96 The Tree of Life and the Problem with Nature

Malcolm Holmes

According to Timothy Morton, the problem with “Nature” is that it exists only in the minds of human beings, as a simplistic, imaginary, and ultimately damaging misrepresentation of the physical and symbolic resources that serve human life. The guiding principle that shapes the ways in which humanity culturally characterizes and interacts with the natural world is to view nonhuman life as a mirror, a tool through which we collectively define ourselves. Humanity imposes its image onto the complex interconnectivity of all life, reducing the intricate entanglement of organisms and their environments to this reductive, self-serving construct of Nature with a capital N, a hallucinatory division between the world of human civilization and the world of Nature. The problem with this division is that it undermines the complexity and co-dependency of all life on the planet, marginalizing and alienating the natural systems of life which organically strive to operate independently of the sole purpose of accommodating human activity. Tim Morton states in his introduction to “The Ecological Thought,”

“Just like a reflection, we can never actually reach it and touch it and belong to it. Nature was an ideal image, a self-contained form suspended afar, shimmering and naked behind glass like an expensive painting.” (Morton, 5)

This passage illustrates the problematic distance created between human beings and nonhuman life as it exists beyond the boundaries of civilization, a distance almost like that between a deity and its devotees. This distance plays an infinitely counterintuitive role in the efforts to achieve any semblance of an understanding of ecology, as it obscures the necessity of acknowledging interconnectivity between humans and nonhumans, and makes it all the more inevitable that we obliviously and irreparably damage our environment and hinder its ability to properly sustain life.

The implications of Morton’s problem with Nature are explored in the films of Terrence Malick, a director with a highly distinctive style who routinely examines the relationship between humanity and the natural world in his work. In the beginning of the trailer for his film The Tree of Life, a female voice over says, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace.” While these words are spoken, we see footage of the movement of water beneath its surface, outer space, a meteorite colliding with the earth, seen from outside the atmosphere, sunlight filtered through a wave in the ocean, a circle of towering treetops shown from the forest floor, and, finally, two human hands clasped around an infant’s foot. The first twenty-three seconds of the trailer exemplify one of Malick’s trademark fixations in his work: the mysterious enormity of the natural world, and the unfathomable puzzle of the place that human beings occupy within it. Malick’s visual style violently celebrates the notion of Nature as an awesome, incomprehensible mystery, as he focuses on the aesthetics of sweeping landscapes, massive waterfalls, vast expanses of desert, animals, the dwarfing depths of outer space, forests, empty beaches, and the various images of the sky, often shown through a swooping, dizzying perspective. This representation of the natural world contributes to the conception of Nature as possessing the “unnatural” qualities of, as Morton puts it:

“…hierarchy, authority, harmony, purity, neutrality, and mystery.” (Morton, 3)

An interesting facet of this portrayal of the natural world in this context is that Malick uses a similarly sweeping, grandiose visual style in the way he presents human life, intercutting shots of grand, wilderness vistas with similarly filmed scenes of children playing and dancing, a husband and wife having an argument, a small 1950’s neighborhood, etc, as if to suggest that the conception of Nature as a pure, colossal mystery is something to be found in the daily life of human beings, as if children running though a suburban street is symbolically on par with the epic, inhuman enigma of the universe itself.



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The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Malcolm Holmes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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