Re-imagining Nature: A conversation with Julia Corbett

By Emily Spacek

In Out of the Woods: Seeing Nature in the Everyday (University of Nevada, September 2018), Julia Corbett invites her readers to reimagine nature by changing where and how we see it, how we talk about it, and how we value it. Corbett, a University of Utah Communications and Environmental Humanities professor, challenges the current cultural understanding of nature as something out there, apart from our daily lives and responsibilities.

“The infrastructure of civilized life has so corralled and seemingly controlled nature–energy, water, food, insects, weather, wildlife–that it’s fairly easy never to think of or consider the natural world,” she writes.

This book begins with an underlying question: How can we all hope to live a more environmentally aware life? By the end, readers are left to ponder the potential answer: See nature in everything and everyone, always.
Last month we spoke with Corbett by phone from her summer home in Wyoming.

CATALYST: Why is the conventional perception of nature problematic—the idea that only wilderness without the presence of people is “real nature”?

JULIA CORBETT: I came to write the book after noticing that my students—and myself—tend to put nature into two camps. When I ask my students, “Where is nature,” they look outside to the mountains. I do the same thing; I think about how I want to escape out there and be in “real nature.” It was kind of a personal challenge to be able to not think of the air that’s above the Wasatch Mountains and the air that I breathe in my backyard differently. Really, they’re one and the same. How could I then reimagine the everyday nature around me and see its connection to that wilder part?
How we treat the objects of nature in our everyday lives—what we eat, our energy, how we landscape, how we treat insects—all of that has very real impacts upon wilder nature. Our interactions with everyday nature are the pickaxes for things that are happening to the less-peopled nature, whether that’s climate change, resource depletion or air pollution.

What are the challenges to getting people to start noticing and appreciating “everyday nature”?

A big step is just getting people outside. But even to look around the room you are in, in the current moment, is to notice that everything in there came from nature; there’s no other choice as to where we can get stuff. It’s all nature.
It’s a good exercise or challenge to try and see it all as one nature and not separate camps. Because certainly the atmosphere does not think of it as separate camps. The watershed puts the everyday and the wilder nature in one system. Seeing it as interconnected might influence some of your daily actions and beliefs.

In your chapter, “The Granddaddy of All Trashdays,” you write that our term for objects, “man-made,” would be more appropriately called “nature-made.” How does this language choice, “man-made,” exemplify a problem with our thinking about the everyday nature that we use?

It does matter what words we use. One minute you’re enjoying a soda and the next minute you toss the can into the bin. Suddenly it went from something that was useful to trash. What we consider trash and how we treat trash is a practice that language has direct influence on.

Even just the term “trash” has such negative connotations.

Exactly. We think of trash in a very linear way. It has value now but as soon as it ceases to have value to me, it becomes trash. The fact is that the natural world knows no trash and no waste. It’s all useful. It all has a role. So, both the practice and the language are intertwined.

To help your students think about everyday nature in a more mindful way, you invite them to peel and eat a Cutie mandarin orange while using all of their senses. What happens?

I think it’s second nature to think of ourselves, humans, as the subjects of everything while everything else is just an object, an “it,” that doesn’t have any—I’ll use Robin Wall Kimmerer’s word here— animacy, or life of its own. [Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss, is also part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival; see story in upcoming October CATALYST].

In the mandarin orange exercise, by just focusing and thinking as they peel it, as they separate the sections, and eat it, their thoughts may shift to thinking about this mandarin as a subject in its own right. ‘Oh, what is it like to be this orange? How did it grow? Why does it have these membranes here? What do they do for the mandarin?’ By getting out of the mindset of ‘it’s just a thing I’m going to eat,’ it becomes more an entity in itself that has its own life.

Some Native American cultures give a lot of animacy, through their language and thinking, to other beings—beings with lungs, beings that photosynthesize or even beings like rocks. They may think of them as subjects in their own right who know how to be a mandarin or a body of water or whatever they are. It’s about shifting perspective to see another entity in its own right.

You write about your nephew, more attuned to the virtual world of Pokémon Go than the living environment around him; and about people mesmerized by the artificially created creek at the mall. But you also write about your students, remembering insightful comments and productive class discussions. Are you hopeful about the younger generation’s ability to establish a healthier relationship with the natural world?

I believe that all humans are capable of change, not just minor but major and significant. We all know this world is facing very, very serious challenges. And many people are now thinking, ‘okay, how do we address this?’

If you even just begin to think about your own relationship with the natural world, that’s a much more powerful thing than changing any one consumer action. Seeing yourself in relationship with all that is not human is greatly needed for humanity to address climate change. We need to rethink how we as humans interact with all of nature. I am hopeful that this kind of shift will be an important piece in solving environmental problems.

Emily Spacek recently graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in political science. She is currently an intern at CATALYST Magazine.

When: September 27, 2019
Where: Ogden Nature Center:
966 W. 12th St., Ogden
(This event is part of the
Utah Humanities Book Festival.)

This article was originally published on August 31, 2019.