Natural Culture

To what extent does culture (i.e. arts and entertainment) affect how people view nature or ‘the environment’?

Nature is not ‘immediate’ – she needs time to grow, time to heal, time to be appreciated and understood. Yet, for many people, their most available culture (‘popular’ culture) is all about the Now – if it looks to the past or the future, it measures it in days or weeks, not years or decades. Does this then influence their attitude to the environment?

It’s a pretty interesting question, and I’m sure the answer is mighty complicated. There would be some effect from nationality, racial background and possibly gender (as these things can sometimes determine what cultural elements you are mostly exposed to or ‘wired’ for), but the answer goes beyond that – not all ‘women’ think the same, not all ‘Australians’ think the same, and not all ‘English men’ think the same.

Take the books we read, as an example. English writer Hannah Betts argued recently that reading classic literature is essential to understanding our society. I wholeheartedly agree, and I think this applies to understanding nature as well.

Whether you were given classics to read as a child, or found them yourself as an adult, many people identify a particular story, poem, or literary landscape with their passion for nature.

How many people who grew up reading Beatrix Potter’s books, now realise that her captivating stories instilled a love for nature inside them? Who else longed for a log cabin on the plains after reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series? Or dreamed of exploring Britain’s ancient forests after reading Children of the New Forest, or the Arthurian legends?

And what about Alison Uttley’s detailed descriptions of her beloved countryside, the blustery moors of Wuthering Heights, the personification and significance of the natural world in the Greco-Roman myths, the intoxicating wilderness in Last of the Mohicans, Tolkien’s Middle Earth…whether they are fiction or not, these unofficial ‘nature’ texts are all set in real landscapes.

It isn’t just the vivid descriptions of the settings that imprint into your mind after reading them, it is the natural history, geography and ecology lessons you get from the characters who understand all the whispers their corner of the Earth makes.

We humans have had the ability to understand these whispers for centuries, and we have it in us now. But I think that understanding has to be earned – you can’t download it in an app or a zip file, it can only come from listening, reading, watching and learning, whether it be from Nature herself, or the books, art, music, and history that embody her.

Sociologist Dr Tiffany Jenkins has written a thought-provoking case for how important ‘high’ culture is to society. Once upon a time art, classical music and literature were the normality. Now, they are often unfairly considered to be the realm of elitists and old people.

Ironically, this could not be further from the truth – how many famous artists are remembered for capturing the ‘ordinariness’ of life so beautifully? How many classical composers gathered inspiration from traditional folk music? How many literary legends, like Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen, were champions of the ‘masses’, often criticising the elitism of their society?

The texts, songs and paintings that transcend across the ages are the ones that uplift us, inspire us and resonate with our souls. And these are often the ones that can open the door to the wilderness outside our walls.


© Manu Saunders 2013

12 thoughts on “Natural Culture

  1. argylesock January 27, 2013 / 10:44 PM

    This is a great post – heartfelt and true. (And thank you for the pingback.)


  2. Vandana January 29, 2013 / 5:45 AM

    I spent half of December inhaling posts on your blog, and I’m happy you’ve written another 🙂 Thoughtful and wonderfully well-written, as usual.


  3. bookishnature January 29, 2013 / 10:18 AM

    Wonderful post! Packed full with so many resonances that speak to my heart… I’m so pleased to have found your blog!


    • manuelinor January 29, 2013 / 10:21 AM

      Thank you! It makes me happy to hear others are on the same page (pardon the pun!). I look forward to discovering more in your writing too 🙂


      • bookishnature January 30, 2013 / 2:13 AM

        Thank you! I’ve been exploring your blog further today (when I discovered it, it was very late at night here in England!) – and I too am so happy to find myself so much ‘on the same page’ (a very apt pun! 🙂 ) You express so beautifully in your posts many, many aspects that truly resonate for me.

        I love your heartfelt, inspirational ‘Ode to Ecology.’ I’m very much a day-to-day amateur naturalist, with very little formal training in science (I had such a calling to study English literature…) – but a while back, I did some university adult education science classes in botany and natural history (which included some very basic ecology) and, as when I’m studying Dickens or Thomas Hardy or Shakespeare, I felt so in my element!

        It’s so wonderful to find here such a rich mix of all these aspects of science, culture and nature… And I look forward to reading more of your thoughts…



        • manuelinor January 30, 2013 / 8:11 AM

          Thank you so much Melanie!

          My first degree was in English lit too – beautiful words make me all giddy! 🙂 I went back to study science and ecology, because Nature is just SO important to all of us – but I think the two disciplines are not so far removed. Great writing is just like great science – technical use of metaphor and imagery to present a Truth that resonates with the audience…maybe I’m pulling a long bow there.



          • bookishnature January 31, 2013 / 10:00 PM

            Not a long bow – I think you’re right! 🙂 When, during an Open University science course, I was analysing all the factors why certain species of lichen occur in particular conditions, I felt the process to have so many similarities to the analysis of a poem and how it works!

            Everything’s part of a whole – all connected – and I think we need all aspects of that Whole – where they both overlap and diverge – in order to approach the fullest understanding possible of all those Truths…

            That’s why this post, and your blog, struck such a chord. Ever since I was a child, journeys through literature and the arts have been a huge factor in forming a deep sense of that connectedness/ecology; hearing those ‘whispers…corners of the Earth’ make (love your phrase there) through a mix of direct experience of nature and the expression of great literature/art/music etc.

            I’m so passionate about how all this ‘can open the door to the wildnerness outside our walls’ (to use another of your lovely phrases!) Sorry for the long, rambling comment! 🙂



            • manuelinor February 4, 2013 / 10:57 AM

              Thank you for your lovely comment! I agree, everything is connected – the more you look with an open mind, the more links you find everywhere.
              And I love what you say about finding similarities between studying lichen and poetry – there’s a poem in that right there! 🙂


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