Symptoms of Western nature-culture dichotomy

This week’s luxury travel deals

Looking for a really wild honeymoon? In the Madikwe Game Reserve – home to the Big Five – the Makanyane Safari Lodge has beautiful suites with private sundecks, canopied beds and living areas open to the elements, plus a spa hidden in the forest (…) [emphasis added] (Condé Nast Traveller, 2012).

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Luxury tropical paradise holiday destination

In Malaysia you can go jungle trekking while hearing the calls of exotic birds and wildlife, then pass beautiful waterfalls before enjoying a pristine white sand beach and being pampered in a luxury spa. (…) Discover the unspoiled natural beauty and fascinating culture of Malaysia and let the spirit of 500 million-year-old tropical rainforests help you get close to nature (…) [emphasis added] (Emirates Tours UK, 2012).

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Wildlife volunteer

Want to be a wildlife volunteer, work up close with Africa’s amazing animals and make a valuable contribution to wildlife conservation initiatives. As a wildlife volunteer with Amanzi Travel you can work hands-on caring for lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants and many other animals at sanctuaries and rehabilitation programmes throughout this beautiful continent. (…) [emphasis added] (Amanzi Travel, 2010).

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Alagnak Wild River

The headwaters of the Alagnak Wild River lie within the rugged Aleutian Range of neighboring Katmai National Park & Preserve. Meandering west towards Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea, the Alagnak traverses the beautiful Alaska Peninsula, providing an unparalleled opportunity to experience the unique wilderness, wildlife, and cultural heritage of southwest Alaska [emphasis added] (National Park Service, 2011).

In theorizing and examining the relations between societies (cultures) and the natural environment the so-called Western world[1] is an interesting case study. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, and perhaps in some regards even earlier than that, people inhabiting the Western European countries were becoming more and more disconnected from their natural environments. The notions of progress linked with industrialization and urbanization became the ultimate goal and they spread to other countries, in particular to the English colonies. Interestingly, it was during the very same historical period at the beginning of the 19th century when the first larger-scale tourist excursions took place and, fueled by the romantic movement, they were driven by desires to experience “untamed nature” (Blanning 2010:140).

My initial research on the way people have approached the natural environment from those times onwards made me think that the Western technological progress and peoples’ longing for extraordinary experiences of wild nature are not unrelated phenomena. I am going to explore this assumption by looking at the contemporary ways of experiencing “wild nature”. My argument is that the quest for experiencing wild nature is implicitly based on the romantic vision of wilderness and it stems from the alienation of modern societies from the natural environment.

The divide between society and nature has been a substantial part of the Western thought and a frame through which people have come to see reality. Not only is there a big body of literature that preoccupies itself with the dichotomy and its origins, but also many aspects of the Western lifestyles have been structured in a way that reflects (and  reinforces) this dichotomy, the best example being the separation of colleges of social sciences from colleges of physical sciences and medicine at universities.

Tim Ingold calls this split a “fundamental metaphysical dualism” of two “mutually exclusive domains”. However, human beings are unique organisms because they belong to both domains. As much as they are biological organisms they also transcend the realm of nature and are capable of controlling it (2000:63). That said, it is also evident that the tangible separation of society and  nature is not a universal norm but rather a Western cultural construction. The notion of human civilization and culture as opposed to wild nature is nothing but a relative vision of the world (MacCormack and Strathern 1980:209). Anthropology is a discipline particularly well informed by all sorts of other cultures’ approaches in which the dichotomy is absent and in which human beings relate to their natural environments on a different level.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 is a good example of how the division between society and nature is institutionalized in the West. The very first sentence of the Act states that in times of progressing industrialization the American government needs to protect the areas of natural wilderness that would be separated from the industrial spaces and protected by the law. In other words, the Act recognized the prevailing realm of human activity (industrialization) and decided to counter balance it by designating a physical territory of pristine nature. Moreover, the Act established a legal definition of wilderness as opposed to “(…) those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape.” (The Wilderness Act of 1964, 2.(a), 2.(c)). Thus, the development of this policy can be viewed as a symbol of contemporary society-nature split as it distinguished those two realms legally and geographically.

However, for the American National Parks (as well as other places of pristine nature which I will discuss later on) to be attractive to the potential visitors a redefinition of the concepts of wild nature must have occurred along the way. For the most part of the Western history the classic conception of wilderness was prevalent and this conception presented wild nature as a creepy, dark space inhabited by savages, definitely nothing that should be of interest to the civilized people. Such a view was being gradually uprooted around the beginning of the 19th century when a new romantic movement redefined many aspects of human existence including the approach towards nature (Light 1995:196). Wilderness perceived by the romantics was not a scary and unattractive place anymore.

A quick overview of academic books on Romanticism in the Aberdeen University library drew my attention to the fact that many of them had pictures of picturesque, mysterious landscapes on the front covers. This is indeed a good depiction of the major change that occurred in the conceptualization of the wilderness that came with the romantic movement. Nature for the romantics was a fascinating and  inspiring space which they glorified and which they saw as a supernatural holistic being. In times of fast-developing industrialization and urbanization artists and intellectuals began idealizing rural upbringing in the natural environment and juxtaposing it with dreadful experiences of children working in factories (Moore and Strachan 2010:48-49). For poets longing for wild nature the despair caused by the Industrial Revolution was often subject of their poems: “High mountains are a feeling, but the hum of cities torture” (Wordsworth cited in Wimsatt 1975:219). Romantic painters portrayed the greatness of nature as opposed to the weakness of man. Wilderness suddenly became attractive to people appalled by the industrial advances precisely because it was this romantic space free from human intervention (Light 1995:196).

Today, two centuries of industrial progress later,  the romantic construction of nature in many regards prevails over the classical conception. Untamed, pristine nature has become very scarce and valued. Unsurprisingly, it has been incorporated by the capitalist system and converted into yet another commodity on market.

Let’s consider the abundance of luxurious holidays in various remote parts of the globe. The travel agencies that sell these holidays rely heavily on this idea of romantic wilderness in order to sell journeys to small Polynesian islands or SPA resorts far away from the “civilized world”. It is important to bear in mind that this trend has been embraced by the popular culture through the Hollywood films, many of which have focused  in recent years on the idealized holidays and journeys of the rich. For instance, the main character in Eat, Pray, Love (2010), dissatisfied with her life in New York, sets off on a journey to remote places that is about to change her life. “I wanna go some place where I can marvel at something” said the bored woman before deciding to travel. Soon the spectator discovers that the pristine beauty of Bali is not only a paradise where she rediscovers herself but also a place where she finds a true love. Another Hollywood film, Couples Retreat (2009) is a story of four couples who take off to a marvellous couples therapy resort Eden located in a remote place of pristine nature in order to deal with problems of their relationships and regain happiness. A different type of a film that documents exotic travels as a commodity is the outstanding documentary Cannibal Tours (1988). The camera watches a group of wealthy tourists from Western Europe who visit Papua New Guinea to briefly marvel at the local “savages” who live close to nature, take pictures of the exotic wilderness and go back to their comfortable homes in Europe. A German tourist lists all the exotic places he has visited in front of the camera with the tone of his voice sounding as if he was listing purchases of shoes.

The language used by travel agencies to advertise these sort of luxurious holiday deals is striking in the extent to which it directly refers to the romantic vision of wild nature. The first offer cited above tempts with “a really wild honeymoon” in a reserve in Botswana and it draws on the idea of getting closer to nature by mentioning “private sundecks” and “living areas open to the elements”. It also plays with the notion of a romantic place hidden from the civilization by describing the spa as “hidden in the forest”. The advertisement is accompanied by a photograph of a very luxurious suite with a glass wall through which one can see an elephant in “wild” surroundings (Condé Nast Traveller, 2012). The second advertisement draws on the idea of pristine nature being a space free from human intervention. Never mind the spa which is there to “pamper you” since the “unspoiled natural beauty” of the landscape prevails and makes you “get closer to nature” (Emirates Tours UK, 2012). What is particularly worth noticing here is that unlike my next examples the luxurious holiday offers do not compromise the comforts and achievements of civilization to let the client experience the pristine nature. They can have both a luxurious suite (civilization) and an elephant surrounded by wilderness on the other side of the glass wall (nature)! They can enjoy the “pristine white sand beach” and “the calls of exotic birds and wildlife” while still being able to retreat to the spa. In other words, the luxurious holidays can be viewed as attempts of experiencing the wilderness that has been lost in everyday life but with the full protection of the realm of society.

For those brave enough to leave certain comforts of society behind, there exist more courageous and adventurous ways of experiencing the wilderness. Wildlife volunteering trips are usually projects held in Africa, South America and Asia which are meant to attract the Westerners who want to spend their holidays or a gap year actively, making a difference to the natural environment. Generally, they last longer than the luxurious holiday travels and they are designed for people who in addition to the desire to spend time in a natural environment also want to take up an adventurous task of handling the wilderness. The achievements of civilization such as luxurious suites in the middle of the forest are not part of the experience or at least are not advertised as such. The wildlife volunteering offer cited above again builds on the notion of getting close to nature, in particular as it emphasizes a hands-on experience of taking care of many dangerous animals (Amanzi Travel, 2010). In the webpage this short description is accompanied by a close-up photograph of two leopards as if to prove how close one can get. In the same time it highlights the value of volunteering and the contribution to the natural environment.

Finally, one last instance of “buying nature” that is worth considering is National Parks. These spaces are not established to merely attract the hungry-for-nature tourists the primary purpose being, according to legislations such as the American Wilderness Act of 1964, the protection of the precious places of pristine nature threatened by the Western progress. Within the territories of National Parks the nature-culture dichotomy is visible like nowhere else due to the numerous restrictions that limit human activity in this realm of nature (no bonfires, no litter etc.). Those who consider visiting one of those places easily come across the romanticized vision of nature as a fascinating and spectacular space awaiting in National Parks. The Alagnak Wild River National Park’s webpage cited above points to the “unparalleled opportunity to experience the unique wilderness” (National Park Service, 2011). There is also a You Tube channel of American National Parks and it is full of videos of rangers from various American National Parks trying to tempt the tourists with the beauty of waterfalls, the excitement of encounters with the animals and even with the thrill of “watching the locals interact”.

All in all, I outlined the contemporary demand for extraordinary experiences of wild nature and a number of ways in which this demand has been recently met. All of the above described ways of experiencing natural environments are somewhat different but the way in which all of them are usually advertised is a symptom of one broader trend. I have identified this trend as people’s longing for contact with nature that has been to a great extent lost. The demand for experiencing natural environments can be understood within the historical context of Western industrial developments and the 19th century romantic redefinition of wilderness. Being skeptical of the kinds of contact with nature available on market myself, I see it merely as one of the “side effects” of Western history.

Bibliography

Amanzi Travel, 2010. Wildlife Volunteer [online] Available at: <http://www.amanzitravel.co.uk/type/volunteer_project/category/wildlife_conservation_volunteer/index.html> [Accessed 14th March 2012].

Blanning, T. 2010. Language, History and Myth. In The Romantic Revolution. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp. 108 – 175.

Condé Nast Traveller, 2012. This week’s luxury travel deals [online] Available at: <http://www.cntraveller.com/news/2012/february/luxury-travel-deals-and-offers> [Accessed 23rd February 2012].

Emirates Tours UK, 2012. Luxury Holidays in Malaysia [online] Available at: <http://www.emiratestours.co.uk/Destination/FarEast/DestinationMalaysia/&gt; [Accessed 14th March 2012].

Ingold, T. 2000. From Trust to Domination, an Alternative Story of Human – Animal Relations. In The Perception of the  Environment. London: Routledge, p. 63.

Light, A. 1995. Urban Wilderness. In David Rothenberg (ed.) Wild Ideas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 195 – 206.

MacCormack, C. P. and Strathern, M. eds., 1980. Nature, Culture and Gender. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 208 – 209.

Moore, J. and Strachan, J. 2010. Contexts: History, Politics, Culture. In Key Concepts in Romantic Literature. Basingstroke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 15 – 21.

National Park Servce, 2012. National Park Week 2012. Available at:

<http://www.youtube.com/nationalparkservice> [Accessed 11th May 2012].

Nps.gov, 2011. Alagnak Wild River [online] Available at: <http://www.nps.gov/alag/index.htm> [Accessed 14th March 2012].

The Wilderness Act of 1964. (2.c), Washington [online] Available at: <http://www.wilderness.net/index.cfm?fuse=NWPS&sec=legisAct> [Accessed 14th March 2012].

Wimsatt, W. K. 1949. The Structure of Romantic Nature Imaginary. In: R. F. Gleckner and G. E. Enscoe, ed. 1975. Romanticism, Points of View. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, pp. 219 – 230.

[Africa-420×280.jpg] n.d. [image online] Available at: <http://www.cntraveller.com/news/2012/february/luxury-travel-deals-and-offers> [Accessed 23rd February 2012].


[1] I recognize the fact that there is no one universal definition of terms such as “the Western world” or “the West” and that they are problematic and clumsy. As much as I agree with Tim Ingold’s objections to using such terms (Ingold 2000:6) I also agree with his claim that there are reasons for which scholars cannot avoid it. For the purposes of this paper such terms refer to countries of cultures that evolved from the Western European cultural tradition.

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