“The Living World”

Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves —N. Scott Momaday

Preamble The Living World and The Living World That Sustains Us are phrases you’ll encounter often in this website, perhaps tediously so, perhaps even nauseatingly so. But please bear with me. The Living World That Sustains Us is, I suggest, a much-needed, much-overdue replacement for the word Nature which, in marked contract, is a word you’ll decidedly not encounter on this website, unless in one of its alternate meanings.

First Approximation


he problem with the word nature is manifold, but the truly big problem, the one that finally decided me to henceforth give it a wide berth, is its inordinate fuzziness.

Consider the title of Bill McKibben’s “classic” book, The End of Nature. If Nature means, as Merriam-Webster online says it does, “the external world in its entirely,” then surely there can be no end to nature that doesn’t also involve an end, for instance, to me writing this sentence and you reading it. Or if what is meant is natural process, then here once again McKibben’s barking up the wrong tree; natural process is immanent; it will necessarily carry on with us or without us.

flock of geese in Estonia 2010

Really there are only two things that the title of McKibben’s book could refer to, plausibly speaking I mean. One is an end run around the world’s control panel, which simply isn’t going to happen. The other is the end of ecosystems unimpacted by human agency, an attritional process already well underway. So bingo, that’s the meaning we’re after.

Still, you take my point. It doesn’t really matter what McKibben thinks he means by his title The End of Nature; for in practice his meaning is ambiguous, unstable, open to multiple interpretations. In practice it will mean what as each and every one of his readers take it to mean, neither more nor less. Clearly this won’t do.

Of course the reason this won’t do is that Nature – in common with terms like Wilderness and The Wild – is a scatter-rug concept we use to cover the unknowableness of things. How indeed could it be otherwise? When the need arises, as sometimes it does, to speak of the ineffable, we’re obliged to say at least something. And in the end, unless we’re poets and understood as such, the best we can do is articulate the thing we see before us, which of course is the scatter rug of language, not the thing that lies beneath it.

I’m by no means the first to suggest that great care is needed in our use of scatter rug terms like Wilderness, the Wild and Nature. Still, there can’t be too many who have noted that, with our recent entry into the Pandoracene, the stakes involved in getting them right, as close to right as humanly possible, have increased by several orders of magnitude. Indeed, to say that the very future of organized human civilization now rests to frightening degree on what we think we mean when we use these three terms is, in the final analysis, no exaggeration. In the Pandoracene there’s simply no wiggle room left. The time for fuzziness of resourcist, consumerist, corporate, convenience is over.

This then brings me to the Living World That Sustains Us which, as must be clear, is my preferred stand-in term for Nature, this being a phrase that aligns with, and helpfully unpacks, what I myself have always understood by that word.

And yes, certainly it’s true, the Living World That Sustains Us really is a bit of a mouthful, and often I myself, as you’ll perhaps notice, indulge in the luxury of abbreviating it to the Living World. Yet in the end I think I’m correct in feeling that more is lost by leaving out That Sustains Us than is gained in convenience. In the end I feel as a weight on my shoulders the Pandoracenean commandment that the time has come to acknowledge the existential centrality of our relationship with the Living World and, much more even than that, to express ourselves accordingly, using a string of word not readily to be distinguished from a little prayer of enduring gratitude: the Living World That Sustains Us.

Of course there’s much more to think and write and talk about in this connection; but as for me, I’d prefer to leave all that, if I may, for a conversation around the campfire. For now, let me close with a few thoughts on another, earlier, much more elegant unpacking of what is meant by Nature, a phrase that few reading these words will have failed to utter by now.

As far as I’m aware, David Abram’s term the More-Than-Human World was introduced by him in 1996 in the subtitle of his seminal book, The Spell of the Sensuous.

I need to be clear here. Over the years the phrase The More-Than-Human World has rolled off my tongue more times than I can remember; and indeed it will certainly continue to do so far into the future. It is a beautiful, a sumptuous phase, one that invites the speaker – and the listener – to acknowledge that the unfolding of human destiny isn’t the only game in town, not even close; nor is it even the most important one when you come down to it.

Nonetheless, and within the context of this website, there’s a small raspy edge to Abrams’ term that chafes at me ever so much whenever I chance to use it. I’m referring here to the possibility, no inevitability that some of its users/hearers could construe the More-Than-Human-World as situating humankind outside of “Nature”. And while such a thesis is certainly worth considering when it’s Homo technologicus you have in mind, it’s on the whole probably better to avoid throwing Homo sapiens out with the bathwater, at least not yet.

Still, and this little raspy bit aside, it’s safe to say that the Living World That Sustains Us and the More-Than-Human-World are in every important sense two peas in a pod: synonyms in solidarity.

Indeed, the more such phrases there are that urge us, every day, to appreciate, respect and love the Living World, the better.

May the forest be with you —Trevor

Next up: Enlivenment