A central part of NOLS’ teaching comes from valuing learning in the outdoors. But while we talk a fair bit about wilderness, the word “nature” is harder to find on the NOLS website and publications (though I have no doubt that it comes up regularly in conversation).
My guess is that we don’t usually include “nature” in our course descriptions because it’s really hard to define.
Is it a place? Is it a thing? A hodgepodge of many places and things and creatures? Or just an idea that we invent in order to talk about something humans don’t fully understand?
Even though nature is difficult to define, I tried to do it anyway. I went to the dictionary for answers, but I didn’t find what I expected. The very first definition of “nature” is, “Senses relating to physical or bodily power, strength, or substance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
That definition is at least 1,000 years old, coming to English from Latin by way of Old French. Over time, the word has always been connected with the human body and our inherent qualities. You have to go all the way to the eleventh definition in the dictionary to find the definition of nature that refers to “The phenomena of the physical world collectively; esp. plants, animals, and other features and products of the earth itself, as opposed to humans and human creations.”
So here the dictionary says that nature is everything in the world, the “phenomena” that the earth produces—and yet that is “as opposed to humans”? If humans didn’t come from the earth, then where did we come from?
Now, I’m not as big an authority on the English language as the Oxford English Dictionary, but it seems to me that humans are made of the same stuff as the things that compose nature. My body itself, all its atoms and microbacteria and whatever else, is a sign that I’m a part of nature, and even though I may live in a house in a city, though the space may be less wild than others, nature is still present in the air, the grass popping up between the concrete, and the birds nesting in the eaves of houses.
And when I spend time outdoors, I usually feel more connected to, rather than separate from, the creatures and things around me. I have to pay attention to my surroundings, like weather changes and the routines of resident wildlife, and fit my actions into them. That doesn’t seem like a separate world to me.
Maybe this disconnect between the dictionary’s definition of “nature” and what I feel when I am in the outdoors points to why it’s so difficult to explain “nature” as a part of outdoor education, even though its presence is central. We’re not really sure what nature is, and our language makes the connection we feel difficult to explain. We’re accustomed to thinking of nature as a separate entity, but the reality is that it’s something humans are a part of, and something which surrounds us, even if we can’t define it.
That’s why I prefer to think of expeditions, like the ones we do at NOLS, as sort of extended “immersion programs” into nature. It’s my personal hope that these expeditions allow students to recognize their membership with nature, not only when they’re in wilderness areas but also when they’re back home. As a two-time NOLS graduate, I can speak from what I experienced and learned on my courses, experiences which led me to value the unknown “nature” that we’re trying to find when we seek out wild places.
Editor's note: Post updated 10/27/2017
Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber