Defining Nature

“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote many reflections on what makes nature, nature. It’s true that when we think of the natural world, roads and skyscrapers don’t come to mind, but mountains, rivers, lakes, ocean, wildlife, vegetation.

But, looking out a hotel window downtown in some big city, don’t we have the same reaction to these beautiful man made designs? Deep breaths, panning a majestic sight for personal meaning. I find that I do; the city is just as worthy of admiration as when I could see the Alps from my bedroom window in Switzerland.

Emerson, who was born in Boston and was passionate about his city, says, “Nature, in the common sense, refers to the essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture. But his operations taken together are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing, that in an impression so grand as that of the world on the human mind, they do not vary the result.”

I’ve also found that photographs cannot quite capture those feelings, in either instance. I become frustrated when I see a city skyline from the distance, an unreal site you have to blink twice to comprehend, and the photograph I try to capture does the image little justice.

I have an old photograph from my few days in Switzerland, and I remember feeling that, at that moment, I’d never seen anything so beautiful as those mountains from my window. And when I had the photographs developed a month later, this being a time even before digital camera ubiquity, I was terribly disappointed that it didn’t turn out as my eyes had witnessed the scene. It didn’t feel as true, which, obviously it isn’t as true to life and never could be. Just a recreation, a capture, a trick to the eye. Now that feeling resides only in my memory.

But it is often awakened living in a city. Biking on the south side of Chicago on the lakefront trail, the waves raging one day and still as a painting the next, the skyline finally peeks its way into view as I near the Loop. Close to the Museum Campus, there by the lake, the skyline is full and makes me stop any movement, for fear it will disappear.


I’m drawn to the mountains and the ocean just as I am to cities. The old man who gets his coffee each day from the shop around the corner is just as much a part of the beautiful bits of earth as an eagle enjoying the morning sun on his slightly frozen feathers, on some bright January day. Rats, God love them, don’t let Chicagoans forget that they are a part of the city, too, and are often moving from place to place, looking for warmth. They may know the city better than anyone.

Small, forgotten creatures remind Chicagoans of the landscape underneath the city structures and noise, land once deemed a “field of wild onions,” which is what “Chigagou” means in the language of the Algonquian. As if we still comprise such a field, our eyes sting from the sharp lake wind this time of year, from truck exhaust smoke, or from waking to the sound of the train rushing by, a moist-eyed reminder that we love it here.

Chicago skyline from the north

One thought on “Defining Nature

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