Deep Down Things

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We call this electronic journal “Minding Nature” because its pages, and the work of the Center for Humans and Nature as a whole, exemplify the multiple dimensions of the enterprise that the phrase suggests. I like to think of these dimensions in a simple, old-fashioned (indeed classically antique) sense. They are the true, the good, and the beautiful.

The True

The phrase connotes knowledge. To mind nature is to think about, study, learn from, and try to understand nature. Beyond developing a body of knowledge, minding is also a formative process. To mind nature is critically to grasp the many ways the human imagination has fashioned and used concepts of nature, and how those concepts have influenced human history and culture. Nature reflected in the human mind transforms itself because these ideas of nature prompt human action that affects nature. Those who hold otherwise are fish who don’t recognize that they live in water.

The Good

The phrase also suggests the ethical dimension of the humans and nature relationship—responsibility and care. To mind nature is to obey it; to conduct human living and doing in a way compatible with the health and flourishing of non-human nature. To mind nature is yet again to care for and to care about it. (This is perhaps more a British idiom than an American one.)

The Beautiful

Finally, the phrase suggests the act of discerning the sublime, perhaps the sacred, at any rate the something that Charles Darwin saw in “endless forms,” and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins captured in a remarkably evocative line: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” To mind nature is to discover in it the essential characteristic of a meaning or significance beyond ourselves.

Credit and inspiration for the name “Minding Nature” goes back to Strachan Donnelley; in particular, to an essay he wrote in 2003, but never published. We present a portion of that essay here; the full version will be included in a volume of his collected writings that is now in preparation. Donnelley is seeking a new form of minding—fundamental and non-dogmatic philosophical thinking; indeed, a new worldview—rooted in the understanding of nature given in Darwinian evolutionary biology. This will, above all, permit us to think and to act in new ways, to reate a different kind of relationship with dynamic, living nature and biotic communities.

The leitmotif of this entire issue of MN is thereby captured. Searching for the forms of thought and action that will transform our limited moral imagination from seeing the natural world as a “resource” to be used (and used up), to seeing it in the shape of relationships of care, non-violence, respect, common value, and systemically supported diversity of life. Brown and Garver explore this moral transformation against the background of economic modes of thought and action; they continue the journey that Donnelley had called upon us to take. They place the concept of relating and relationship at the center of our attention. Engel and Heltne ask how this way of viewing nature redounds in our civic and communal lives; Engel reflecting on these matters through the work of important theologies of nature; Heltne through the lens of a neo-Stoic philosophy of eudaimonia and human flourishing.

In my piece, I pose the challenge of forming a new language of planning and politics in land use policy in the Hudson River Valley. While our planning processes today are protecting the river, they are not giving our communities a meaningful relationship to the river. We don’t have the conceptual vocabulary to talk about that, and so we don’t. The mainstream planning and political languages are idioms of conflicting interests over nature seen as a resource. This form of discourse and action, this practice of democratic citizenship, is falling short.

The articles contained in this issue of Minding Nature tell us why and suggest an alternative.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.
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