Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Mother Nature

with 6 comments

A steelhead attempting to jump over some rapid...
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I moan a lot about the way people use language (you hadn’t noticed?) and so I’m always interested to read about other people’s moans. Here’s a thought-provoking complaint from Guy Keleny writing in The Independent‘s corrections column:

Wonders of Nature: The caption to last Saturday’s Picture of the Day began like this: “The sight of bears lurking in the shallows for salmon as the fish swim upstream to spawn is one of the best known of Nature’s annual spectacles, but no less mesmerising for that.”

This reads like the commentary of a wildlife documentary film from the 1950s. These days, we do not personify Nature as some kind of Hollywood Homeric goddess whose business is to lay on mesmerising spectacles for the amusement and edification of the human race.

Hmmm. I don’t know about you, but I mostly disagree with Guy. Does the caption suggest the personification of nature? And if so, does it additionally suggest that the business of nature is to ‘lay on mesmerising spectacles’ for us? I’d say not.

However (you knew that was coming), I say ‘mostly’ disagree because I note (as no doubt did Guy) that ‘nature’ in the caption is capitalised. This is, of course, suggestive of ‘Mother Nature’. And thereby hangs a tale.

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines ‘Mother Nature’ as:

Nature personified as a creative and controlling force affecting the world and humans.

A number of feminist writers have analysed the term ‘Mother Nature’ which has been in use since the early 17th century. In her book, Womanwords,  Jane Mills quotes, among others, Dorothy Dinnerstein:

The mother, then — like nature, which sends blizzards and locusts as well as sunshine and strawberries — is perceived as capricious, sometimes actively malevolent.

… if we could outgrow our feeling that the first parent was semi-human, a force of nature, we might also be able to outgrow the idea that nature is semi-human, and our parent.

I’m guessing this is not the exact reason behind Guy Keleny’s objection to the personification of nature, but the feminist perspective is nonetheless interesting to consider.

Am I allowed to say that? A no-nonsense guide to politically correct language


6 Responses

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  1. But, Deborah, why need there be a feminist perspective at all? The female personification of nature pre-dates feminism by a millennium or several.

    I think Keleny is right to object. “Nature” – even, god help us “Mother Nature” – is an outmoded concept, just as we no longer sacrifice some poor fool who found a dried bean in his dinner and thought that made him king (it did, very briefly!), to encourage “Nature” to do the decent thing and push the sun up the sky to bring Spring.

    In this context, some bears have learned, during their evolution, that pigging out on salmon in shallow rivers is a far better, and easier, way of piling on the pre-hibernation pounds than eating nuts and berries. Tastier, too.

    No Mother Nature giving them a nudge in the right direction – just the same innate inquisitiveness that led some adventurous soul, back in the mists of time, to open that first, extremely unpromising oyster, or lobster, to see if there was anything edible inside.


    13/10/2010 at 8:34 am

    • Hi, Ron — many thanks for your very interesting comments. I agree that Guy is right to criticise the concept of ‘Nature as some kind of Homeric Hollywood goddess’, but I think the example he picks is a little weak — not quite illustrative of his point.


      13/10/2010 at 9:04 am

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sandra Lee, Deborah Bennison. Deborah Bennison said: Mother Nature: http://wp.me/pFKkP-1ko […]

    • Many thanks, Sandra — I do appreciate the ‘free publicity’ you give me!


      13/10/2010 at 9:05 am

  3. My objection to the caption is not so much the unnecessary capitalization or any perceived personification as the triteness.

    I wouldn’t call a “sight” a “spectacle.” I wouldn’t repeat “salmon” and “fish.” I have no idea — and neither does the writer — whether salmon-catching bears is one of nature’s best-known annual spectacles. Are there surveys of such things?

    And, while I love nature, I wouldn’t be so mesmerized by the spectacle that I wouldn’t TV-channel-flip right by it on my way to something baser. Anyone who was mesmerized by the spectacle in the wild would be unwise to stand slack-jawed by feeding grizzlies.

    No, it’s a caption written without much thought or effort.

    Michael Farrell

    13/10/2010 at 3:27 pm

    • Hi, Michael — you’re absolutely right on all counts, of course. Lazy, lazy stuff.

      By the way, some sort of survey was carried out a while back. About five per cent of the respondents admitted to standing slack-jawed and mesmerised while watching grizzlies trying to catch salmon and fish in the wild. A follow-up survey was attempted of this sub-group, but very few could be tracked down second time round. Not sure why.


      13/10/2010 at 3:55 pm

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