The othering of nature

My partner and I recently spent a few days in Algonquin Park. Admittedly, ours was not a rugged camping trip; rather, we stayed in a very comfortable lodge, where our every need and comfort were anticipated and attended to.

We were surrounded by northern Ontario nature at its best: water, rocks, trees and wildlife. And, for three wonderful days, we had no access to the internet, cell phones, television, radio or newspapers.

On our drive through the park toward our accommodation, I was struck by the language of the signs we passed. “Danger” we were told, lay ahead and, according to the illustration, it was moose and deer that were the source of that danger.

Danger: munching ahead

Shortly after seeing the first of these signs, we saw a moose in a bog on the side of the highway and stopped to watch her for a few minutes. She did not seem terribly dangerous to me, as she munched on the low-lying leaves of a tree while staring at us in that serene way that moose have.

Of course, I know that the signs throughout the park are intended to alert drivers to the presence of large animals that can appear quickly and unexpectedly on the road and cause traffic mayhem or even lead to accidents.

Where is the real danger?

As I continued my drive through the park, being passed by drivers who seemed intent on ignoring the posted speed limit of 80 kilometres an hour in their race to get somewhere in record-breaking time, I thought a more appropriate danger sign might have carried an image of a speeding car careening along the highway.

I also thought about what unintended messages those danger signs might be conveying. And, when we emerged from our blissful state of no news a few days later to be confronted with the coverage of Hurricane Irma, I was struck once again at how our use of language says so much.

Don’t get me wrong: Hurricane Irma has had a devastating impact on the communities it has touched, and anyone in its path risked personal injury or death.

Anthropomorphizing nature

But should we attribute malicious intent to a force of nature? The language would seem to indicate we should: Irma has been called such things as a “monster,” and we have been told of its “wrath.” (I am not even going to talk about the use of the female pronoun for hurricanes, tempting as that is. Perhaps another time.)

Terrible as the fallout from the hurricane has been, it seems a bit over the top to give it the power of mens rea (a guilty mind). I don’t think hurricane winds, earthquakes, tornadoes and other forces of nature set out to get us innocent humans; and yet, so often, the language used during these events describes a battle of huge proportion between humans (the side of good) and nature (the side of evil).

This kind of discourse seems particularly inappropriate in the 21st century when the impact of these naturally occurring events is exaggerated by human action and inaction that have created climate change, forced poverty on large parts of the world and otherwise created a perfect storm of opportunity for nature to have a disproportionate impact on some parts of the world and on those who live there.

Back in the park . . .

Much is made of the fact that children no longer spend enough time outside, becoming familiar and comfortable with the natural world around them, because they are so busily occupied with electronic forms of entertainment, and no doubt this is true.

We could all stand to disconnect from our machines and reconnect with our outside environment more. When I reconnected with my cell phone after three days away from it, I was struck by four things: first, that was the longest I had been offline in several years; two, it had been wonderful; three, I had not missed anything that I could not quickly get caught up with, and four, I need to disconnect more often and for longer.

The experts tell us that this disconnection from nature has created a generation of children who are fearful of the outside world and the animals that inhabit it.

Certainly, that is part of the story, but maybe we need to change our language about nature, too, so that kids (and adults) don’t think of the moose and deer in a provincial park as a “danger.”

How about: “Watch for moose for the next 56 kms.” Or “Share the road with moose and deer for the next 56 km.” Or: “Moose photo ops ahead: drive slowly.”


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