Nature is not a club to bash people with

  As a nature writer, I'm always interested when a columnist or politician claims to speak for "nature." As a gay Portlander, I'm especially amazed to hear that "nature" has passed judgment against me.

A religious activist here in Oregon keeps getting anti-gay initiatives on the ballot, but he hardly seems the paragon of nature. True, he's got a wife, but in news photos he looks portly (Is that a natural effect of poor diet? Or is it unnatural, a violation of what his body really needs?). And I know he travels around in an automobile (hardly produced by nature) and uses money (also not natural). In fact, his heterosexual monogamy itself might be open to question. Didn’t natural selection design men to propagate their genes indiscriminately? Yet I don't hear him criticize monogamous marriage as unnatural.

So when cultural conservatives campaign to defend marriage by arguing that gay folks are against nature, I wonder what that means. Especially since, as a composting, hiking, not-overweight sort of person in the Northwest, I feel that I’m living in a better-than-average way, although, of course, I'm still a typical American who uses far too many of the world's resources.

The more I think about it, the more I see that the meaning of the word "nature" itself is a huge muddle.

Here's the nub of the confusion: "Nature" is a shifty word. Sometimes it is used to declare an ideal of how things ought to be — natural. But this is the opposite of what we usually mean by the word, which is how things are. Gay people often defend themselves by referring to nature in this more common sense: "Unnatural? Hey, this is my nature! I'm not going to force myself to go against it." It is true that homosexuality is a universal, if minor, part of human experience and culture. It is even widespread in the animal world, so it is natural in that sense.

But too often, people dress up their folkways as "what nature wants" or even "what God wants," failing to recognize that our perceptions of these standards change as culture changes. I'm 54, and I can remember arguments that women were "naturally inferior" to men, and that mixed-race marriages and ending segregation were unnatural. In my childhood Baptist church, these cultural constructs were defended from the Bible, as God's will.

Responding to last November's Massachusetts Supreme Court decision affirming gay marriage, newspaper op-eds have ceaselessly continued this muddling of nature, God and culture. The conservative Massachusetts Family Institute proclaimed "the biological reality that marriage is the union of a man and a woman," apparently forgetting that history shows marriage to be a social arrangement that changes almost by the decade. It's culture, not nature.

Former Moral Majority spokesman Cal Thomas has taken the other tack, informing us that "Marriage...was established by God" — despite the wildly differing forms of marriage that have been divinely blessed since the time of the biblical Solomon, a man who kept multiple wives.

Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker has woven all the confusions together in my morning paper, capitalizing nature and making it a stand-in for God: Heterosexual unions embody a "superior natural order... which cannot be disputed," she writes. But she also acknowledges the apparent "naturalness" of those poor gay folks, since they didn't choose to be innately gay. She can't figure out what "nature" means, but she is quite sure it's on her side.

And, saving the best example for last: Last August, the Roman Catholic bureaucracy launched a global campaign against gay marriage as a "violation of natural law." Catholic teaching says homosexuality, birth control and divorce are all "unnatural."

This campaign links back to the Inquisition, the office that burned heretics and Jews, tortured people and even opposed the solar system, all for being unnatural.

So I guess I should not be surprised if latter-day true believers have followed tradition. It still works: Appeal to nature, call something unnatural and you seem to have won the argument, even though what it means is tangled in contradiction. A little humility, please: We don't know yet, to any certainty, what nature is, so there’s no need to bash somebody over the head with it. Let's calm down, look around attentively, and get on with living in it.

David Oates is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of Paradise Wild: Reimagining American Nature.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....