I was at a dinner party the other day when I overheard one of the guests describing a living room in disparaging terms because it was too filled with chintz. I have to admit it’s not a fabric I spend much time considering, nor before writing this post even knew anything about (except that it can induce migraine when used as a wall covering). Chintz was originally a woodblock printed, painted or stained calico produced in India from 1600 to 1800 and popular there for bed covers, quilts and draperies. By 1600, Portuguese and Dutch traders were bringing examples of Indian chintz into Europe. These early fabrics were extremely expensive and rare. Like tulips and sea shells of about the same time, by 1680 more than a million bolts of chintz were being imported into England per year, and a similar quantity was going to France and Holland. With imported chintz becoming so popular in Europe during the late 17th century, French and English mills grew concerned, as they could not make the fabric. To protect local producers, the French government enacted a law banning it. Between 1686 and 1759 only courtiers at Versailles were permitted to wear it, even in private.
Why should this fabric have been so popular? Of course, scarcity has to have had something to do with it. Only those with sufficient wealth (or credit) were able to afford the immense cost of importation. Nevertheless, this is something the Indians chose to make and the Europeans chose to admire and adopt. And, while we may not like chintz en masse the floral icons it portrays are those familiar to us, which we appreciate as reminders of the nature our busy urban lives all too easily leave behind. The elements of this cloth, with its riot of flowers, birds, branches and leaves are still things we connect strongly to.
Carl Jung (1875-1961), the famous Swiss psychologist and philosopher, believed that we all channel unconscious archetypes that deeply effect our behavior. Archetypes are inborn, primordial structures that lie deeply within the collective unconscious (that aspect of the human psyche that transcends personal experience) extending into the wider realms of culture and nature. To Jung, the collective unconscious is an ancient and shared repository of trans-personal archetypal structures where we are most connected with nature. Jung calls archetypes “inherited patterns of behavior”, which are exhibited in our instinctual responses to the natural world:
Well, you know what a behavior pattern is. The way in which, say a weaver bird builds his nest. That is an inherited form in him which he will apply. Or certain sorts of symbiotic phenomena between insects and plants. They are inherited patters of behavior. And man, of course, has an inherited scheme of functioning too. His liver, his heart, all his organs, and his brain will always function in a certain way, each following its pattern. You would have great difficulty in seeing it because we cannot compare it with anything… Yet it is quite certain that man is born with a certain way of functioning, a certain pattern of behavior, and that is expressed in the form of archetypal images. (1977, p. 292).
When we look at a nest, we see both the individual nest, with all its individuality, as well as the archetypal nest, averaged and perfected by a universal form. The result is that it’s difficult look at any nest without being drawn into its emotive archetype: our concept of the “universal nest”, along with all the feelings that nests in general evoke in us. Archetypal images in nature appear everywhere we look, so it’s difficult to separate archetypes from the natural world. This is arguably why our depictions of nature have universal appeal, even across the very different cultures who have created them. The Lascaux Caves and similar sites are the earliest examples we have of nature illustrations, from around 35,000 years ago. The horses, deer and wild cattle speak to us today at a high level in perhaps the same way they did to the original artists and viewers: animals as part of our lives for food, utility and deeply integrated with our environment. Depictions of lotuses from Ancient Egypt may no longer have religious significance they did when the Egyptians connected them to Osiris, but appreciation for their beauty was the same as when Monet painted them at Giverny.
Many authors have addressed the need for a connection to nature as part of the human condition. It seems need contact with nature for proper maturation and societies need that connection to address systemic problems such as crime. The Outdoor Foundation publishes the American Camper Report every year and in 2013 it showed that 40.1 million Americans, or 14 percent of the US population over age six, went camping. Combine that with the 51.3 million Americans who report that they watch birds and, even considering overlap between these two activities, represents a huge number. Finally, add in the 42 million households that are reported by the National Gardening Association to have gardens every year and it almost half the country falls into at least one of these categories.
Last week, representatives of 195 nations reached a landmark accord that will, for the first time, commit nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. It’s still very early (and might be too late) but perhaps that universal understanding of the value of nature – the same nature that saddles us with ugly wall coverings – might finally help us steward our very finite planet in a more responsible way.