Volume 15: Where is Nature? Editor’s Note

“Desktop Windows”
Annie Jacobs, Editor

This morning I opened my email account to find an “e-card” from my father. With one click, I arrived in a luscious electronic grove of mossy trees. A lithe fairy fluttered from tree to tree, pausing at fungi and in the ruts of tree bark, lighting candles with her glowing wand. Words scrolled across the screen. The e-fairy transported me from my worn couch to a woodland—a place I feel much at home. Lately, I have not had much time in the woods, so I am soothed by this sensory experience, sourced in cyberspace and in my own memory. I am comforted also by the human exchange, and learn later that the card was sent first from my father’s cousin to him, and then to me. My far-flung family is connected in a web of communication, my longing for the natural world momentarily eased.

Just as the imagery of the e-card could never measure up to a walk in the woods, the family contact could not replace an in-person meeting. But both were more than nothing, and nothing is all that would have been. I have lost touch with family for the same reason I have become distanced from the natural world. As a busy graduate student, I only have so much time for human relationships or forests. I cannot stay in touch with everyone I love, or be awake to each opportunity for a walk among trees. In the spaces between tasks, however, I find some solace on the screen—in an image of sand and water on my desktop, in the scenery and quiet socialization of an e-card, in a sound recording of bird song. I know I am not alone in this lifestyle; how many of us are crunched for time and glued to computers?

We pull away from the outdoors as we tune into the virtual world. Yet, we experience new versions of nature in our indoor worlds. In answering the question “Where is Nature?,” the authors in this volume of Whole Terrain explore nature in mathematics, in architecture, in their own bodies. They show that the secret is in knowing how to look in even the most unlikely places.

In her essay “City Harvest,” Jeny Randall finds that living in New York City allows for unexpected discoveries of nature in the seasonal produce at the Union Square greenmarket. David Haskell, in “Bark and Blood,” appreciates the botanical origins of drugs that keep him alive. Swallowing a pill in a sterile hospital room, he feels “interpenetrated” by plants.

Just as the e-card would not have been the same without my memory of childhood romps in a scrubby woodland, so too are Randall and Haskell’s discoveries of nature due to their unique narratives of experience. Similarly, in “Modern Nomads in Desert Time,” contributor Eric Pallant relates a story of change for Arabic Bedouin in Israel. Due to settlement, their once-nomadic lives are less entwined with ecological cycles than they were two generations ago.

As environmental practitioners, we seek a balance between time in nature, where we find personal renewal and inspiration, and time working to save nature, which is an increasingly technological endeavor. We accomplish great feats with our computers—from collecting petition signatures and recruiting volunteers to sending off last-minute research grants. But when we find ourselves shut up in offices, working with numbers, maps, and words about the wild places we cherish, where then do our sustaining bonds with nature go? Do we find nature on our lunchtime walks? On the images we choose for our computer desktops? Might our time among plants and animals, sky and water, be as threatened as endangered species?

Perhaps the effects of technology on our relationships—with nature and with each other—both hinder and help us. In this issue, we used email and telephone to interview four writers and scientists with whom we could not meet in person. Their stories travel from bacterium to volcanic rifts to life outside our solar system. Writer and volcano aficionado John Calderazzo assures us that nature is not just the living and breathing, but also the moving, as in the perpetual churning of rock and lava. Soil ecologist Rachel Thiet delights in life on microscopic scales. Physicist and writer Freeman Dyson asks us to expand our notion of life in the universe, and suggests that warm spots in an otherwise cold universe might harbor nature yet unknown. Keith Winsten, executive director of the Brevard Zoo, hopes to enhance the experience of, and reverence for, the natural world by bringing wildlife close to home.

As we learn to identify and understand nature, our lives become enriched. In environmental practice, this understanding also informs decisions about conservation tactics and priorities. Population ecologist Kristina Stinson sees nature as a complex system of interactions and processes that occur both above and below ground. In her essay, “Native Ground,” she describes the multi-leveled influences of invasive garlic mustard on a New England forest. “Because nature is more than a place or a handful of species that we can see, name, or touch, we are losing a diversity of processes that form the flow of energy, nutrients, light, cooperation, and defense.” If nature is a process, then its protection is a “moving target.”

From the miniscule to the massive, the fabric of all growing and living things weaves timelessly with the nonliving. In “Nature’s Patterns,” Meghan Sullivan reveals mathematical patterns, such as the Fibonacci sequence, that underscore the spirals in pinecones and pineapples, the shapes of ice crystals, and the arrangements of stars; poet Beebe Barksdale-Bruner uses these same patterns to mold the syllabic structure of her four untitled poems. In her essay “Levees, Love,” poet and writer Sheryl St. Germain finds nature in a built environment—the grass-covered levees that shaped the landscape of her New Orleans childhood.

Of course, nature is ultimately undefinable, and identifying where humans end and nature begins is an age-old pursuit. In “Couvade Days,” Michael Branch discovers that the force of nature in human relationships is enough to elicit a set of physical symptoms in his body that replicate those of his pregnant wife. John Tallmadge, in “The Cathedral and the Shell,” finds nature in the cultural heights of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. There, eroded architecture reveals spiraled shells that remind him of his earthly plane, even in a structure designed to recall the heavens. In Tyler Sparks’s poem “injection,” a death row inmate examines his interconnectedness with a spider in the corner of his prison cell. Mae Lee Sun, in her essay “Farmhouse Zen,” grapples to understand the human experience through her practice of Zen Buddhism. To Sun, “we, in essence, are the whole universe.” As humans, we are as much a part of the weave as any wild creature or erupting volcano.

The sound of forest rain is rushing through the speakers on my laptop, refreshing me as I carry out my desk work. I get up for a break from the screen and peek out the window. Sleet has coated the ground with a gleaming layer of ice, and only the glass pane is separating me from experiencing the elements that I crave, and that nourish me. I give in to my temptations, pile on a few layers, and head outside. I walk past houses, mailboxes, street trees. I look beyond rooftops at naked tree limbs, and up into a gray night sky. The thin moisture in the night air wraps my body; the cold bites my ears. My computer is a valuable tool that waits patiently on my desk, the virtual rain pouring on. I breathe in deep and keep walking.


Annie Jacobs is a master of science candidate in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England. While she feels that nature can be found anywhere, she is partial to the outdoors, and she rarely misses her daily walk.