‘Nature’, in common usage, can mean a number of different things. Sometimes it refers to the external world, and more particularly to the earth’s surface, and more particularly still to that part of the earth’s surface made up of biomass. In the same general conceptual vicinity, we also find the notion of nature as environment, as the surrounding medium through which we move. At other times, ‘nature’ refers to the particular nature of a given being, or what is sometimes called ‘essence’-- what it is to be a particular entity rather than another.
The first sense of ‘nature’ reflects the word’s etymology, which is rooted in the Latin verb nasci, ‘to be born’. Nature, on this understanding, is that which undergoes generation and growth (and generally also corruption or death). This connection between nature and birth is similarly reflected in the Slavic and many other Indo-European languages (in Russian, for example, nature is priroda, connected to the verb rodit’sia, ‘to be born’; in the Sanskrit prakṛti by contrast the verbal root has to do more with active creation than with generation). If less evidently, the concepts of generation and growth are also embedded in the Greek term physis, from which of course we get both ‘physical’ and what is sometimes held to lie beyond this, the ‘metaphysical’.
In Aristotle, physis describes what is everywhere the same, in contrast with human-based nomos or ‘custom’: thus he observes in the Nicomachean Ethics that in Persia as in Greece, fire burns the same. This burning is governed by nature rather than by culture, and therefore national boundaries have no bearing on it. Yet nature as the indifferent background to or support of human life is not prior, conceptually or temporally, to nature as essence. In fact, the first occurrence of physis, in Homer’s Odyssey, refers to the particular nature of a plant: here we read of Argeiphontes, who draws a plant from the ground and shows it to the narrator, revealing its unique physis.
How are these two primary meanings of ‘nature’ related? And what is the significance of their lexical overlap? In Aristotle, physis had been in different senses both the matter and form of a thing, that is, both the ‘physical’ stuff from which a thing is made, as well as the immaterial principle that makes that stuff into a particular thing. In the modern period, there would be little room for form, and we see attempts such as Descartes’s to account for all of nature as consisting entirely in the modifications of res extensa or extended stuff. Eventually, the notion of the ‘metaphysical’ would take on connotations very much like the ‘supernatural’, which latter is in the end a Latin rendering of the former Greek, even if the two terms have had very different and only partially overlapping histories. For many in the modern period, beginning roughly in the era of Descartes, we are left with nature, or nothing at all (except in the very reduced domain of the human soul): there can be no principles above or outside of the natural world giving it shape or imbuing individual things with their particular natures, and nor can this ‘within’ be conceived as consisting in immaterial principles such as form or entelechy or soul.
Nature is also often held to be a first principle or a source, a behind-the-scenes operator that makes the scene what it is. In this role it can move between both form and matter: on the one hand, it is the essence, or the immaterial something that makes a bodily being the sort of being it is; on the other hand, nature is the formless generative stuff out of which forms arise. In this latter role, it is sometimes popularly envisioned as ‘Mother Nature’, a personification that is not at all surprising when we bear in mind the etymology of the term. Nature so conceived is not just a source but also a ‘secret’: as Pierre Hadot has compellingly shown, the idea that ‘nature loves to hide’, first expressed in an enigmatic fragment of Heraclitus, is very deeply rooted in Western intellectual traditions.
Nature, as we have seen, sometimes contrasts with social or custom-based nomos, and at other times it contrasts with what is above or outside of nature; it also contrasts with the unnatural. This latter term itself is understood in many different ways. Often, ‘unnatural’ is used simply as a veiled moral judgment, against ‘sodomy’, for example, or pizza for breakfast. To identify a thing or a deed as unnatural here is simply to disapprove of it, while invoking, plausibly or implausibly, an eternal moral order that somehow governs the order of nature. Beyond simple moral judgment, the ‘unnatural’ can be understood to describe products of human activity that violate or go against the proper functioning of nature, or, in turn, simply those products of human activity that cause nature to do something it wouldn’t ordinarily do, and this for the betterment of human life. While Aristotle excludes most products of the technical arts [technai] from the domain of the natural, he also recognizes that not all art is merely imitative: “the arts either, on the basis of Nature, carry things further [epitelei] than Nature can, or they imitate [mimeitai] Nature.” As William R. Newman notes, for Aristotle certain artisanal procedures, such as broiling and boiling, are also natural processes, and so their products can be understood as natural, albeit ‘perfected’ --not in the sense of outdoing nature, but more modestly of improving or furthering its works-- through human ingenuity.
There does not seem to be any clear criteria by which to judge a particular artificial process imitative or perfective, but there is a clear evaluative judgment in this distinction: if we manipulate nature, we should be careful to limit our manipulation to steward-like direction, rather than setting ourselves up as gods capable of reproducing nature by our design and for our own ends. All three of these sense of ‘unnatural’ --as setting ourselves up as the makers of processes that imitate nature, as harnessing for our own ends the latent powers of nature, and, finally, as moral transgression-- blend easily into one another. Wherever human beings probe too deeply into nature’s hidden forces, there is a perceived threat of what Newman nicely calls ‘Promethean ambition’: getting into trouble by attempting, as they say, to play God. The poet James Merrill describes this condition forcefully in his lines, from The Changing Light at Sandover, on nuclear technology: “Powers at the heart of matter, powers / We shall have hacked through thorns to kiss awake, / Will open baleful, sweeping eyes, draw breath / And speak new formulae of megadeath.”
By now we have identified several pairs of opposed concepts:
1. Nature (as source of generations, as natura naturans, as ‘Mother Nature’) vs. particular generated beings
2. Nature (as formal essence) vs. matter
3. Nature (as external world) vs. the self
4. Nature (as external world) vs. culture or nomos
5. Nature (as wilderness) vs. human settlement
6. Nature vs. the supernatural
7. Nature vs. the unnatural
7.1. The unnatural as moral transgression
7.2. The unnatural as mimetic artifice (including the mechanical reproduction of natural systems).
In view of this tremendous polysemy of the term in question, it is worth revisiting a well-known scholarly thesis, most closely associated with the innovative work of Carolyn Merchant, according to which the early modern period witnessed the ‘death of nature’. This death is supposed to have been caused by the equally well-known ‘mechanization of the world picture’, whose principal agent, or culprit, René Descartes is often taken to be. But which nature, exactly? Surely Descartes could not have taken down all of these different senses of the term together? In fact, when Merchant speaks of the death of nature, she has in mind only 7.2 above. She believes that as a result of the scientific revolution, we have lost a world that was ‘organic’, and we have reconceptualized the entire world instead on the model of the machines of our own invention. For 16th-century Europeans, she explains, “the root metaphor binding together the self, society, and the cosmos was that of an organism.” As a result of the scientific revolution, by some time in the 17th century, Merchant believes, the world came to be conceived as a machine rather than an organism, as a clockwork rather than a living being. In its core claims Merchant’s account differs little from the triumphalist historiography that long dominated in the secondary literature on the early modern European rise of science: she simply describes disapprovingly what E. J. Dijksterhuis and Alexandre Koyré in their classic studies, for example, relate with pride.
But why should we suppose that 16th-century Europeans had any particularly valuable insights into the nature of the surrounding world and of our place within it? By now the ‘death of nature’ thesis has been criticized on many fronts, but so far most of them have remained within a philosophical and idea-historical perspective which takes for granted the universal validity of the classical Western concept of physis or natura, and fail to take seriously the significant comparative evidence for the peculiarly local dimensions of the history of the concept of nature, or of concepts from the non-European world that partially overlap with nature. The announcement of nature’s death turns out to be little more than a notice of death within a fairly small parish, and this parochial perspective makes it very difficult to take adequate stock of the real significance of the local changes that occurred in the history of the concept at the beginning of European modernity.
In the modern period, nature, notwithstanding rumors of its death, is alive and well. It is not the case that until the modern period Europeans and non-Europeans alike were blissfully pananimist, and that with the rise of science the Europeans turned their nature into a machine while the rest of the world went on happily conceptualizing it as a living, growing, vital being that existed in constant harmonious interchange with human society. This account is inadequate for two reasons. First, the mechanical world picture never became hegemonic in modern European philosophy, or even predominant, notwithstanding the prevailing interpretation offered in much 20th-century historiography. Leibniz, for example, continued to believe long after Descartes that nothing happens in nature that is not underlain by the activity of a mind-like entity; well into the 20th century, moreover, there is a prominent tradition of vitalistic natural philosophy that disputes the central claim of the mechanistic world picture, namely, that all natural change can be accounted for in terms of the mass, figure, and motion of intrinsically inert physical particles. Second, there is no real evidence that the picture of human society existing in harmonious interchange with a living nature is the picture of humanity’s place in the world is, in a cross-cultural light, the default conception of humanity’s place in the world. The best evidence suggests not that non-Western people inhabit a society cradled within a living nature, but that there simply is no meaningful distinction between society and nature at all.
Before moving to some properly ethnographic examples, it is important to bear in mind that, as with so many other concepts, when it comes to ‘nature’ even the European past is a sort of foreign country. The concept has undergone radical transformations over the centuries, and there is little that binds the Greeks, Romans, medievals, and early moderns. Our own conception of ‘nature’, finally, which takes places like Yellowstone National Park as its paradigm instances, is an extremely recent, mostly 19th-century innovation.
As Philippe Descola argues in his important 2005 work, Par-delà nature et culture, ‘wild’ and ‘domestic’ are subject to a rare polarization in Western history; even in other agricultural societies, what we tend to find more often are “multiple forms of gradual discontinuity or englobing.” In the West, by contrast, these notions are “mutually exclusive and only acquire their entire meaning when they are brought into a complementary opposition to one another.” Outside of Europe, the ‘mental and technological contexts’ did not “favor the emergence of a mutually exclusive distinction between that which is anthropized and a residual sector that is unuseful to people, or destined to fall to their domination.” Within Europe, by contrast,
a major contrast takes shape that of course opposes cultivated to non-cultivated spaces, but also, and above all, domestic animals to wild animals, the world of the stables and of grazing space to the realm of the hunter and of game.. Perhaps such a contrast was even sought out and maintained in an active way in order to preserve spaces where qualities could be exercised --such as the ruse, physical endurance, the pleasure of conquest-- that, outside of war, could no longer find an outlet within the very controlled space of the agricultural field.
Again, however, Europe is by no means an eternal and static entity, and we see radical changes over time in the understanding of the division between the human realm and the natural realm. For the Greeks, “the habitat of the wild beasts constitutes an indispensable belt of non-civilization that enables it to thrive, a theater where it can exercise its virile dispositions that are the polar opposite of the virtues of conciliation required in the treatment of domestic animals and in the political life.” In medieval Europe, particularly in the Germanic realm, the ‘belt’ of nature around human settlements would be increasingly conceptualized as part of society, as a carefully kept zone in which privileged members of society could cultivate particular virtues. Surprisingly, in this respect, forests full of ‘wild’ animals were in some sense more tightly controlled by human beings than were pastoral spaces in which domestic animals were permitted to graze. A prohibition on grazing in a given space does not preserve its wildness, but rather sets it apart as an artificially maintained non-grazing zone, an exception to the dominant human economic order that is made all the more human in virtue of its exceptional status:
If it is not the straightforward opposite of the agricultural enterprise, the domain of the Wild is not any less socialized. It is identified with the great forest, not with the silva that is unproductive and that impedes colonization, but with the foresta, this giant game park that, from the 9th century, the Carolingian dynasty undertakes to create by means of edicts that limit the rights of pannage and of defilement.
In a sense, the culmination of this process of incorporation through preservation, that is, of making a region a part of human society by keeping it cordoned off from certain types of human use, can be seen in the creation of national parks, the first of which appear in the United States, under Theodore Roosevelt’s administration and at the energetic encouragement of the romantically inclined Scottish-American thinker John Muir. It was in this period, Descola maintains, that
the moral and aesthetic dimension that continues to color our appreciation of these places. This is the epoch, we know, in which romanticism invents wild nature and propagates a taste for it: this is the epoch in which the essayists of the philosophy of wilderness, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, or John Muir, incite their compatriots to look, in their visits to the American mountains and forests, for an existence that is more free and more authentic than the one for which Europe had long furnished the model. It is also the epoch in which the first national park is created, at Yellowstone, as a grandiose staging of the divine work.
The language of ‘staging’ is Muir’s own, not Descola’s. When Ralph Waldo Emerson attempted to entice Muir, in his distant outpost in California, to accept a faculty position at Harvard, the author responded stubbornly: “I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere profship!” Muir takes his refusal to be one in favor of a timelessly and self-evidently distinct zone of reality: he is on the side not just of trees and mountains, but also of the transcendent creator, with whom direct contact is facilitated by means of an attunement with the mountains and trees. This zone is in turn contrasted with the artificial, the institutional, and even with the ‘back East’ that precedes, historically and conceptually, the braving of the great frontier that did so much to shape 19th-century ideas about nature. And significantly, Muir seems entirely unaware of the historical conditioning of his preference for nature, and of the way in which his essays, his lobbying, and his mediation between the East Coast and Yellowstone themselves amount to a domestication of the natural.
One of the great problems in Western thinking about nature over the past several centuries is that we have transported throughout the world “a very particular vision of [our] environment, a great baggage of prejudices and sentiments,” that the Amazonians, for example, would find utterly unfamiliar. Descola writes of the voyage in the early 20th century of the Belgian artist Henri Michaux to the Amazon:
The conquest of virgin spaces was for [Michaux’s company] a tangible reality and a desirable goal, as well as an attenuated and confused echo of a more fundamental contrast between nature and civilization. All of this, we discern, would have made no sense to the Indians who see in the forest something quite different from a savage place to be domesticated or a motif for aesthetic delectation. It is true that the question of nature hardly comes up for them. Thus we have a fetish of our own, a very effective one at that, just like all the objects of belief that people offer themselves in order to act upon the world.
Many non-European groups, in Descola’s view, seem to be better able to think about the wilderness without setting it apart from the zone of human existence as if it were on the other side of some ontological divide. Thus for example Descola notes that
certain peoples of Amazonia are perfectly aware of the fact that their cultural practices have a direct influence on the distribution and reproduction of wild plants. This phenomenon of indirect anthropization of the forest ecosystem, long misunderstood, was well described in the studies of William Balée on the historical ecology of the Ka’apor of Brazil. Thanks to a precise labor of identification and counting, he was able to establish that the clearings that have been abandoned for more than forty years are twice as rich in useful species of plant than the neighboring portions of the primary forest that however they hardly distinguish at first glance…. Pursued for millennia in a great part of Amazonia, this fashioning of the forest ecosystem certainly contributes not a little to legitimating the idea that the jungle is a space that is as domesticated as the gardens.
For our purposes, what is significant about Descola’s sweeping account are the implications it holds for the ‘death of nature’ thesis, that is, for the idea that until modernity Western thinkers had a conception of nature as vital and agentive; further, implicitly, that to the extent that nature was conceived in this way pre-modern Westerners also had a conception of nature more or less continuous with that of people in other parts of the world. What this account misses is, first of all, that modes of production, as well as ecological circumstances, significantly impact the human conceptualization of the surrounding environment, and that here the most important shift in Western history is not at all the scientific revolution of the 17th century, but rather the agricultural revolution several millennia prior. Second, it appears characteristic of those cultures in which nature is not set apart from human culture as if across an ontological divide, that precisely in virtue of the absence of such a divide there can be no need for a distinct concept of nature.
That is, nature comes into existence as a concept precisely to the extent that humanity sets itself up against it. We must therefore not imagine that indigenous peoples throughout most of human history thought of themselves as living ‘in harmony’ with nature, any more than they thought of hunting and gathering as ‘a good line of work’. Nature could not have been killed by Western thinking, if it only existed in the first place as a concept to the extent that it measured the human sense of distinctness from the external world. And when it is finally supposed to have died, in the modern period, what we in fact witness is a widening of the gap, or a more thorough clearing of the belt that Descola perceived already surrounding the Greek polis, and so, ultimately, a strengthening of the ontological division between the ‘in here’ and the ‘out there’. Various ‘back to nature’ sentiments of late modernity, including Muir’s, and including the occasional camping trips of educated urbanites, are a symptom of this division, and not an overcoming of it. They have nothing to do with a return to the way in which some imagined prelapsarians once experienced the world around them.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book V, ch. 7.
 Homer, Odyssey, 10.302-303.
 See Pierre Hadot, Le voile d’Isis. Essai sur l’histoire de l’idée de Nature, Paris: Gallimard, 2004.
 Aristotle, Physics II 8 199a15-17.
 Aristotle, Meteorology, IV, 381b4-5.
 William R. Newman, Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, 17-18.
 James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover, New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2011 , 55
 Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1980, 1.
 See E. J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture: Pythagoras to Newton, tr. C. Dikshoorn, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961; Alexandre Koyré, Du monde clos à l’univers infini, Paris: Gallimard, 2003 . There has been significant revisionist work in the past couple of decades, which calls into question the typically Whiggish and triumphalist historiography of earlier generations on the advances and attainments of early modern science, focusing instead, or in different degrees, on the concerns and aims of the actors in the period themselves. See for example, John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; Peter dear, Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1700, Princeton University Press, 2009 . However, no amount of revision has succeeded in displacing the idea that something of great significance took place in early modern Europe in the way people conceptualized the structure and nature of the external world. Steven Shapin expresses the limits of revisionism very well with the opening sentence of his introductory book on the scientific revolution: “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it” (Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 1996, 1).
 Philippe Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, Paris: Gallimard, 2005, 79.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 79.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 84.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 84-85.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 86. For an unsurpassed investigation of classical Greek conceptions of wilderness, and its contrast with society, see Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Le chasseur noir. Formes de pensée et formes de société dans le monde grec, Paris : Éditions Découverte, 2004.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 83.
 John Muir to Robert Underwood Johnson, May 3, 1895, in John Muir: His Life and Letters and Other Writings, Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1996,321
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 90.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 71.