At arm's length: creating "Nature" and keeping it "out there"

After a recent presentation at a conference I was approached by one of the audience members: "So, what elevation do you live at?" I thought it a peculiar question but I responded accurately nonetheless: "5200 feet" I said. "I lived at 9500 this winter though." I was a bit taken aback at my own pride in that statement, as though living in the mountains was something I wanted to flaunt. I wasn't sure why he was asking but it was like the elevation was a measure of achievement. Similar to how some people ask me how many 14'ers I've climbed. I always want to tell them that the most challenging day I've had in the mountains came on an unnamed 12,000 foot peak, and that elevation has little to do with it, at least down here at "normal" high elevations.

It's a peculiar conclusion really, that somehow being higher above the sea that you're closer to adversity, therefore closer to nature. It was similar back during the 2013 Colorado floods. When I told people I lived in Nederland, a town 15 miles West and high above Boulder in the foothills of the Front Range, most assumed that the floods must have been worse up there because it was "the mountains". "Oh my you live in Nederland? It must have been crazy up there."  In reality, Nederland was far enough West that it missed the heaviest rain. Furthermore, being at the top of the hill, everything ran down from there and there wasn't enough terrain above Ned to gather enough water and debris for widespread flooding. Some of the worst damage was in Eastern slope towns like Lyons and Longmont whose flat topography and downstream location lent itself to widespread flooding of rivers like the St. Vrain. The other areas that suffered the most were foothill towns like Jamestown and Gold Hill, which were low enough to see significant drainage from higher terrain and where soil was compromised due to recent fires. Add to that the mountainous terrain with lots of drainage features, roads that cross said features and the highest total rainfall in the area (more than 13" in 48 hours) and you had a "perfect storm", if you will. There was damage in some of the mountain communities but it certainly wasn't any worse than "down below", as Nedheads like to call Boulder. The reality of the aftermath was far more nuanced and complex than most people, even experts could comprehend. Nederland, contrary to popular assumption, was sitting high and dry.

Also contrary to the assumptions, I found life above 9,000 feet to be much easier than life in Manhattan where I was raised. Still, this notion that there is something difficult about nature is an important part of our cultural narrative AND, an essential piece of understanding the climate change mentality, that is, the mentality that's causing climate change.

Nobody really likes to live in nature. We're like nature's fun uncle; we love hanging out with him all day and playing as long as we can go home without him at night. Really living in nature can be quite uncomfortable and the people who do so are considered rugged, or somehow exceptional. In a forthcoming work, Hutchinson (2014) weaves a narrative about the evolving view of "nature" and "wilderness" in American culture. Drawing from a diverse set of works including Thomas Cole's 1828 Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Hutchinson describes the wilderness as a "dark, dangerous and violent, symbolic of all that man must rise above." He continues to describe even how many New England towns were built to protect against this grotesque wild place outside, houses clustered around a town square with large fields buffering the town from the wild woods. In the early Victorian era, carriages would draw their curtains as they passed by the beastly landscape of the mountains that we now revere as beautiful. To them, they were considered hideous (McFarlane 2003).

But now that we're more in control of this world we live in (or so we think) it's much easier to see these once intimidating landscapes as beautiful. The Tetons look a lot better from the comfort of a nice hotel with a bar and restaurant  downstairs. Cold, wet and downtrodden from a difficult ride 150 years ago, they might have more likely been visual reminders of difficulty, danger, and discomfort.

We've figured out how to keep nature out. We like nature, as long as we can play by our own rules, not hers. Central heat and air, aviation, modern medicine, electricity... So much of what makes a modern life "modern" is our ability to live outside the naturally occurring order of things. What's got two thumbs and likes eating pineapple in Colorado in July? This guy, that's who. I also would like it to be 68 degrees wherever I go, no matter what. So crank up the AC, thank you. And light! Let there be light with the flick of my finger, or, if you bought a Clapper in the 90's, the clap of your hands. And bring me some of those Maine Lobsters while you're at it. I don't care how far the ocean is. We're breaking the rules and we're doing it because it makes us more comfortable and improves our chance of survival.

However, I've always found it interesting that many people who we revere in our culture are people who have figured out how to play by nature's rules. In fact, a great deal of what we revere as accomplishments in a variety of fields are simply moments of clarity; someone has figured out how things work. Take cars for example: evolving knowledge of aerodynamics has made my 2005 Subaru more efficient than my 1988 Toyota. 17 years of innovation. We didn't change anything about the laws of nature in that time, someone just figured out how to pay attention better to what was really going on all along. 

Architects and landscape designers such as F.L. Wright and F.L. Olmstead were revered for their work, particularly their work with natural materials. Wright's Fallingwater house is among his best known designs because of it's integration of the natural landscape. Olmstead worked largely with natural landscapes like Central Park in New York (among hundreds of others) creating spaces that only now, nearly 100 years later, are coming into maturity and fulfilling his vision. When consulted about the design of the young Boulder, Colorado in 1910, he said "If, lulled by the security of a few seasons of small storms, the community permits (Boulder Creek) to be encroached upon, it will inevitably pay the price in destructive floods." (Carswell 2013). In this case, Olmstead was ignored until his warnings were repeated 40 years later but on the whole he is revered as a visionary. We revere these people who see how the world work as though they are geniuses. More accurately, they are simply better observers than the rest of us. The Wright's and Olmsteads of our world have suspended any conflict with nature for long enough to see it clearly. They don't try so hard to keep "nature" out, and the results are always impressive to those of us who do. How'd they ever figure that out? We might wonder. If we sought to rid ourselves of the need to keep nature out, or, even to call "nature" a separate word, we might also be graced with such moments of clarity.

Well, I've never revered myself as a genius, or bold, or rugged. I'm just a person working to resolve an internal conflict well enough to see what's been in front of me all along. So when someone sees me as "rugged" or "outdoorsy" or "nature-loving", I'm a bit taken aback since I'm only doing what feels natural. The only difference between Olmsteads and the rest of us is fear. At a sub-conscious level, fear is driving us to keep "nature" out of our lives. Furthermore, it is driving us to feel like there's something we need to keep out of our lives. Even further still, fear is driving us to consider that "nature" is even a thing at all, as though there were something different "out there" that wasn't "in here". Well, ask yourself this: what is the difference between your backdoor and your backyard? Where does nature begin and end? Do the laws of physics differ between K2 and your kitchen? Ok, perhaps that wasn't the best example. It's friggin cold up there at 28,000 feet and the oxygen is thin. But the fact remains: If we are ever going to play by the rules and become a sustainable civilization we need to resolve this problem we've created for ourselves: How can we work with something that we spend so much time trying to keep out of our lives?