What is Nature? And Who Gets to Decide?

The names Jens Jenson, John Nolan, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and many others still decorate the street signs, parks, and buildings throughout Madison as a testament to their involvement with how Madison looks today.

These naturalists, environments, landscape architects, poets, heavily influenced the design of outdoor environments on campus and throughout the city of Madison. They also continue to construct the ideas of nature within the minds of University students through the classroom, and American culture before they even step foot on campus. 

The Hudson River School began the romanticization of the seemingly unoccupied landscape. A true American wilderness. In the future American landscapes would continue to be described by poets and naturalists as “untouched” and therefore a place of respite from bustling society. However many of these landscapes were maintained.

The “father” of American landscape architecture Frederick Law Olmsted popularized the picturesque landscape style with its lush homogenous green overlooks and curving pathways. These landscapes were created for people to escape and stay healthy within urban settings. 

His principles continued to influence the style of American landscape architecture today on campus. The picturesque and pastoral style creates an image of nature associated with the romanticization of untouched landscape while still being maintained for people to use. Today his influence can be seen walking through a wooded space along the Lakeshore Nature Path or sitting on the lawn of Bascom Hill. 

Many groups of people, especially Native Americans and Black Americans, have been underrepresented and intentionally excluded in discussions of nature, leaving the dominant understanding to be the same white, Christian romanticized image. In her book Black Faces, White Spaces, Carolyn Finney discusses how Black Americans have been segregated in outdoor spaces, including national parks, and excluded from imagery associated with nature or the outdoors. 

Additionally within Dane County, Aldo Leopold and other famous naturalists romanticized the lack of human influence of prairies and yet these were not only maintained, but a direct consequence of indigenous peoples’ care for the land. Within the campus the effigy mounds which once covered many parts of the campus landscape have since been destroyed from development with only a few remaining.

As the positive influence of nature on mental health has become increasingly evident in combating the mental health crisis, it is vital to acknowledge the impact of the history of UW-Madison’s landscape design on student’s well being. Many of the outdoor spaces on campus have been created by people with a specific understanding of what nature is and what it should look like. Our exploratory work asks students about characteristics of a variety of outdoor locations on UW-Madison’s campus. The variety of spaces included allows a definition of nature which does not exclude natural to only spaces perceived as lacking human influence or maintenance. This puts a focus on understanding what characteristics of a space improves health, without a defined limitation on what a natural or a healthy environment can be.

To learn more about our current research project on Campus Landscape and Undergraduate Mental Health, please read our Project Overview and Blog Post.


By Bri Stevens