Red River Gorge, KY

Red River Gorge, KY

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What is Nature?

A recent topic we've been discussing in BIO 1164 is the idea of the place and role of humans in the scope of nature. What do we think of when we think of nature? Large tracts of unbroken forest, streams, and meadows? Hilltops and hollows, and ancient gorges carved into the rock by the wind and rain over millions of years? Certainly no one would argue with those descriptions.

Pine Mountain, Pineville, KY
Is there a problem with referring to nature as a place removed? Is nature a destination to which you need to pack up the car and travel, burning fuel on your way to enjoy a day hike? What does this separation signify about how we view our place in the world? Clearly, each of us lives within an ecosystem. If you open the door, no matter where you are, you can observe plant and animal species along with sunlight, soil, and water. It may be that you live in an urban area, with parks scattered around the city. On the other hand, you might live in a rural area and an idealize view of nature isn't far from you. Regardless, a view of nature that does not include humans and the large influence that we have on our environment is rather incomplete. Wendell Berry writes in the foreword to our textbook, "Kentucky's Natural Heritage" about the value of  knowing and observing local biota. This knowledge can tell us much about the health of the local environment that we all share. These are ideas that my students and I will develop and explore throughout the semester.

What is a naturalist? The role of the naturalist has changed throughout history, from ancient Greek philosophers to wealthy Victorian era plant and animal collectors and enthusiasts. We are discussing the history of natural history, and the interesting ways in which the field has been intertwined with philosophy, faith, and the arts. We have also been discussing what it means to be a naturalist, and the contributions that naturalists have made to science throughout history. Of course, the focus has been on Darwin, but soon we will delve into the writings of other important figures like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson. But, more importantly, we'll be spending some time outside on campus at Transylvania University, sharpening our plant and insect identification skills (= the fun stuff!)

Until next time!

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