“The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes,” Emerson wrote in “Nature,” his seminal Transcendentalist essay. “Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe…. Nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?”
We take up Emerson’s query in The Boundaries of Nature, the third of four special issues exploring literal and figurative borderlands. The natural world is wondrous and ineffable, even as it adheres to its own systems and laws. We may behold it with reverence, awe, or fear; it remains indifferent to us. We seek to understand it through physics and art; through governance, we impose policies of plunder or protection.
The world today looks quite a bit different than Emerson’s. As we face global temperatures that climb higher each year, as glaciers melt and oceans rise, as previously habitable, arable land sinks below sea level or gives way to desert, it has never been more urgent for us to interrogate our original relation to the universe. We have entered the age of the Anthropocene, a period defined by “the complete and utter dominance of human beings,” as our contributor Meera Subramanian explains in her essay “The Age of Loneliness.”
“We are radically changing the geo-chemical makeup of the planet at a pace previously caused only by cataclysmic events, like massive asteroids colliding with Earth,” Subramanian writes. “The defining characteristic of our new epoch is us and all the things our creative brains have generated to keep ourselves alive, fed, watered, housed, clothed, bejeweled, stimulated, elevated, educated, entertained, and multiplying.”
Our contributors consider not only the ways in which we impact nature and nature impacts us, but also the social, cultural, and political constructs that dictate how we interact with, or are kept apart from, the natural world.
In her essay “Myrrh in the Time of the Anthropocene,” Anna Badkhen transports us to the parched Sahel in Mali, a “land crazed by drought.” Suffering from a dehydration migraine, Badkhen turns to her friend and guide Amadou Gano, who sets a chunk of myrrh resin on a lit brazier and instructs her to inhale its smoke as a natural curative.
Myrrh has been applied therapeutically for centuries, in cultures from China to India to ancient Egypt: “Each time my friend reaches for his resin, he taps into a global knowledge honed over millennia,” Badkhen writes. “At one point or another, we all knew such things about our landscape…but now, in the Global North, we have relegated this kind of intelligence to laboratories.” She warns, “our divested attitude toward our surroundings may be our undoing.”
Physicist Alan Lightman contemplates the relationship between science and miracles in his essay “Splitting the Moon,” noting that “while science provides the psychological comfort of order, rationality, and control, it does not provide meaning…. We turn for answers to the spiritual universe, the realm that contains eternal truths and guidance.” The physicist himself does not believe in miracles, yet finds himself “mesmerized and awed” by the beauty around him, the water “a dark carpet with a million tiny sparkles of light.”
Other contributors remind us that the ability to appreciate the relative miracle of starlight on a lakefront is one of privilege. Nature may “shine peacefully” to Emerson, but it can also represent violence and exclusion. In conversation with Hope Wabuke, cultural geographer Carolyn Finney describes the ways in which people of color have been historically marginalized from outdoor spaces. “There’s a way that nature has been talked about as a sublime, peaceful, beautiful space,” Finney says. “There’s something deep about going out under a tree or in the woods on a mountain without any human beings…. Black people also wanted to go out in the woods and eat apples from the trees. But black people were lynched on the trees…. And so, for some of us, these spaces don’t feel good. Not because of anything nature can do, but because of what other people do to us in nature.”
Physicist and science writer Margaret Wertheim brings up another kind of exclusion in her conversation with Tega Brain: the dramatic underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields. In the United States in 2013, women comprised only 40 percent of graduates from bachelors’ programs in the physical sciences, and just under 20 percent of graduates in engineering and computer science. “The normative strands of science communication were not reaching broad sections of our population,” Wertheim says.
Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, in an interview with Nika Knight, explains the difference between the selective hearing we tend to practice in urban din—“focusing our attention on what is important and filtering out everything else”—and the art of true listening, which requires that we “take in all the information with equal value.” Proposing that “our distant nomadic ancestors came forward and survived because they could hear distant, faint birdsong as an acoustic navigational beacon,” he argues that silence “isn’t the absence of anything, but the presence of everything”—and that attending to such soundscapes is crucial to our evolutionary success.
Plus, Canadian visual artist Claire Falkenberg incorporates photographs, found objects, and oil paints to create layered, nearly opaque surfaces designed to “provoke a sensation, a feeling before words, names or stories.” In an interview with writer Mesha Maren, Falkenberg explains, “I use the landscape, or a feeling of a landscape, to both ground the work in some sort of physical reality and as a counterpoint from which to describe the unknowable and the mysterious. Through my work I’m trying to place myself within the landscape, and it within me.”
Also included are our preview pieces on surfing in Oman, the giant squid’s first photographer, and green thumbs in the Motor City. And, naturally, we round out this special issue with poetry from Maya Janson and Abi Pollokoff and fiction from Mary O’Donoghue and Nick White.