I can pinpoint the moment my thoughts on nature began to shift: after my spill into the stream. Even though I was walking in a scene that any seniors’ home would be happy to hang in its dining room, I started fulminating upon ‘nature red in tooth and claw’.
Nature doesn’t hate you. It doesn’t care about you. It just wants to recycle you, as quickly and efficiently as possible, back into the hummus. I like flowers and mountains and lakes, but I don’t like them any more than a nice cappuccino. I tried to wrap my head around why people like the nature (a verbal affectation I picked up from The Marxist-Leninist Daily, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Canada Marxist-Leninist, which never met a definite article it didn’t like and insisted on hailing ‘the’ women and ‘the’ youth – sorry, obscure Communist reference again) Yes, so the whole experience left me wondering, why are people so into the nature?
I’ve heard the explanation “You appreciate everything you have at home afterwards much more.” This is true, but it starts from the premise that nature is an obstacle to be overcome – that may be grudging respect but it’s not appreciation. It’s a negative reason, not a positive one. It also conceals a conservative view of human nature: why do I have to lose something in order to appreciate it? Am I incapable of knowing my own desires and need a priest or be-MECced guru to interpret them for me?
Every time I have a well-made coffee, I like it better than a poorly-made coffee, and the same goes for single-malt scotch, shirts that fit me, a good piece of music, etc. I want more of them, not to go away from them. It’s the same argument made by those who say “Sometimes you just need to get away from it all.” But I like it all. I suppose if you’re so jaded by the good life that you need to abandon it to truly enjoy it, then nature makes sense. Or, if your experience of ‘it all’ is noise and stress, then the quiet and ease of the countryside can bring back inner equilibrium. But what’s quiet about buzzing insects trying to devour you? What’s relaxing about the tick that burrowed itself into my side and died there? What’s easy about rain, treacherous cliffs, uneven roads, exhaustion? Sitting in a cafe with a book and a glass of wine is far simpler.
And let’s be clear about nature; it’s a construction, just like the city. With a few exceptions, the distinction didn’t even exist before the rise of capitalism – certainly not before the advent of class society created surplus production and the need to centralize control over that surplus. The hiking path, poorly marked and maintained as it was, wouldn’t exist with people to create it, nor would Bolshey Kotie without 19th century gold prospectors, nor indeed, as I learnt later, towns around Lake Baikal without the tsarist and Stalinist rulers exiling people to them. If we weren’t clustered in cities, the countryside would be full of people and there’d be fewer large open spaces to hike in – particularly in Russia, where the countryside is emptying. Go further – what if I was a lone hermit living in a cabin off the grid? I’d still be using pots, cutlery and nails produced by a vast, international division of labour. The only reason I’d be there is through my own rejection of that division of labour, which I would have had to have lived in and sustained myself to experience. As Marx said, Robinson Crusoe is a myth: we all rely on the labour and products of that labour of others.
So, if we only exist through others, even along hiking paths, why not enjoy where those products of labour are more substantial? Like, say, a city park where you can see flowers and water, but not be eaten alive? Where, if your shins decide to walk in a different direction than you, there’s a restaurant to sit down in? Why actively maintain the myth of oneness with the world? Relegate it to pre-capitalist history! Down with the nature! All power to the flaneurs and dandies!