist
arguments of those who question 'nature's' self-evident
A common way of thinking about North American
wilderness--and what sets the Americas apart from much
of the rest of the world in this sense--is the historical line
demarcated by Columbus's arrival. 'Wilderness' areas are
supposedly those areas which most closely resemble pre-
Columbian environments--purified, alas, of their Native
American inhabitants. But even those pre-Columbian
environments have been shown to have been managed
and shaped, sometimes extensively, by cultural traditions
involving the use of fire, hunting of certain animals
(occasionally to the point of extinction), and so on. And
furthermore, Native groups rarely have clearcut claims to
being the only pre-Columbian representatives of a given
place or bioregion--social groups, after all, moved
around, came into contact with each other, and changed.
So even a local concept of 'nature,' through all this
questioning, becomes a somewhat amorphous and
problematic category: we know what we mean by it, up
to a degree, but things start to get messy when we begin
asking who it is that 'we' are, what the history of 'our'
relationship to a given place may be, and--if not ours,
then whose history and whose 'nature' should we be

Concluding thoughts and un/natural hesitations
In a recent overview of the debate on the 'social
construction of nature,' Kate Soper eloquently argues that
the 'nature-endorsing' views of environmentalists and the
'nature-skeptical' views of critical social theorists and
cultural activists need not be mutually exclusive, but that
they can inform each other in a rich and rewarding
dialectic. Our ideas of 'nature' are social constructions, in
other words, and we need to be careful in deploying
them, but that does not mean we cannot come to some
general agreement about what sort of thing we mean
when we say 'nature'--and what we want to protect when
we fight to save a rainforest from clear-cutting, or lobby
for restrictions on the production of greenhouse gases.
For scholars of 'nature religion,' I assume that our
concern is not with nature itself, but with those
expressions of religiosity that focus on or derive their
primary values from someone's particular idea of 'nature.'
We may need to ask whether we should rely on our own
judgments or on those of our subjects in determining
whether something qualifies as 'nature religion.' One
argument against the use of the term 'nature religion' is
that there may be certain streams of religiosity falling
within our purview which share family traits, but which
diverge on their respective concepts of 'nature.' Where,
for instance, does 'techno-' or 'cyber-paganism' fall within
the broader spectrum of neopagan nature religions? In
this case it would seem awkward to impose the label of
'nature religion' on the latter but not on the former, or to
separate the two for analytical purposes when their
boundary may be more fluid in reality.
The place of 'techno-paganism' within (neo-)paganism
more generally can be compared to the place of Donna
Haraway's famous (or infamous) 'cyborg theory' within
the broader discourse of ecofeminist theory. Haraway's
work has crucially contributed to the broadening of
ecofeminist discourse beyond its earlier identification
with 'spiritual feminism' or 'women's spirituality' to
questions of citizenship, technological embodiment, and
related issues. In a similar way, techno-paganism may be
contributing a distinctly 'nature-skeptical' voice--one that
is open, for instance, to the idea of seeing computer
networks as 'natural' and even 'sacred'--to the broad
spectrum of contemporary pagan and nature spiritualities.
Recent work in chaos and complexity theory has also
been taken up in some quarters (including among techno-
pagans) to blur the distinction between natural, social,
and technological systems. So the category of 'nature
religion' may be a risky one to introduce in an era when
definitions of 'nature' are being revised, extended,
blurred, and even discarded.
In conclusion, then, the usefulness of 'nature religion' as
an analytical category may ultimately be limited by the
stability of the term 'nature.' Nature religion scholars will
need to ask whose definition of 'nature' is being used to
provide the 'transcendental signified' of this emerging
field. If it is not a 'transcendental signified,' ie, an
ahistorical category underlying all forms of 'nature
religion,' then it will be important to continually ask:
when should we apply the term, and when should we
resist it? If, on the other hand, there is a 'nature' we wish
to invoke through our use of this term, we may be doing
environmental politics rather than scholarship. That may
not be a bad idea, but the difference should be kept clear.

1. I have traced such a genealogy in an earlier paper entitled
'Nature-Culture As Relational Animalia: Between Natural
Priorities and Cultural Overcomings' (unpublished, originally
presented at the Fourth Bath Quinquennial Science Studies
Workshop, University of Bath, England, July 27-31, 1995). On the
history of changing conceptions of nature, see C. Glacken, Traces
on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought
from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century
(Berkeley: UC Press, 1967); N. Evernden, The Social Creation of
Nature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1992); K. Soper, What is
Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-human (Cambridge, MA:
Blackwell, 1995); R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (New
York: Oxford UP, 1960); D. Worster, Nature's Economy: A
History of Ecological Ideas (2nd. ed., Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
1996); R. Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (3rd ed., New
Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 1982); and C. Merchant, The Death of
Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980).
2. A taste of this debate can be gleaned from William Cronon's
anthology Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New
York: Norton, 1995, and see the preface to the 1996 paperback
edition) and the fallout that occured after its publication. See, for
instance, the critical debate in Environmental History 1:1 (1996),
the essays in M. Soule and G. Lease, eds., Reinventing Nature?
Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction (Washington, DC:
Island Press, 1995), and the writings of George Sessions in The
Trumpeter (issues 1:3, 12:4, and 13:1) and of Dave Foreman in
Wild Earth (editorials in 6:4 and 8:3). Cronon's anthology simply
gave a focused voice to what many, if not most, social scientists
and humanistic scholars take for granted these days--that our ideas
of 'nature' are socially, culturally, and historically shaped.
3. See, for instance, D. Botkin, Discordant Harmonies: A New
Ecology for the Twenty-first Century (New York: Oxford UP,
1990). See Botkin's (1990:58ff.) discussion of the Boundary
Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota and Ontario.
                  {PRIVATE "TYPE=PICT;ALT=Virtual"}
        Adrian Ivakhiv holds a PhD in Environmental Studies
         from York University (Toronto), where he currently
        teaches. His research interests include the cultural
      politics of nature, environmental ethics, pilgrimage and
        scared space, and Slavic paganism. His articles have
       appeared in Social Compass, Gnosis, Ethnic Forum, The
           Trumpeter, and Musicworks, and he is currently
      completing a book entitled Places of Power: Charismatic
             Gaia's Pilgrims, and the Politics of Place.

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