As a naturalist, I’m supposed to study nature, though it’s hard to know where to start. It’s all so nebulous and confusing. So I propose that we get rid of nature completely. I am referring here, of course, to the word, not the thing itself. Despite the plethora of books published with smug titles such as The End of Nature and despite the efforts of dedicated despoilers around the globe, the complete termination of nature is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.
We all know what nature is. Or do we? Does your definition of nature include slime molds? Bat ticks? Lizard scat? How about that disgusting sound Uncle Ralph makes after dinner? Or Uncle Ralph himself?
Does it include time and the curvature of space? Quantum energy, quasars, and quesadillas? Does it include Big Bang, Big Bird, and bigamy?
Suffice it to say, it is all these things and more—anything and everything in the entire known universe, not to mention all the unknown universes.
One nice thing about being a naturalist is that you never need to worry about running out of material. Indeed, nature is material, and all the energy wrapped up in it.
By now you have probably noted that I don’t capitalize the word nature. Those who do so are beyond hope.
When we try to put a spin on nature, things get even more befuddled. There are almost as many quotations for the n word as there are for life, truth, and God. Thus, we find writers down through the ages referring to nature as a kind parent, but a merciless stepmother; a diseased thing from the grave, but also the art of God; too noble for the world, but equaling the stupidity of man. And we are told that nature does nothing uselessly, never deceives us, never makes blunders, and that all of its models are beautiful.
Oh, please. Have you ever taken a good hard look at a platypus? Or an aardvark? Or even your own belly button? Can such a nature be trusted? And when I hear about quarks, muons, and hadrons, pulsars, hyperspace, and imaginary time, killer asteroids and mass extinctions and the vagaries of continental drift, I cannot help but think that here lies a nature out of control.
Though I might excuse an 18th century poet like William Wordsworth for writing something so fatuous as: “Come forth into the light of things/Let Nature be your teacher,” naturalists should know better. Yet there are some today who, while poking about in ant hills or contemplating bear dung, still insist that by studying nature closely we might learn more about its inner workings and come to understand its overall scheme of things.
Poppycock! What can we possibly learn from a nature that spends over 135 million years developing dinosaurs in every shape and color and then, for no apparent reason, makes them all go extinct so that today children have nothing but plastic models to play with? Is this the sort of role model you want teaching your kids?
And what kind of order is it that gives us brains big enough to invent H-bombs, CD’s, and silly putty, but denies us what we really want—which is wings—and instead gives them to houseflies, flying fish, and even fruit bats?
In fact, the more scientists discover about this supposed nature teacher of ours, the stranger it becomes. We are told that nothing is as it seems, that everything is relative, and that someday the universe may get all squished together again, unless it keeps expanding forever, which is fine by me. Indeed, nature is not only strange, it’s more ridiculous than the human mind can ever comprehend.
We need a more realistic term, elegant but concise—a word that says exactly what we mean and won’t be put up on a pedestal. I propose the word “stuff.” Say it softly and let your lips linger on that final “fffff” sound. What better way to capture all the bounce and fluff of our weird wild universe? Now say it loudly and let it echo through your head with primordial force. STUFF! Now go back and say “nature.” See the difference?
Thus, nature study would become simply stuff study. Cereal companies would label their products 100% all stuffy. Mother Nature—whoever she is—would become Mother Stuff. And naturalists would become stuffalists.
On second thought, maybe we should stick with the old word for now.
©Gene Twaronite 2014
Originally published in 5enses August 2014 http://www.5ensesmag.com/on-getting-rid-of-nature/