Among the many stories that have come out of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition that got stuck in the ice, is this quote: “It's fantastic—I love it when the ice wins and we don't," marine ecologist Tracy Rogers told the BBC journalist onboard, adding: "It reminds you that as humans, we don't control everything and that the natural world—it's the winner here." It’s an interesting twist back to some very old ideas.
In the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, the impression one gets is of people primarily huddled around a fire, protecting themselves against (the emphasis is on against) nature. Beowulf becomes a hero by going out from that protected patch to kill Grendel and his mother, the monsters of deep waters who represent all that is evil about nature. It is definitely nature against people, nature mostly winning. In the even more ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from Mesopotamia said to be one of the oldest written literature still in existence, the central character becomes a hero by going into the (evil) forest and being brave enough to cut down trees and let in sunlight, conquering nature.
As a student of nature and of writings and thinking about nature, it has seemed to me that one of the advances in modern thinking and feeling about people and nature was expressed by Henry David Thoreau. As I write in No Man's Garden: Thoreau and a New Vision for Civilization and Nature (2012, ebook, New York, Croton River Publishers), Thoreau went to the Maine Woods mainly to test then current beliefs about people and nature and to test for himself how he felt about each and both together.
Famous for his quote, in wildness is the preservation of the world, Henry David Thoreau left his home in Concord, Massachusetts on August 31, 1846 and went to the woods of Maine to discover wilderness for himself, rather than take other people's word for what it was like and what it meant. He climbed Mt. Katahdin, the tallest mountain in the state, to see what it was like to confront Nature at her wildest, in her own element, as he described it. He didn’t like it. He felt "more lone than you can imagine." In the thinner air on the mountaintop "Vast, Titanic, inhuman nature" had him "at a disadvantage, caught him alone." He felt that he had lost "some of his divine faculty" He continued “This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man's garden, but an unhandseled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste land."
Later, back in Concord, he wrote “the wilderness is simple, almost to barrenness." What he really liked was a combination of civilized — settled — countryside, with some access to wilderness. "The partially cultivated country it is which chiefly has inspired, and will continue to inspire, the strains of poets, such as compose the mass of any literature. Our woods are sylvan, and their inhabitants woodsmen and rustics," he wrote, "Perhaps our own woods and fields . . . are the perfection of parks and groves, gardens, arbors, paths, vistas, and landscapes." He liked a swamp on the edge of town, the richest of organic ecosystems together with the richness of civilization.
One comes away from reading Thoreau that it was people and nature, people together with nature, each enhancing the other, that was his preference. He was careful to distinguish between “wildness,” which was for him a positive state of mind, with physical “wilderness,” which is found mostly barren and a place where, he wrote with his affection for bad puns, “a poet would pine.” It wasn’t people against nature or nature against us. To me, this was a major statement of an advancement in our relationship with nature. We were seen as part of nature, within nature. It is my conviction that if we are going to solve our major environmental problems, we have to join Thoreau in this perception. Perhaps this is the main message I took away from the ice-stuck voyage of the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy. Why didn’t all of its modern technological age prevent this from happening? In my mind, Thoreau would remind us that we need to think within nature, not against it, and that technologies ---- which he was also immersed in as inventor and user — was not by itself the solution.