Nature: To conquer or coexist?

Image by Gary Crawford |

Image by Gary Crawford |

On January 14th, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson summited the 3000–foot Dawn Wall on El Capitan. Previously thought to be impossible, these two men spent three weeks on the wall making the impossible possible. This expedition received great coverage in a number of major news outlets. One comment caught my attention: Jorgeson commented that he wished media outlets would not refer to their expedition as an attempt to “conquer” nature. He followed up with “this isn’t about us versus it” and he hoped people would be inspired to “find their own Dawn Wall”.

As a society there is a disconnect Jorgeson’s statement alludes to, and that is that nature is separate from humans and needs to be “conquered” or tamed when, in reality, humans should be coexisting with nature. We are part of it — despite the vast transformations we create on the landscape and the many attempts we make to control nature. I feel fortunate that I have spent a great deal of time in the outdoors throughout my life with my own “Dawn Walls” all of different scales and reached by varying modes of transport, but mostly on foot.

I spent over 100 weeks in the field, living off the grid in a tent in the mountains and canyons of the intermountain west; 80 percent of that experience has been shared with students. I love being in natural environments learning about different ecosystems and environmental processes. There is something amazing about “being in nature” and embracing the opportunity to be in a place and experience it in all its elements; i.e. wind blowing warm air up a valley, or the light changing on the canyon walls throughout the day, or watching a chunk of rock break off a face.

It seems like the natural world continues to shrink and be imposed upon for resource extraction and development. My wish is that more people would spend more time being in nature and develop a sense of belonging to it. In other words, co-existing with nature instead of needing to conquer it. I hope the experiences in nature I share with my students impact them enough that their relationship with nature continues beyond a 30-day course, but that is hard to know. In my heart of hearts I fear the loss of natural and wild places. These are the places where I feel most alive and yearn for, similar to Caldwell and Jorgeson’s relationship to Yosemite.

Recently, a NPR Fresh Air broadcast interview between Terry Gross and Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of The Sixth Extinction, resonated with this longing I have for people working toward coexisting with nature. Kolbert is talking about the Great Barrier Reef and its slowing growth as a result of climate change. Gross responds, “So this is going to sound like a horrible question, I don’t get to see barrier reefs. I don’t get to see coral.  I live in the city. What impact does it have on my life if coral reefs can’t grow anymore and if they start declining because of the acidification of the oceans”. Kolbert’s response hit the nail on the head: “…[w]e are effectively undoing the beauty and the variety and the richness of the world, which has taken tens of millions of years to reach this point. We’re sort of unraveling that. And if that is something that you just say, well, I don’t care about, then I guess I’d say, well, what do you care about?” She goes on to talk about experimentation and essentially how we are conducting a “massive experiment on the planet and don’t know what the end point is going to be”.

As humans our identities are constantly emerging. Our identity emerges out of our relationships with nature, society, education, and individuals. I would go on to posit that our understanding and interaction with nature changes both nature and our emergent identity. Part of my fear lies in the dialogue between Kolbert and Gross regarding this Sixth Extinction — why should someone care? I care because my emergent identity is strongly tied to nature. I do not believe that this is the norm for others. Unfortunately, it leads to rash decisions by some that could wreak havoc on the environment (and has) and, in many cases, the things we need most to survive. At an elementary level we cannot survive without nature. Like all things in nature we need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and clean food to eat. I think this is often forgotten until we are directly impacted by an environmental disaster. Even when I am living in an urban environment, I make a conscious effort to find time to be in nature enjoying all the elements — rain or shine, hot or cold — to feed my soul and remind me that I exist with the beauty and variety and richness that surrounds me today, and may possibly be gone tomorrow. 

This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.