• Clémence Laburthe-Tolra

Humans and Nature: Towards a (Dis)connection?

Nature and landscapes are constantly altered by human imprints. Tourist resorts, polluting infrastructures and large buildings pop up all around the globe, shattering ecosystems. Man leaves his mark on nature and spoils it, as pointed out by scientist Paul Crutzen, who coined the term “Anthropocene” in 2002 to designate the Earth’s most recent geologic time period which is irreversibly transformed by man. Be they in deserts, mountains or forests, human constructions are erected, dangerously disrupting places that used to be pristine. As such, man has been littering the “natural world” with “commodities”, to take up Roland Barthes’s terminology[1]. Nature is therefore stripped of its “essence” and reduced to its “attributes”: it becomes a mere object which is entrapped in logics of enslavement. Elaborated upon to serve a consumerist approach, nature is thus viewed as a portion of space to adapt to one’s needs. It is moulded by man into a “standing reserve”[2] from which he can pick up resources to carry out his projects. Indubitably, such an objectification reads as stark evidence of the disconnection that is currently at stake between humans and nature: while the Latin “connexio” stresses “a binding or joining together”, man and nature currently seem to share no bond whatsoever. The ties linking them look purely material: man seems to perceive nature as a setting he can easily manipulate, with no emotional nor spiritual involvement surging when he faces nature. However, this hierarchy fuels de facto a fight for power: even though man is relentlessly shaping nature by designing it according to his needs, he is confronted with the enigmatic Other through nature. This tension is indeed vividly epitomised by Richard Long’s land art picture A Line Made by Walking[3]: the suggestive title foregrounds man’s desire to inscribe himself onto nature. The numerous to and froes Richard Long performed in a field encapsulate forms of possession and appropriation, as no reciprocity is being sought. The line reads consequently as the inscription of man’s disconnection regarding nature. Yet, this mark is bound to be temporary since it requires a constant humanly presence to exist. For this reason, nature can gain its “true rights” and reassert itself by growing the grass back and erasing this “line made by walking”, showcasing a fight for power between man and nature.

Even so, this disconnection is not just physical. In fact, our disconnection with nature is considerably evidenced by the paucity defining our landscape vocabulary. Underlining the crisis of language that the 21st century faces, literary ecocritic Robert Macfarlane denounces the way man estranges himself from nature through the words he uses. Referring to the 2012 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, Macfarlane argues that “a sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature.”[4] Catkin, cauliflower, chestnut and clover have indeed been replaced by technological terms such as Key Stage Two, features cut and paste and broadband. Words reflect the way we interact with nature: the richer our lexicon is, the richer our perception of nature is. Accordingly, words mirror the connection – or disconnection – that surges when man is immersed in nature. Therefore, this shift in lexicon bears the mark of our current lifestyle: detaching ourselves from nature, we now live in a “technoscape”[5], as emphasised by Macfarlane, hence the latter’s enterprise in Landmarks “to invigorate our contemporary language for landscape.”[6] His essay aims thus at reviving landscapes through rich indexes drawn from a myriad of words he collected when perambulating throughout the British Isles. Immersing his reader in astonishing place-terms gathered from Old-Norse, Anglo-Romani, Hebridean Gaelic and Norman, Macfarlane succeeds in creating a sense of place within the text. Poetic undertones stem from each word, the reader undergoing a journey through landscape, nature and weather. Guided through pages adumbrating topography, fauna, flora and climate, the reader is led to unravel deep layers of meaning, and he ultimately experiences an unprecedented connection with nature.

As technology and consumerism have become overwhelmingly engrained in man’s daily life and convert nature into a disposable resource, engaging with the natural world is now more vital than ever for man. Establishing a connection between both entities is a matter of intention and attention; while man does not necessarily need to adopt a contemplative romantic posture towards nature, changing one’s point of view is the first step towards generating a bond with nature. Induced by Macfarlane collecting words and inscribing them in a literary medium, this shift of focus may be catalysed by a myriad of experiences which all rely on immersion. Be it sparked through media (such as books) or through acts (such as walking), being immersed in nature triggers a decentred stance. Plunged into nature, either literally or figuratively speaking, man is led to re-evaluate his position and to reconsider his relationship with nature. Far from anthropomorphizing nature, man should tend to elaborate forms of sociability with nature, building a relationship revolving around exchanges, and viewing nature as a partner[7] that he indubitably has to cohabit with, his existence depending on it.


[1] Barthes, Roland. « Le monde objet » In: Essais critiques, Paris: Seuil, 1991.

[2] Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology. Translated by William Lovitt. New York; London: Garland Publishing, 1977, p. 17.

[3] Long, Richard. A Line Made by Walking. 1967. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper and graphite on board. Tate Museum, London.

[4] Macfarlane, Robert. Landmarks. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015, p. 3.

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Ibid., p. 9.

[7] Descola, Philippe, and Pierre Charbonnier. La composition des mondes : entretiens avec Pierre Charbonnier. Paris: Flammarion, 2014.