Nature and Artifice

I still remember my first visit to the Caucasus, the majestic mountains that reach down southern Europe toward the Black Sea and define the region where Armenia, Georgia, and ill-fated Chechnya stand. As we wound up the Military Highway, I was stunned to see what I thought of as mountaineering cows, grazing contendedly on grassy slopes so steep I doubted I could scramble up them safely. Though incongruously massive, they reminded me of bighorn sheep or mountain goats. I thought to myself how wonderfully animals are adapted to their environment, how glorious nature is.

On the way back down, we discovered one of the cows had fallen and lay dead, its legs sticking into the air. This image, of a clumsy bovine mountaineer somehow came to serve for me as an emblem of the modern Romanticization of the natural. Don’t get me wrong, I love Nature deeply and want more than anything to preserve the wild. But I am fascinated by apparent beliefs that natural trumps artificial automatically. The classic example is the individual who refuses to take medicines (many of which are simply purified plant extracts that have undergone rigorous testing) but eagerly gobbles up whatever plant extract is best advertised. Other examples abound of an automatic suspicion of what is artificial (meaning created by humans, though the word has come to mean something perhaps greater). Why do you think that is? Is this simply suspicion of technology? Is it distrust of corporations? The poor track record of human-environmental interactions?

Or is it a great and protracted human self doubt? A need to find in nature the God we have largely deserted in our society? A need to believe that we can fit into the universe?


  1. I have no idea Sam but it does bug me when it’s easily recognizable that these people could not live without modernization, artifice, industry. Seriously, did people 500 years ago eat algae in a pill? Prolly not. But somehow they both get starry-eyed about them being more pristine.

    I do think it’s about ordering the world, similar to the way belief in God orders the world.

  2. Peter LLC says:

    While it’s hard to argue that domesticated cows represent nature at its purest, it is strange the aversion folks have to synthetic products. At the end of the day, it all comes out of the ground one way or another.

  3. It could be trust of the old, suspicion of the new, and the age-old tale that if you disrupt the harmony that has held your world together for decades, centuries, millennia, then all the demons of hell will be loosed.

  4. My husband loves to watch the tv show How It’s Made (he’s a mechanical engineer and works in manufacturing). I find it fascinating myself. I think it’s interesting that so much of what we consume or use in our society we have no clue how it was made, where it comes from or what the ingredients are. Honestly, I’m surprised there isn’t more distrust than there is.

  5. Maybe people want simplicity and beauty that is easy to see and appreciate. Maybe they feel overwhelmed by technology they don’t understand and long for more control and understanding. Maybe they don’t realize that such a simplistic life killed people at half the age to which we live now. On the other hand, maybe they don’t think about it much at all, but just live a visualization of peace and beauty – not seeing the savagery and death underneath it all.

  6. Sorry, “LOVE a visualization of peace and beauty”. (I should follow my own advice.)

  7. I was just reading an article about a growing trend called “freebirthing”, wherein women give birth at home completely unassisted by midwives or anyone. While I honestly feel that people have a right to do that, and that it might work well for some women (my mom had four uncomplicated home births), it doesn’t work for all. I actually found one quote really amusing. One woman said “If birth were really so dangerous, people wouldn’t still be around.” Um, does she remember that for years childbirth complications were one of the leading causes of death for women? Or that women in many countries still die or suffer serious complications because they have to give birth without medical assistance? My sister is working with the Peace Corps in an African country that is fairly developed (more than others in the continent). Most women have access to clean water and some electricity. But many in rural areas still have to give birth without assistance, or if they have any it’s just a friend. And some of those women die or have serious, life-altering complications. Birth may be a “natural” process that our bodies are meant to do, but even natural things go wrong sometimes. Kind of like a cow falling off the mountain.

  8. ed johnson says:

    so much of what we consume or use in our society we have no clue how it was made

    That’s a great point, Susan.

    I reminds me of the story of the pencil, as popularized by Milton Friedman. Here’s a cool video of him telling the story. “There’s not a single person in the world who could make this pencil.”

  9. At the end of the day, it all comes out of the ground one way or another.

    Liquid Drain-O originates from nature if you go back far enough – Doesn’t mean I feel ok about drinking it.

    Its true that the high level of nutrition in much of the developed world is a direct result of modernization and technology. People who think otherwise would be suprised at the high level of meat that indiginous peoples have always relied upon as well as the lack of nutritional options among much of the world’s very poor. And while I dislike the trendy tag that “organic” and “pure” foods have been given, it doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t all be better off paying more attention to what we put into our bodies.

    For me its a complete lack of trust for the FDA, food producing corporations and the pharmaceutical industry. Not that (what we call) a more “natrural” lifestyle is replicating what was before but a large portion of products available to the US public do not represent the best that modernity has to offer.

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