At AU, the whole world becomes our classroom, in that our lived experiences become fodder to illustrate our essay and exam answers. Our natural proclivity toward curiosity finds expression in a different way than at a brick-and-mortar university; what once seemed a natural learning environment can even feel a bit foreign when, for whatever reason. We return to a traditional classroom setting. Like a fish out of water, we might feel a bit out of place sitting with pupils again, proving that nature is a function of expectation and context. An uncanny sense of belonging or not belonging might lead to a question or two about nature and how it gets that way. Distance education removes us just enough from ordinary university life that new ways of seeing the rest of reality can emerge.
Years ago, at an ocean beach in Vancouver, I noticed kids collecting old pop cans and other garbage, the better to beautify their clime. Only when I looked closer did I see that, before gently stacking the aluminum vessels into a recycle bin, the children were first, with studious precision, dumping out and scraping off the hermit crabs, limpids, barnacles and plants that had made a home in the castoff of our biped peers. Maybe nature really does abhor a vacuum, and would gladly embrace a trash pile? Just as we are a bit outside the norm as university students, so too does our thinking have to transcend intuitive conceptions if we are to think more critically about the world and our place in it.
Typically, common sense seems to guide what is normal for a given setting. No one wants to see a bunch of human trash littering a pristine mountain side, for instance. Yet, in times where housing is lacking, enterprising vagabonds will reclaim crown land and even set up encampments as a form of 21st Century homesteading. This happens with some frequency here in BC’s Okanagan Valley, where moderate temperatures make a mountain lifestyle more attractive—and with unfortunate results. Intermittently, local volunteer groups will clean up after the activities of those pejoratively termed as squatters. To be sure, thievery and messiness does prevail, and this site was replete with stolen items. Yet, there’s irony amidst scrap iron taken from construction sites to resell at the junk yard. Despite the immense landscapes of virginal wilderness in our country, the person interviewed about the recent incident told the evening news “we only have one back country.”
Clearly, there’s several facets to any fact and that’s worth remembering whenever we write an assignment. Being in a small way unhoused and free range pupils within the larger societal milieu of academia, we might ask whether we can so blithely call the accumulated stuff of unhoused people garbage or even littering. If we ask animals in the forest, they’d answer differently than we would. Even with tongue planted in cheek, deeper realities prevail, namely, that what we consider natural as a culture may not line up with nature in and of itself. Where does human settlement end and actual trash begin?
Rather than mere navel gazing, the question of where nature ends and humanity begins is a fruitful one for philosophical discourse. Just look down, past your navel and knees, and more often than not you’ll see either a floor or pavement. Neither of these useful climes aids the growth of living, natural, organisms. Quite the opposite, in fact! It’s fair to say that the pouring of asphalt is the quickest way to permanently suffocate mother earth. Houses, though necessary and including floors, are in a sense a Three Little Pigs way of avoiding the howling winds and frosts of the Big Bad Wolf that is nature! While a bit of tongue in cheek jest can bring levity to the tragedy of homelessness, the consequences of having an ever-wider swathe of Canadians lacking a place to rest their heads is anything but a laughing matter. So what does it mean when well-meaning people see human activities in the forest as nothing but selfish pollution? Maybe as a culture we’re avoiding some social justice issues.
One local ecologist, named Dan Gayton, provides what amounts to a sidelong glance at the way in which economic class intersects with popular aesthetics with regard to nature and its human inhabitants. In his book, The Sky and the Patio, he wryly notes that the concept of a tended garden has “aristocratic overtones” that bring to mind “men in wigs and ladies in formal dresses passing idle afternoons among the manicured shrubbery and lamenting the difficulty of finding good servants”. Where care can seem value neutral, the utility of managed realms of plants and proprietors runs up against the need for shelter and food. “At the other extreme are the community gardens of today, where contemporary landless urban peasants are able to get their hands dirty and produce a few vegetables. Such a garden thrives on Vancouver’s East Hastings Street, probably the most troubled neighbourhood in the entire country” (Gayton, 2022, p, 32-33). Where instinct meets fact often mysterious ideas abide, in this case the reality that a less-than-genteel vegetable patch is in many ways more practical and natural than even the most glorious bed of roses. Yet, it’s hard to see the detritus of a homeless encampment as a natural setting – because social conditioning has led us to firmly separate humanity from our earthly origins.
As Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated from his local synagogue on charges of being an atheist, wrote during his life in the 1600s, “a true idea must agree with its object; in other words (obviously), that which is contained in the intellect in representation must necessarily be granted in nature. But in nature there is no substance save God, nor any modifications save those which are in God, and cannot without God either be or be conceived. Therefore the intellect, in function finite, or in function infinite, must comprehend the attributes of God and the modifications of God, and nothing else.” It’s that’s too much God talk for you remember, for Spinoza God and nature were exactly the same: he termed them God-or-Nature (Spinoza, 1677). In other words, for Spinoza, God and nature are identical and nothing can exist outside of either. A pile of unsightly trash, despite making our eyes water, is nevertheless part of nature—a fact with which the microorganisms whose fermentation creates the smell would certainly agree.
Spinoza denied being atheist; instead, he claimed that for a universal God to exist such a being would certainly include all of his creations – including humans and all that we do. Even when we poo. Elsewhere in history the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzhi made a strikingly similar claim:
“Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, “This thing called the Way-where does it exist?”
Chuang Tzu said, “There’s no place it doesn’t exist.”
“Come,” said Master Tung-kuo, “you must be more specific!”
“It is in the ant.”
“As low a thing as that?”
“It is in the panic grass.”
“But that’s lower still!”
“It is in the tiles and shards.”
“How can it be so low?”
“It is in the piss and shit.”
Now, we might wonder if such thinking foolishly makes garbage pails redundant let alone outhouses. Happily, such is not the case – desiring beauty as we imagine it is just as natural as desiring something else. The only thing is that at the cosmic level no one has the final word on what counts as beautiful, desirable, or functional. As Spinoza often wrote, a triangle would see the world as triangles and a square as squares. So lest we act too much like squares ourselves, remembering that old hip/square binary, it helps to remember that it’s okay to possess differing worldviews or to embrace contrarian ethos.
In the end, whatever’s defined as trash depends on who you ask. By broadening our lens, we can see how there’s perhaps no separation between nature and humanity, or humanity and divinity, and particularly that we’re all essentially of the same stuff. And from there maybe, just maybe, we can learn to love the Other, and that which we find unpleasant, and thereby help give birth to a more caring culture. Maybe. At the very least, trying to imagine the world though the eyes of a hermit crab or an unhoused person can certainly teach us to be more compassionate and open-hearted! And, as students, we’d be wasting our intellects if we didn’t seek to better our hearts along with our minds.