Type ‘nature’ into google images and you will be confronted with a wall of peaceful, serene and very green pictures. Several things stand out about these images; the vast majority are of waterfalls and trees, the rest are mountains and meadows, all of them are in sunshine and the trees always have leaves on. Another thing I noticed was that they are all empty of living creatures. There is not a single animal; plants or inanimate landscapes dominate, with water being a key ingredient in any picture of ‘nature’ it would seem.
Peace, quiet, emptiness, open space, sunlight, the gentle ripple of water and an abundance of greenery are all things that seem to define nature as it is perceived by most internet-using human beings. This is not how I see nature, rather the opposite of peaceful and green in fact. Nature is violent, a constant struggle for life and reproduction, it is filled with millions of different living organisms filling every available ecological opening. Plants compete with each other for light and water and space, they can be toxic or thorny, in winter they stand stark and cold and bare like skeletons. Every organism eats another living organism (apart from some algae which eat rock, but they’re just weird), killing or being killed is a daily fact of survival; nature is harsh, unjust, unfair and without conscience or morals. The inanimate side of nature is just as dangerous; winds rip up forests, rain brings life or death, temperatures can be painfully hot or hideously low, the atmosphere is constantly turbulent and the rocks beneath are always heaving together or jerking apart. When I look out of my window now, at the trees and the sky, at nature, I do not see tranquility or escape; I see the raw facts of survival, I think of the tiny Goldcrests that must constantly search for food to fuel their tiny bodies so they do not freeze – they are always alert for predators and they have no house with central heating to return to at night.
I do not deny however, that nature can be peaceful and pleasant and beneficial to our minds and souls – yet it is only us humans that see it in this way. Nature is SO much more than a green field with a tree in it; it is every living thing and every non-living thing that is not man-made which surrounds us all the time – even in cities. A lot of people drive into the British countryside and think ‘now I am in nature’ simply because there are fields and trees – yet they were in nature in the middle of the city, it is just that they could not see it because their perception of nature is so different from the reality. The countryside is just as manufactured by man as a school playing field, the patchwork landscape that supposedly typifies the English country is not natural or wild at all – it just happens to support a lot more living things than an urban area.
Even proper nature-philes are subject to picture-postcard perceptions of nature; take filmmaker David Bond who made the documentary ‘Project Wild Thing’ which admirably gave the case for getting children outside and enjoying nature. In the film he tries to ‘sell’ nature as a product and carries a briefcase containing a little model of a landscape – complete with open green fields, trees, blue sky and a waterfall. A model of the typical countryside it was, a model of nature it was not.
You could argue that people are getting a better idea of how ruthless, frightening, un-peaceful and diverse nature is from documentaries on telly showcasing the weird and wonderful and dramatic of wildlife. Yet why do I not see images of orcas tearing apart a whale calf or ants infected with a parasitic fungus that controls their brains on google when I type in ‘nature’? And what of the searing deserts, arid plains, glaciers, volcanoes, moors, bogs, reefs, cliffs, mudflats, hydrothermal vents and tundra that make up vast areas of the Earth’s surface – instead of a leafy lane, which seems to be the only habitat on the planet if google is anything to go by.