“It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” — Frederick Douglass
On the surface, a forest appears a meditative place: a peaceful sanctuary away from the world. In nature, we experience a respite from ubiquitous social hierarchies and conflict. Wilderness is framed as a rarely-stated paradox: it is superior to the fraught urban environments in which we live our lives, and yet, since we typically remove natural elements in favour of a robust economy, oddly inferior. Both states coexist, perpetuating the paradox of environmental ethics that has persisted for millennia: we are surely part of the natural world, yet nature is distinct from us.
Nevertheless, the value of access to nature is encoded in human thought: from philosophy to economics to architecture, we recreate our perceptions of naturalness in our own image, hoping to likewise recreate the psychological benefits and sense of peace and wonder that wilderness can instil.
Yet, in reframing naturalness in terms of human value we run the risk of unintentionally weaving inequality on the exact environments we consider to be a blank slate, away from human weakness. Houses overlooking green spaces are far more expensive than those that do not. When that changes to a coastline or an ancient woodland, the premium increases. The health benefits of accessing beautiful locations are reaped only by those who can access: increasingly, this is those who also have access to private transport and the disposable income for taking holidays in beauty areas, not to mention access to the products and indeed the knowledge required to simply make existing in wilderness safer and less wild.
Moreover, we cannot truly conceptualise a forest as a neutral escape. We may wish to. We may need to, but we cannot. Walking in the woods may be a temporary respite for us, but no natural habitat exists for us. Not even those designated landscapes which are heavily managed to preserve their ‘naturalness’. The lives, deaths, growth and change that occur around us will never cease occurring, regardless of our attitude towards them. It is that complex ecosystem which is not recreated when we plant an avenue of trees in a new building complex. We mischaracterise a tree as being a unit of peacefulness because we feel peaceful in a wooded area; we add ten trees to design, thinking that we are incorporating ten units of peace in a new development.
That some psychological benefits will be reaped with their inclusion fails to acknowledge that not everyone will have equal access to what we create, but that a tree is not a single unit of peace any more than a forest is merely a large bank vault of it. This fundamental misunderstanding of naturalness, coexisting with unequal benefit and profit, is set to become more pronounced in the future. Our growing need for decreasing resources will not only amplify pressure, but the stories we tell ourselves about what nature means and who is allowed to benefit. We are still failing to reconcile the supposed strangeness of nature — a strangeness centred in our recognition of its total lack of need for us — with our own ever-increasing need of it.