What is Natural? The Wooden Chair Discussion by Ivy Helman

When I begin my class discussion about defining nature, I often start with a wooden chair or table.  I point to it and ask the students, “Is this chair natural?”  I pause.  

They have already been introduced to the idea that humans are embodied and embedded beings, and therefore dependent on and interconnected to nature.  I remind them of those ideas.  Then, I ask again, “Is this chair natural?”  I continue, “Humans are part of nature and humans made the chair, so would that mean the chair is natural?  The chair is made from wood, a natural material.  Does that make it natural?  I could just as easily sit on a rock or a stump if those were here.  They are natural, right?”  The discussion begins.  

At some point in the discussion, we pause to define what nature is according to the ecofeminists we read for class that day.  Mary Mellor, in Feminism and Ecology: An Introduction, defines nature as “the non-human natural world,” (8).  It is probably the simplest definition out there.  I quite like its simplicity.

Yet, Linda Vance, who I’ve said much about in a past blog, defines nature in light of patriarchy.  She draws a distinction between wilderness, nature and culture.  In “Ecofeminism and Wilderness,” she writes that when wilderness is defined as “… the absence of humans, we are saying, in effect, that nature is at its best when utterly separated from the human world. The idea of wilderness is thus an extreme manifestation of the general Western conceptual rift between culture and nature,” (62).  In other words, nature lies somewhere between the pristine wilderness of ‘untouched’ land and patriarchal civilization in which humans can live totally independent of nature.  This leaves room for non-wilderness nature to be cultivated, mined, and altered according to human desires.  However, the truth is that human activity has impacted every corner of this Earth (64).  After all, even remote uninhabited islands collect garbage by the ton and the highest snowy peaks have been contaminated by the air pollutants humans have produced.  In other words, true wilderness, untouched by humans, really doesn’t exist.  Land designated as wilderness is patriarchy’s attempt to justify the continued exploitation and degradation of nature that isn’t protected (61).  

Vance’s definition of wilderness seems to leave room for preservation of specific ecosystems as long as it isn’t at the expense of the rest of nature.  There can be wildernesses which provide places for wildlife habitat and unique ecosystem preservations, where we make the conscious effort to not intervene too much.  However, those cannot come at the cost of the willy-nilly destruction of non-wilderness nature.  Non-wilderness nature needs to be respected and understood for its own inherent value.

Speaking of understanding nature’s inherent value, science has undermined that goal.  Carolyn Merchant, adds a third perspective on nature in her article “The Scientific Revolution and the Death of Nature.”  She explains how the scientific revolution has caused the death of nature by making the natural world only useful insofar as experimentation with nature produces  knowledge of said nature (518).   In other words, nature is important only how it benefits humans in terms of knowledge, medicine, etc. in what it can reveal about itself for human benefit.   

For ecofeminists, nature is not just one thing.  Nature is, like Mellor says, the non-human natural world, like rocks, trees, animals, rivers, forests, and mountains.  However, nature has also been touched by humans as Vance and Merchant discuss.  Nature then can be understood to be farms, pastures, parks, and wilderness areas.  

Nature, then, includes some human influence.  This allows us to return to the question of the wooden chair.  We still haven’t resolved if the chair counts as natural.  But, if farms can be considered part of nature, molded and shaped by humans, but still part of nature, students begin to understand the chair as more and more natural.  So, I ask a new question, “What about this classroom?  It too has a human influence, as humans shaped it and now occupy it.   Like farmland, it exists for human reasons.  Humans are part of nature.  Then, this classroom too must be natural.”  

It is the introduction of the classroom, that shifts the conversation towards culture, as most students are quite clued into how a university education is cultural.  Eventually, in the discussion, we get to the point where the chair is probably human influence over nature, but the classroom is definitely cultural.  

We have introduced, then, into this discussion by the use of the chair a third category, somewhere between nature and culture.  Vance alludes to this category in her article about wilderness, but does not name it as a distinct entity.  Farms, pastures, parks, and, perhaps, wooden chairs, all fall into this category.  It is not wholly cultural as natural phenomenon like trees, crops, animals, rivers, ponds, and so on, are there.  Vance is also very clear that much of this “nature-meets-culture” nature is more culture than nature.  Take, for example, monoculture farms, animal agriculture, and the solitary wilderness experience. These are thoroughly patriarchal manifestations of this category of nature, if we would even want to call it nature at that point.  Then, again, the sustainable, small scale organic farm also exists here as “nature-meets-culture” nature.  

Anyway, back to that wooden chair for the last time.  I tell my students that no matter what we think of the chair, we have to be willing to draw a line in the sand somewhere in order to separate nature from culture.  We have to, even though ecofeminists often problematise dualistic thinking.  Why?  Because, patriarchy is not natural.   


Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.  

Categories: Ecofeminism, environment, Feminism, Nature

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. “For we are nature…nature weeping nature with a concept of nature.” Susan Griffin

    It should also be noted that humans are not the only part of nature with the intelligence to intervene in and thus change “nature.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol mirrors my words – We are nature – nature is the body of the earth in all her manifestations – nature supports us literally – without air we could not breathe – i could go on here. We cannot separate ourselves from the body of the earth although we can make endless choices to destroy that which sustains us. At this point Ivy I really believe we need to get beyond these abstract discussions – and focus on changing the way we relate to the planet so humans and other species can live.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thank you for this insightful article. It is always useful to realize that the “wilderness” is not the only part of nature that deserves protection. Especially nowadays with what’s happening in the US and elsewhere. Must provide for quite interesting class discussions. Ahhh I wish back in my days classes were like yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating! I’ve never thought about wooden chairs as part of nature. But it seems to me that much of what we encounter is natural, even though it’s hard to define precisely what nature is. And quite where it is. All around us? What with climate change and all the awful things people are doing to the environment–to nature?–it’s harder and harder to know what is natural. Everything natural is probably in danger right this minute.

    Thanks for this very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I bet your classes are challenging. Good for you to make your students think! Bright blessings and keep going with the questions. An occasional answer is good.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree with Carol and Sarah. Humans are as natural as any other part of nature. Unfortunately for us ecofeminists, that means that human cultural manifestations are natural as well, and that includes patriarchy. Of course, patriarchy is only one human cultural manifestation, one that is detrimental to the rest of nature. As soon as we see feminist cultural manifestations as more natural than patriarchal, we reinforce dualistic thinking.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. how does an elaborate nest or beaver dam compare to a house or a chair?

    Liked by 1 person

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