An Unanswerable Question: What is Natural?

Question: What is natural? This is something I would much rather discuss around a campfire or on a porch than type out here, but I will try my best.

Without rushing to a dictionary, electronic or otherwise, I think it may mean to exist in an uninhibited state.  But uninhibited by what? By everything and anything? That just sounds silly and impossible. By humans or invasive species? Some might say those can be the same thing. Maybe to see something exist in its natural state is simply to see it evolve and interact with its surroundings as it would have, had the environment in which it exists stayed as stable as possible.  And by “stable,” I suppose I mean without stressors so extreme that would produce an irreversible or unrecoverable change for that environment or species. For example, a forest fire, though devastating, can be healthy for an environment. An expansive suburban development, if not planned properly, can destroy a local ecosystem in exchange for a new one of lawn ornaments and squirrels.

That definition is far from perfect and mostly likely flawed, but let’s roll with it for now.

Being outdoors enthusiasts, we protect forests, streams, animals and ecosystems. At the same time, we try to find that balance which allows us to enjoy these wonderful resources. A balance that seeks responsible usage.  We protect by stabilizing stream beds, lighting controlled burns, establishing size and permit limits for fishing and hunting, and controlling and eliminating invasive species that can decimate local flora and fauna.

Being human, we explore, build, expand, consume, question and experiment. This is our nature. Personally, I think there is value in considering to what extent we do each of these things. We can’t avoid impacting our environment, because we too are an integral piece of the puzzle. However, because I enjoy our outdoor world, I support preservation and protection of it so that it can be enjoyed by all for as long as possible.

It is common knowledge among trout anglers that some of the United States’ trout streams hold species that have been introduced “unnaturally”. In some cases, these species have monopolized the stream and lake populations. On a recent trip to Minnesota’s Driftless Area, I spoke with Justin Carroll of the blog Winona Fly Factory and a fellow Trout Unlimited member about the native brooke trout population in his location that has, in certain areas, been shrinking because of competition with both brown and rainbow trout. He told me about a proposed initiative using genetics to find the local strain of brookie that is closest to the historical species of SE Minnesota and attempt to reintroduce it as the sole trout/char inhabitant of some of the local streams. He anecdotally shared a story of early colonial literature and Native American documentation speaking of 3-5lb brook trout that once lived in the area…. I salivated, hoping it was true.

When I think of America’s greatest outdoor resources, Yellowstone National Park (YNP) is definitely at the top of my list. I’ve been to YNP once in my life, but I have never fished it. One of the things I appreciated most about YNP, a park that is synonymous with the American Wild West, is the combination of accessibility and preservation of some of the parks greatest sights. Even people who are wheelchair bound or don’t have the energy to hike long distances have access to the grand views, buffalo, geysers, waterfalls, and more.

When a park like Yellowstone has so much to share and at the same time, so much traffic, it takes more effort to preserve its “natural” state. (There is irony somewhere in that statement.) Because YNP is an icon of The West, I believe it is worth investigating how to preserve every aspect it. The same is true and equally important with the park’s trout population.

Nature has its own way of establishing a balance between its species, but when one species is disproportionately decreased, the entire ecosystem can be tipped off its axis. Restoring healthy populations of native species in places like YNP, just as was done with the wolf, allows the entire ecosystem to flourish and creates that “stability” which is so important in a place as beautiful and unique as YNP.

Down the road, when I am old and gray and thinking of my natural role as an outdoorsman, I would like to be able to say that the places I have fished, though they may not necessarily be the same, are just as healthy and productive as they were when I enjoyed them. I can only hope that I live up to this level of stewardship and pass it on to my future generations.

So, what is natural? *nervous chuckle*….. All I know is I want to protect the things I love, whether that is my wife, the ornery cat that lives with us, the Chesapeake Bay out my window, or the trout over in Yellowstone and Birstol Bay, and that feels pretty natural to me. So maybe that is it. For me, natural is that feeling as much as it is a thing. Similar to a conscience telling me I am existing in balance with those around me.

“This is my submission for the Trout Unlimited, Simms, the Yellowstone Park Foundationand the Outdoor Blogger Network – Blogger Tour 2012 contest.”

Author: D Nash

Family. Fly fishing. Music.

12 thoughts on “An Unanswerable Question: What is Natural?”

  1. A good question for sure…what is “natural”? It is tough when we are to blame tipping an entire ecosystem off its “axis”, hopefully we learn sooner rather than later that retroactive conservation doesn't work (in most cases).

    Great entry, I hope that this piece of writing finds you west this summer. Good luck!


  2. Exactly. it is one of those ” you don't know what you have until it's gone situations” with regard to retroactive conservation. It may be all a bit more complicated than my mind can handle. I'll keep working on processing it though. I hope I make it west as well. It is a long shot for many reasons. Still worth shooting for 🙂


  3. I loved following your thoughts on this one…”For me, natural is that feeling as much as it is a thing. Similar to a conscience telling me I am existing in balance with those around me.” Brilliantly done and I echo Sanders…hope this finds you westward.


  4. A thoughtful piece, with eternal questions. Those above have said it better than I. I'll just go with “good luck in the contest.”


  5. thanks mike. its funny, even as I read it again, it makes me uneasy because I feel leave a lot unsaid. maybe I should have picked a different approach to the contest 🙂


  6. An interesting, thought-provoking, well-written piece — and a question I have often pondered. The closest I have come to defining “natural” is to be unaffected by artificial, societal-created controls and influences . . . where healthy ecosystems still function as they are meant to function. However, I can now shoot all kinds of holes in that, and arguably there is nowhere left on this planet that is not influenced by humans one way or another; and some level of human influence has always been natural — or has it? Even having the term “natural” in our language shows that, to some extent, we have rendered “natural” as an abstract; something we see as separate and distinct from ourselves and strive to maintain some level of control over. It's enough to drive one naturally crazy, and I think you are correct that it'd be best discussed around a campfire. Regardless, I think you are right on concluding that protecting the things we love — including clear, clean rivers and wild trout — feels right and is right. For me, it just seems the “natural” thing to do.


  7. David – thank you for stopping by. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts. I had a hard time deciding how I wanted to write for the TU/Simms/OBN contest, but I am happy the way it turned out. “protecting the things we love — including clear, clean rivers and wild trout — feels right and is right.” ….. Stated perfectly 🙂


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