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Cultural constructions of nature

Cultural constructions of nature

This area of research is concerned with our aim in recent years to move from the purely scientific inputs to environmental management to an understanding of the deeper psychological motivations that are involved in terms of attitudes and values in environmental management.

This is envisioned in a paper on Psychobiogeography in the Journal of Biogeography and invited participation in a seminar programme at Oxford on the motivations for nature conservation ('a rational case for the emotions'). The publication of 'Contemporary Meanings in Physical Geography' was also a search for the deeper motivations behind physical geography, including autobiographical accounts of motivations and engagements with the subject.

Recent papers submitted for publication within this area of research include one on cultural constructs of soil and one on emotional biogeographies.

In preparation is a book: Imagined Nature: narratives that constrain, inform and inspire with chapters on psychogeography and the imperative of the narrative; narratives in ecological science; literary narratives of nature; self, identity and nature; gardening, nature conservation and what 'ought (not) to be there'; environmental problems, protest, solutions and a conclusion on nature, self and place - on necessity, and the imagination.

Psychogeography can be defined as the effects of where you are on what you feel - how location can affect thoughts and feelings and how thoughts and feeling affect the perceptions of place. Many psychogeographical writings have hitherto focussed on the urban setting - for example on how architects and planners have unconsciously or consciously influenced people, often seen in a situationist context. In this book we look at the ways in which we relate to the wider environment and to nature in terms of a sense of place.

Here we find meanings as a blend of prior knowledge, preconceptions, perceptions, reactions, feelings, emotional responses, and, most importantly, associations which combine to give us meanings of our surroundings. The relationship is thus very much a two-way consideration because while there are generalised responses to particular physical situations, our thoughts and feelings also condition our response in terms of what, why and how we find something significant.

First, we ask 'how do places make you feel?' and emphasise the imperative of the narrative in this relationship between self and place. We then discuss the narratives of ecological science before delving deeper into older literary narratives and consider the importance of the personal, often private, relationships with nature in terms of their societal and cultural contexts. We will then be a position to consider how the deeper narratives actually underpin our actions, such as those involved in gardening, nature conservation and environmental protests. Questions involve examining how social constructs influence us and asking by what criteria should we use to judge them.

Constructs are often simply the easy way out and help us to see what we want to see. It seems that everything we look at is seen through a lens of meaning which gives it focus. Here, it is felt that we should see that the lens of constructs is there as well as just looking through it - and then ask how appropriate our constructs are, and ask by what criteria may we judge that appropriateness?

In ecological science the underlying constructs are rarely examined but yet they continue to guide our thoughts and actions. This much is revealed by the use of the justificatory narratives which are rehearsed when actions are proposed. The beliefs may only be challenged evidentially when nature does not behave in the way we predicted and in this sense our relationship with nature can be reflexive, with experience acting to modify our constructs. In art, literature and poetry there is no such evidentiality - there is no visible 'come-back' as we are not physically engaged with doing something to nature and seeing how it works out; there is only a conceptual engagement and we may construct it as we wish. In many senses, however, even in ecological science, nature may have so much latitude that we can still retain our notions of nature when physically engaged with it irrespective of, and without the need for, any evidence.

These considerations are important because it is our sense of meaning and purpose which actually guides us in our attitudes to and feelings about nature. These are fundamental to the way we view, and therefore treat, nature. While environmental management and conservation can be seen as 'rational' projects, it is our constructs with the associated deeper senses of meaning which are actually guiding us - and indeed also, it is argued, limiting us. Myths and beliefs can enrich our view, as seen in art, poetry and literature, but in other contexts, they can limit our view, especially, it is argued, in ecological science. This research thus aims to make these constructs spoken and recognised - and to examine them in terms of how we may judge their appropriateness.

Publications

  • Trudgill, S.T. (2001) The Terrestrial Biosphere: environmental change, ecosystem science, attitudes and values Pearson
  • Trudgill, S.T., (2001). Psychobiogeography. meanings of nature and motivations for a democratised conservation ethic. Journal of Biogeography, 28, 677-698.
  • Trudgill, S.T, (2003) Narratives of Nature. In: Eggebert, A. and Gould, P. Nature and Nation: Vaster than Empires Hastings Art Gallery
  • Trudgill, S.T. and Roy, A. (eds.) (2003). Contemporary Meanings in Physical Geography: from what to why?
    • Trudgill, S.T., chapter 2. Meaning, knowledge, constructs and fieldwork in physical geography.
    • Trudgill, S.T., chapter 13. Conclusion: contemporary meanings in physical geography.
  • Trudgill, S.T., 2007. Classics Revisited: Tansley, A.G. 1935: The use and abuse of vegetational concepts and terms. Ecology 16, 284-307. Progress in Physical Geography 31(5) 501-507.
  • Trudgill, S.T., 2008. A requiem for the British Flora? Emotional biogeographies and environmental change. Area 40(1) 99-107.