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10 Thoughts to Explore About Nature

A close-up photo of curling leaves | Joey Kyber / Unsplash

As part of UCLA’s centennial celebration, the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture is holding a series of conversations called 10 Questions: Centennial Edition. Every Tuesday evening for ten weeks, experts from diverse disciplines are exploring answers to some of life’s biggest questions, including “What Is Community?,” “What Is Citizenship?,” and coming up next week “What is Creativity?” The discussions, held at Kaufman Hall on UCLA’s campus, are open to community members, free with RSVP. Can’t attend? We’ll be sharing weekly highlights.

What is nature? On Tuesday, November 11, Victoria Marks, professor of choreography and associate dean of academic affairs for the UCLA School of Art and Architecture, moderated a talk that featured Evan Meyer, botanist and assistant director of UCLA’s Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden; Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, disability justice and culture expert, bioethicist, and humanities scholar; and Rebeca Méndez, a designer and artist whose work addresses climate change. Here are ten ideas that came up during the discussion.

1. Today, about 25% of the earth’s land is considered wilderness — but that doesn’t mean those places are pristine. Evan Meyer  explained that humans have subtle impacts even on places that are still wild, and we can see those effects in things like air pollution. He said, “When smog goes up in the air, it has to come back down. It comes back down and changes the ecology of those areas. So these areas, although they are important and should be preserved, they're not untouched by humans.”

2. Seed banks are an effort to preserve biodiversity in ex situ (off-site) collections. Before coming to UCLA, Meyer managed Rancho Santa Ana Seed Bank, the world's largest collection of living seeds of rare and endangered California plants. He said, “These freezers are full of the rare and endangered flora of California, and in these freezers you can keep seeds alive for hundreds of years under the right conditions. Many of the plants maintained here represent places that no longer exist.” Those places may now be a Walmart parking lot or a shopping center, but the plants that once lived there could be used to re-diversify future landscapes.

3. In previous centuries, the phrase “freak of nature” had positive connotations.  Rosemarie Garland-Thomson said, “Freak was not imagined as something abnormal, but rather as a demonstration of divine variation and the power that the divine or superstition may have had to create these amazing and interesting different rare forms.” She shared images of Matthias Buchinger, a German man born without arms or legs in the 17th century. Today, he would’ve been considered to have a congenital disability or some kind of deformation, but back then, he was understood as a wonder. He became a famous calligrapher, marksman, and entertainer.

Matthias Buchinger, a phocomelic, with thirteen scenes representing his performances. | Wellcome Images
Matthias Buchinger, a phocomelic, with thirteen scenes representing his performances. | Wellcome Images

4. People recognize the importance of genetic diversity to plant and animal species, but it’s harder for them to grasp that it matters for humans, too.  Garland-Thomson referred to the controversy around editing human genes, and said, “I think a lot about what it will be like when human variation is smoothed out, and what it will be like for all of us when we end up being almost all the same — and what we’ll lose.” Returning to the topic later in the evening, she added, “I think it’s very interesting that the rationale for biodiversity conservation in the plant and animal world is so intuitive to us and it makes so much sense to support it. But when we think about biodiversity conservation in the human world, that's very counterintuitive. It's hard to wrap our heads around the argument for why we should have huge variation in human form and capacity.”

5. The relationship between artists and nature could be problematic.  Rebeca Méndez showed the Ansel Adams photo, “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine.” In the darkroom, he removed the letters LP—for Lone Pine—from the side of the mountain to make the image look more natural. She described this action as “suppressing the local specificity and the factual historicity of the image in pursuit of the pure eternal idea of nature.”

Ansel Adams and Camera | Photo of Ansel Adams by J. Malcolm Greany, 1950
Read the Story of Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine | Photo of Ansel Adams by J. Malcolm Greany, 1950

6. The urge to migrate is a way of evolutionary preservation. Méndez shared a video piece from her CircumSolar Migration series, depicting seabirds migrating over the ocean. For the video, she used a low framerate and shifted the horizon 90 degrees, creating an image that looks more like the flow of code in “The Matrix” than birds in flight. “With this work, I reflect on how we as human species no longer have an understanding of our place within the great scheme of life.”

7. Despite technological advances, we are nowhere near being able to restore damaged environments. When an audience member asked if we’d be able to save lost biodiversity by 3D printing organisms, Meyer expressed his doubts. “It's just so complicated, and there's so many interactions. There's biological interactions, but also interactions with the environment, with weather, with geology…” said Meyer, “There's a lot of places in the world that have been totally scraped of their natural vegetation and wildlife, and then people tried to rebuild it, and you never really get back what you had before. It's very difficult. So I think we should keep working on it, but I'm not confident that we'll be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

8. “Nature is not fragile at all. Humans are screwed. Nature could care less about us.” Méndez said when an audience member asked a question about the fragility of nature, “Nature is beginning to just show its force, and yes, species will fall here and there, but really it's for our own survival that we should pay attention, because we are really the ones that will be on the chopping board.” She finds it amazing that humans still believe they can control nature, and said, “What is wrong with us humans? Nature is wild.”

9. Nature will change, but it’s not going away. Meyer said, “Nature is incredibly resilient, and it finds a way no matter where. We haven't even talked about timescales, but a billion years ago, it was just single-cell life on the earth, and where are we going to be a billion years from now? I'm sure nature will still be here on earth, and I'm sure it will be beautiful and interesting.”

10. Méndez had the last words of the evening, which seemed directed at the many UCLA students in the audience, since their generation will be responsible for what happens to this planet in the future. “Greta [Thurnburg] is the spark. We are the wildfire.”

Top Image: A close-up photo of curling leaves | Joey Kyber / Unsplash 

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