This year, the phrase back to nature has officially been around in English print for 100 years and so it seems that the desire to get back to a more simplistic way of life isn’t at all new. In 1915, a journalist for The Oklahoman, a daily newspaper, commented on university students writing: “Some of the more advanced among the Frosch are holding out for ‘Back to Nature’ garb”. (Frosch is an abbreviation of the American slang “freshman”, or first year university student, but may be derived from the German word for frog, which is frosch.) In many ways, life in 1915 seems so much simpler than our own, but apparently it was just not simple enough for some first year students in America.
The term back to nature actually is a variation of the term return to nature, which first appeared in print in 1801. Elihu Palmer, founder of the Deistical Society of New York, wrote The Principles of Nature, or A Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery among the Human Species and in it used the phrase return to nature. When criticizing religion and “shackles of Judaism and Christianity”, he stated: “The remedy consists in a return to nature, and in elevating our views and conceptions above those theological absurdities which have degraded man to a level with the beast”.
For Palmer, the idea of back to nature signified a move away from religious superstition to realize a way of life based on nature and reason. But back to nature has a variety of meanings, depending on a person’s perspective.
In Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us, he presents readers with a fascinating examination of what would happen to the world if the entire human population died out within a matter of days. Starting with the flooding of underground train stations and moving onto the collapse of skyscrapers, Weisman considers if, indeed, the earth could ever hope to go back to nature. The outlook is bleak: environmental damage caused by humans is almost irreversible. Even millions of years in the future traces of toxins in the soil from decomposed materials will still be present and will therefore affect wildlife.
To many of us, back to nature simply describes a desire to escape the stress and noise of modern day life. As people begin to demand organic food, or more eco-friendly and sustainable living environments, it’s become a term often used to advertise natural products or environmental projects.
Thinking about the words of Palmer’s book title, “happiness and misery among the human species”, it’s true that we all need some respite once and a while from the world we have created: hectic lifestyles, polluted environments, fighting justified by religion. No doubt the world also needs some respite from us too, but for now, there is no time to get back to nature – it’s time to get back to reality and carry on working.