5 min read

What is Nature? An Introduction

What is Nature? An Introduction
Photo by OC Gonzalez / Unsplash

It’s been three months since my last newsletter.

This is a lapse that speaks to a myriad of happenings, both personal and of the broader socio-political scene here in the so-called United States. I won’t really get into the personal level here, but I think we’re all well aware of the continually unfolding horrors perpetuated by this particular nation-state, horrors that are par for the course for a country built on enslavement and stolen Indigenous land.

Today marks the beginning of the Three Weeks, the time in Judaism leading up to the mourning day of Tisha b’Av, which marks the destruction of the temple as well as a number of other atrocities in our history. I guess you could say that between the confluence of this and current events, grief is on my mind.

I’ve been thinking of writing a critique of ecofeminism here for some time, and it feels like this is the right moment—a moment defined at least in part by reactionary appeals to “nature” and what is “natural” in defense of stripping bodily autonomy from people, especially concerning the wars being waged against reproductive justice and trans liberation (wars that, in practice, direct the most damage towards Black and brown people’s bodies, while white people are of course still impacted).

We live in a country that actively aims to make it impossible for those who are impacted to participate in public life. In rendering this participation impossible, make no mistake—the U.S. aims to wipe these people out entirely. As Jules Gill-Peterson writes, “this is one of the oldest moves state power can make to legitimize itself: declaring a population uncivil in order to disenfranchise, dispossess, and immiserate them.”

The more I read and learn about reproductive justice and trans liberation, the more I see how interconnected these struggles truly are, as well as their inseparability from abolition, Black liberation, and Indigenous sovereignty. I do not write this as an expert, far from it, I am just starting to learn, but one thing I do know is that each of these struggles is premised upon the right to bodily autonomy. And what is bodily autonomy without abolition, when queer and trans Black and brown people are incarcerated in prisons and psychiatric facilities, when people give birth in literal shackles and chains?

The news that my liberal friends and family reads is becoming more and more right-wing; The New York Times being just one example of a respected publication that continues to print both transmisogynist screeds disguised as well-reasoned thinkpieces by cis women as well as blatant police propaganda. Democrat leaders across the country are more focused on fundraising and getting out the vote than fighting for material change. No wonder people are more disillusioned with the Democratic party than ever.

I wrote recently, for Ancillary Review of Books, about what a theological response to these issues might look like, and while I might go deeper into this piece in a future newsletter, today I want to focus more narrowly on the issue of “nature” and what constitutes “the natural.” As I said, I’m pulled towards this subject due to the most recent iteration of its reactionary deployment in service of transphobia and misogyny, because I think we should now be more concerned than ever regarding what’s at stake in what we call “natural.”

It is now incumbent upon us to discuss what “nature” as a concept makes possible—particularly theologically, in my experience—and also what it precludes.

This is a complicated subject for me as someone who has been steeped in a Jewish tradition informed particularly by ecofeminism, and as someone who’s struggled for years with, from both an academic and spiritual perspective, how to navigate representations of, and calls to return to, “nature.”

I put “nature” in quotes here because the definition of “nature” (and what accrues to it) is hardly clear or even knowable in most of the contexts within which I have encountered it. Nature is something that dangles from nearly every conversation about it as a shared yet undefined assumption. And yet, nature is also something that undergirds conservative and so-called “gender-critical” (i.e. TERF) feminist backlash against both gender-affirming care for trans people and reproductive justice (note that TERFs quite literally see trans women and transfeminine people as responsible for “erasing” women as the “natural” victims in the arena of abortion access. This is transmisogyny in action).

Perhaps the first thing to be said here about nature is its association with so-called “common sense.” Nature is something that is, by definition, supposed to be obvious, something with clearly demarcated boundaries (typically something that lives “over there,” in the woods or by the sea or something beyond, and exclusive of, the urban city center). “Common sense,” similarly, is a purportedly universal framework for understanding the world. Women, for instance, according to this framework, is a self-evident category constituting the only kind of people with the capacity to conceive and become pregnant. But “common sense” falls apart when we look at it closely and understand it as the ideological structure it truly is—that is, a knowledge framework bound up in structures of power that nevertheless claims to be “just-so” and “neutral.”

In much the same way, nature is also ideological, informed by power structures, and far from self-evident. Much of our contemporary understanding of nature and the natural can be traced to Cartesian Dualism, the concept of mind and body as separate entities, feeding into the separation of nature and culture as well as the associations between men and the mind, and women and the body.

The Western cultural associations between women, the body, and nature have historically been the grounds for an ecofeminist critique of the patriarchal domination of all three. The association between, and privileging of, reason and masculinity, ecofeminists tends to argue, has led directly to the oppression of women as well as the exploitation of nature—leading to the ecofeminist drive to reject this oppression by allying with nature.

Without getting too much into ecofeminism in today’s newsletter, understanding the natural as a category designation given primarily to women and the body, whether positively (by some feminists) or negatively (by our broader Christian-inflected culture of domination), is a helpful starting point for our discussion.

When I next write about this, which may not be in the following newsletter as I do want to come back to my usual subject matter of creativity and process, I’ll explore the ecofeminist response to the problem of nature as briefly outlined here—that is, the association between, and domination of, women and the body by patriarchal power—and some of the issues with that response as outlined by already existing feminist critiques of ecofeminism. Then I’ll go into the theological repercussions of these critiques for earth-based Jewish practices and, ultimately, my own cosmology.

For a peek into what’s coming with that, or if you’d like to know more about what I’m referring to with the word “ecofeminism,” this interview with Alyssa Battistoni is a great introduction to the concept, as well as to some of the critiques I'll be exploring.

I welcome replies, reflections, unsubscribes—whatever responses you may have to this angry little missive. Stay tuned for more, if you like.