Nature, Environments, & Place in American Thought

Sarah Rudasill (Spring 2014)

Throughout the semester, my major thematic focus has been determining the relationship between human beings and nature. When I walked into our first class in January, I possessed the mindset that nature existed to serve human needs. While this declaration sounded selfish, I rationalized the belief by arguing that society would be foolish to not utilize the great resources supplied by Earth. Our initial class readings, which included the viewpoints of Emerson and Turner, actually strengthened my belief in human superiority over nature. Emerson writes in Nature that "more servants wait on man than he’ll take notice of… all the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man." I agreed with his assertion that nature is a commodity with both procurable resources and exceptional forces that can be harnessed for human benefit. Turner broadened the discussion by arguing that places like the frontier actually provided character development opportunities that shaped Americans into pioneering individuals. Utilizing nature’s resources and a newfound innovative focus, Americans developed a sense of superiority over the years by triumphing over natural selection with technology that made life significantly easier. For much of my life, I have enjoyed the natural resources provided to me by this awe-inspiring planet, yet I never once stopped to consider what I was contributing in return. However, after completing four major projects this semester, my understanding of the relationship between humans and nature has evolved from one of dominance to one of harmony.

My first attempt at nature contemplation subtly reflected my initial attitude of superiority. Although I appreciated the beauty of a brilliant star in the night sky and pondered the philosophical questions that it provoked in my mind, I only discussed what the star provided for me. My entire essay revolved around human interpretation of the star rather than the star’s potential perception of Earth. Although I began to delve into the significance of human life, I ignored the reality that only the natural Earth, and not its 'superior' human beings, can observed from the perspective of the star. This sense of being miniscule and vulnerable within the universe helps temper the dominant human mindset. Furthermore, as I contemplated the star’s life stage, I ignored the prospect that humans are contributing to the gradual demise of our own planet. As I watched the star die, I did not consider that our actions are expediting the brutal death, via internal combustion, of our precious home as well. The attitude in my contemplation essay was fairly egocentric, reflecting ignorance and some denial of the need for natural harmony.

Despite this stubborn beginning, my perceptions of man’s role within nature began to change while developing our group’s photo essay on harmony between nature and culture. Aldo Leopold’s "The Land Ethic" played a pivotal role in my understanding of the tremendous interdependence of humans with the natural world. Leopold argues that we are equal counterparts in the struggle for survival on Earth, and one’s dominance over the other leads not to prosperity but to a terrible fate for both parties. Our photo essay on Wake Forest University’s establishment in Winston-Salem was a powerful example of the destructive forces wielded by human beings. Rather than incorporating the natural environment into its campus, the university destroyed the entire forested area and now struggles with massive flooding and soil erosion. The observed interdependence of the university with nature, along with its recent attempts to make amends for past destruction and reduce future environmental impact, follow the ethic articulated by Leopold. After completing this assignment, I inevitably began to visualize the environmental histories of other expansive places in the city, including Reynolda, the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. I quietly began to appreciate Wendell Berry’s notion that we owe something to the great sphere that provides us with life.

I applied this new critical lens specifically to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in the place study, where my in-depth analysis of its transformative impact cemented my new ideas about harmony. The previously quiet, residential community that rested peacefully on acres of open land was quickly transformed into a bustling center with the addition of massive infrastructure. Only with this focused study did I realize that the mindset of human superiority hurts both the natural world and ourselves. The hospital’s expansion physically and socially divided a community while the construction of I-40 introduced additional pollution, traffic, and crime. Clearance of the surrounding area for the new infrastructure hurt both the local ecosystem and the human beings residing in the region. Although I will always recognize the need for a quality medical center, I finally began thinking critically about both the positive and negative effects generated by important places on the environment and local people.

My emerging support for a symbiotic relationship between humans and the natural world culminated in our interview with Natalie Sevin, a passionate organic farmer who believed in the importance of healthy food and environments. She described the farmer’s ideal "give and take" relationship with the land, saying, "As the land produces the food necessary for human survival, the farmer must treat it well to ensure future, sustainable production." While artificial fertilizer and pesticides temporarily boost yield, these practices are ultimately unsustainable because they exhaust the requisite microorganisms and nutrients in the soil. I was thoroughly impressed with her perspective because although it takes a significant amount of work, organic farming is the only sustainable method of food production. I thought back to Wendell Berry’s poetry, which articulated the interconnectedness of life and our imperative to care for the land that feeds us. Humans can only triumph over soil limitations for so long until our entire food production system collapses. Natalie Sevin’s sustainable farming epitomizes a harmonious relationship and sets an example for other aspects of our lives.

Before creating these projects to showcase my explorations in the relationship between humans and nature, I was slightly skeptical about using digital media to convey my ideas. Technology is often portrayed as the enemy of nature since it contributes to our feelings of superiority by helping us overcome a number of environmental constraints. However, I quickly realized that digital media is actually more effective than other avenues because it harnesses the strengths of each format to build a cohesive and interactive story. Photographs capture the beauty and grandeur of places; essays link intellectual traditions to the economic, social, and historical significance of places; maps provide orientation and a sense of the information’s local relevance; and films articulate the passion of environmentalists in their own compelling words. A single article or photograph is not as engaging as a multimedia website that utilizes visual, audio, and semantic elements simultaneously. Furthermore, the website is easily accessible, which is especially important because it caters to the younger generation that will be tasked with making decisions that continue or reverse our course of environmental destruction. I see immense value in creating this multifaceted platform that can be accessed worldwide.

The four major projects, which contributed to a comprehensive, multimedia website, facilitated my evolving understanding of the relationship between human beings and nature. Rather than viewing technology and impressive infrastructure as evidence of our superiority, I developed a critical lens to visualize the environmental problems that arise from disregarding our interdependence with nature. Wake Forest University failed to establish harmony with nature and consequently suffers from flooding while large, industrial farms fail to see that their operations are ultimately unsustainable because they will exhaust an irreplaceable soil ecosystem. I do not claim to be a passionate environmentalist, nor do I support a sudden rejection of fossil fuels, which would cripple our transportation network and thus our economy. However, I now support the basic tenet that human beings — from individuals and communities to corporations and countries — have a responsibility to the natural environment that sustains us. We are not superior to nature, and we will never develop the technology to fully disconnect society from its basic needs for water, food, sunlight, and other resources. Only when we recognize the "land ethic," and begin to appreciate that nature exists not for us but with us, will we establish the symbiotic relationships necessary to sustain human life on Earth for thousands of years to come.