A couple of my creative friends are going to write a screenplay about a recent camping trip we took to Havasupai. In preparation, they asked us each to write about what the trip meant to us. They also asked us to say what nature means to us. Dan was expecting a paragraph or so, and actually, I was expecting to write a paragraph or so. But after coming to the question, I realized I had more to say about what nature means to me. Here is my response to Dan’s request.
What does nature mean or represent to you?
Being natural, we as human beings have a connection to nature that cannot be severed, but is always felt, and more so when we leave the amenities of modern life and head out into an environment more untouched, more raw, than we are used to. It inspires us in a superlative way. It also revolts us, sometimes as strongly as it inspires. Therefore, what nature represents is a startling paradox of awe and disgust. And if I may be so bold, you feel this way, too. We love to visit the wilderness. I love to visit the wilderness. But look me in the eye and tell me you would love to live there. Interesting, isn’t it? Nature is all at once the world as it should be and the world as it should not be—the world as pristine, unmarred and unadulterated, and the world as dirty, unkept and unordered. Nature is an escape, and I love it. But I also love toilets, telephones, and TVs. Nature is an interesting thing to me.
Nature: The world as it should be
I was captivated on first sight. There was something about its raw glory, its proud, even intimidating stature that betrayed a force to be respected. The canyon walls dove under my feet, plunging fast enough to make me dizzy, like a stunt pilot confident enough not to pull up until everyone, cringing, is certain he’s gone too far. Before the end of the day, I would tiptoe down the same path, until the walls would invert themselves, and I would be looking up as they, impervious to the fly on their back, stood like titanic sentinels where they had stood for years. Over the edge came leaping, in a suicide dive, a flood of water, falling a hundred feet, and hitting the pool below with powerful force in an unending roar. This was going to be an inspiring and humbling trip. The Grand Canyon. And this, a mere crack among its splintering subcanyons. The whole canyon system is a tribute to God’s creative power and his terrible anger. It is beautiful. Nature, as it stands, represents to me the creative genius of God, who made heaven and earth, who broke through the earth with millions of gallons of water and laid down the sediments of the Canyon walls. It represents to me the natural order and processes he thought of and put into action. It represents to me the elements, as he made them, working together to sustain life and to provide an environment that is not only functional as a biosphere, but is also, when it did not need to be, full of beauty.
An immense mountain range, or an alpine forest that stretches like a green carpet as far as you can see, or a cascading waterfall—all these things are glorious. They have glory, and we, for whatever reason, take delight in glory, in glorious things. We enjoy merely beholding them. We like knowing that there are things that exist that are bigger than ourselves and that have a quality of beauty that we can barely take in, let alone understand. Human beings are made to delight in glory. They are so made because God created us to delight forever in his glory, the most glorious glory that is or can be. In Reformed Christianity, this concept is not lost. The first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism is, What is the chief end of man? The answer is that man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. But these two actions, you see, are not two ends, but one. We enjoy God when we make him known, when we revel in his gloriousness, because we are made to take enjoyment in glorious things. Nature is glorious, too. God made it beautiful and big. He made it awesome. He made it glorious, in fact, as a taste of his own gloriousness, to point us to him. Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare God’s glory. God also made nature so that we would find in it opportunity to thank him for the gift of the world he blessed us enough to live in. Psalm 50 says that the heavens declare God’s righteousness. They show that God is right. In this way, nature also represents to me the goodness and love and provision of God.
Nature also represents the world as it should be because nature is one of the things least affected by sin. My ethics professor in college said that trees are, more than anything else, doing most what they did before the Fall. They are the least corrupted. Natural preserves stand, almost as if in a time capsule, as the closest representations we have of the antelapsarian earth. When I look out over a national forest, I can’t wait to see what the renewed world will look like when Jesus comes back again and fixes everything. And he will. Nature itself was affected by sin and needs redemption, according to Romans 8:21-23. But nature, not having a will, still stands less corrupt than anything else, and its present magnificence can only mean that the beauties of the new nature will be something we can hardly dream about.
Nature: The world as it should not be
Secondly, nature represents the chaotic portion of this world in need of the order human beings are uniquely qualified to bring to it. The unordered configuration of nature screams for some kind of order to be imposed upon it. And human beings alone were given the task of imposing that order. Human beings were not meant to live in an environment that they did not considerably rearrange.
Nature represents the world as it should not be in its sheer cruelty. Nature’s is a kingdom ruled by cruelty, by the brute force of strength, speed, and smarts, in which only the most suited and able survive. In this way, the world of animals cannot serve as any kind of positive example for living, nor would it be right to shun human civilization and retreat to the wild for a permanent home. This was the sad case of Timothy Treadwell of The Grizzly Man Diaries. Timothy loved the bears, but the bears didn’t love him back. And one day, they killed him, as grizzly bears are prone to do.
Lastly, Nature represents the world as it should not be because it is a vast reservoir of unused resources. What I mean is, not all of nature should remain as it is, but should be taken and utilized for the construction of other things—for the building of buildings and cars and computers, for use as fuel or fixtures, shaped and formed into the great things human beings need and want. What a shame it would be for nature to go completely untouched! It would sit there without realizing its real potential (or real purpose), to be used in the creative hands of human beings. Oh, the trees in the natural preserve are beautiful, but they are not the lucky trees! The lucky trees, the trees that would be happiest if trees had feelings, are the trees that are chopped down and formed into rafters, into beams, that are made into tables, dressers, or grand pianos, the trees that are cut into children’s toy blocks or burned to cook a man’s meal or keep him warm. These are the trees most fulfilled. Nature is beautiful untouched, but wasted untapped. It is nearly as inspiring, isn’t it, to look at the San Diego city skyline at night, as it is to look up at the Sierra Nevada Mountains! It is interesting, that God created human beings, and created them in his image—as if, to create. He gave us around 92 natural elements and said, “Make things out of this.” And the human race has done an astounding job of it, I must say. If you don’t feel comfortable with this view of nature as (but not as only) a stockpile of resources, then I dare you to give up the fruits of the utilization of nature. You love your Zune, your Xbox, and your 40-inch TV. You love your gasoline car, your spring coil mattress, and your favorite pair of jeans. So when I say nature represents the world as it should not be, I mean it represents the world as it should not remain.
But I don’t want to give the wrong impression either. I think national forests and national and state parks are a good idea. You know me—I’m a camper and hiker. I’ve backpacked Mt. Whitney and left with a deeper respect for its grandeur and its perils. I’ve seen giant sequoia trees and been in awe of their stature, pointing to the heavens. (No, folks, I don’t believe giant sequoias should be chopped down.) I’ve drunk to satisfaction from alpine lakes as clear as any water I’ve beheld. Certain swathes of special land ought to be protected and preserved, as nature, in its natural form, does declare God’s awesome creative power and genius and goodness. It makes us realize that we humans, kings of the world, are small and God is great. And besides that, it is just plain beautiful. It is a delight, sometimes almost dizzying, and we are blessed beyond measure to have the capacity to appreciate the wonders of God’s creation.