The barrier between us and nature

“First, she turns you on. Then, she turns on you.” So begins TV Tropes’ description of the Femme Fatale, the beautiful, dangerous lady-character that ensnares and endangers the hero by hinting, with soft words and subtle gestures, at the possibility of an intense sensual, sexual relationship. These adjectives—beautiful, dangerous—can also be used to describe Mother Nature. Like the femme fatale, Mother Nature is alluring, both innocent and devious. Her structures are breathtaking in beauty and terrible in their indifference to the mortality of the human race. The vista from one of her mountain sides can soothe the human spirit, but the cold, ice and wind that accompanies it can wreak havoc on the spirit’s fleshy container in equal measure.

Of course, those who climb mountains are usually aware of Mother Nature’s wiles and take steps to mitigate her most harmful desires. In fact, it’s possible to say that this immunity to nature is a hallmark of the advanced civilisation. Consider the average metropolis. Millions reside there, in a density that nature alone could never support. Only ingenious human infrastructure makes it possible. And the buildings that are distributed through that densely-populated area themselves rebel against nature. They defy gravity, they capture heat, fight cold, devour energy, and in some cases generate it. We don’t ford the rivers that run through these cities. We tunnel under them or build bridges to traverse them. The mazes of roads, railways and pathways make the very transition between seasons irrelevant. No longer do we humans have to travel along hard, dirt-packed roads in the summer, treacherous, muddy tracks in the fall, and slippery, icy causeways in the winter. Oh no, it’s the straight, even, consistent textures of tarmac and concrete for us. Or at worst, cobblestones. But when we do want to let nature back in, we can. We can hop on a train, a plane or a bus and be back amongst the elements. We can spend the weekend in a log cabin, or on a campsite with all the essential amenities. 

Primitive civilisations do not have these options. Their relationship with nature is one of union-via-necessity. Think back to antiquity, or before. Our tribal ancestors roamed the lands, with no infrastructure or technology to aid them. To survive, they had to tailor their activities to their environment, taking what they could, and enduring the rest.

Imagine it as a permeable barrier. As we progress from a primitive society or civilisation to an advanced one, we first learn to erect a barrier between nature and humanity, and then we learn to be masters of it, to choose what we let in and what we keep out. Take the example of temperature. Only the primitive and the un-wealthy are exposed to extremes of cold and heat against their will. The rest live in happy moderation. Because of their heating, plumbing and air conditioning, they never freeze and they never overheat. They can let nature in or keep out to the degree that they prefer.

This is, perhaps, the difference between those who prefer city living and those who prefer country living. The city dwellers dislike the constant presence of nature, so they choose to live in a world dominated by man-made structures and technology, a place where the imposition of nature is regulated and controlled. They choose to move amongst skyscrapers, town houses, high streets and they choose to frequent small parks, gardens and bodies of water at a time of their choosing. Country dwellers are the opposite. They like a more uncontrolled imposition of nature. They like being exposed to, or at least seeing, an unobstructed sky, making their way down foggy green lanes, having to walk half a mile to the nearest bus stop in the wet and cold days of the winter. 

The city dwellers in an advanced society turn the dial that controls the permeable barrier between nature and humanity all the way up. Nature, to them, is only a tertiary component of their life, a nuisance that is sometimes an occasional distraction. The country dwellers turn the dial down some, letting the heat, the cold, the sounds and the smells in. And the explorers? The nomads? They are the ones who try to turn the barrier off completely. They seek to eliminate anything that separates them from nature, from its certain uncertainty. And it is this intense (re)connection with nature that soothes their primordial spirits.