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Nakedness and Nature
Nakedness and Nature
We say "nakedness is natural", but have
we begun to think through all that means?
It is so basic. A human being is an innocent part of nature. Our
civilization has distorted this universal quality that allows us to
feel at home in our skin. Other animals have coats that they accept,
but the human race has yet to come to terms with being nude.
People who like to be naked often call themselves "naturists". The
publications they read often weave "natural" or "nature" into the title. It is
implied that not only is it natural to be naked, but along with
being naked comes a greater closeness to and involvement in the world
of nature. So "naturist" is not an inapt term for people who like to be
naked, although it is less familiar to the general public than the
it can be surprising when we stop to think how many common, familiar
words have the same roots as "nature" and "natural". They are chiefly
words related to birth, such as "nativity", "natal", "nascent", and
From this, somewhat surprisingly, we also have "nation", referring to
the place of one's birth, and "native" for indigenous people. No wonder
naturists say that if we were meant to be naked we would have been
born that way.
Did you notice the "-gen-" in "indigenous"? Words are like living things,
they have an ancestry and family relationships. Linguists long ago
discovered that most European languages and some Asian ones (like
Sanskrit) are all descendants of an ancient common language which has
been called "Indo-European". In the latter, GEN is the root that
is related to the concept of begetting or giving birth. English still
has many words built on that root: things like gene, genetic, genealogy,
gender, genital, genius, ingenuity, progeny, pregnant, generate, genesis,
generous, genial, gentle, genteel, gentry, genuine,
genus, genre, generic, general.
Tellingly, we speak of Mother Nature - acknowledging the feminine quality
of our natural environment. And we also have the slang expression
The human body represents to me the same universal innocence, timelessness
and purity of all seed pods, suggesting the mother as well as the child,
the parental as well as the descendant, conceived according to nature's
Never before did I get so close to Nature; never before did she come so
close to me... Nature was naked, and I was also... Sweet, sane, still
Nakedness in Nature! - ah if poor, sick, prurient humanity in cities might
really know you once more! Is not nakedness indecent? No, not inherently.
It is your thought, your sophistication, your fear, your respectability,
that is indecent. There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only
too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent.
Walt Whitman, A Sun-bathed Nakedness
The idea of "getting back to nature" as a Good Thing is relatively
recent in Western thought. It had its origins in the Romantic movement
and developed during the middle years of the 1800s. At the beginning of
that period, "nature" had rather unfavorable connotations, being the
force that civilization was trying to overcome and rise above. But by
the latter part of the century, the idea had been rehabilitated and
given the positive associations by people like Walt Whitman and
John Muir, which it retains to this day.
Some people, of course, feel that nature is overly sentimentalized,
that the state of nature in which the Noble Savage once lived in
harmony with himself and his environment is just a myth engendered
in the minds of relatively affluent people by
the frustrations of our urban civilization, that it is not now and never
was quite so good as it is made out to be.
Perhaps. It may be a myth. But none of us live without our myths. Like
art, myth is one of the ways we explain us to ourselves. There is
beauty, and truth, as well as pathos in our myths.
Human beings to me are as much a part of nature as trees or birds,
and the unclothed body expresses this belongingness directly and
The body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire
or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one's
flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure glow not
Why be naked in nature? It is, after all, not always convenient or
comfortable. Sometimes the air is too cold, the sun too hot, the
brambles too unforgiving of bare skin, the insects too thirsty for
But still... our skin is our largest sense organ. Wearing clothes when
we don't need them is like wearing a blindfold over our eyes or earplugs
in our ears. We miss so much - the warmth of sunlight, the coolness of
fog or a waterfall's mist, the caress of the breezes, mud between our
toes, a summer rain runneling down our flanks.
Everything has a price; life is full of trade-offs. Like a street vendor
in a middle-eastern bazaar, nature is always offering us incredible
bargains. If we don't want his fine, hand-made pottery today, perhaps
some rare, imported silks... Because he knows we are uniquely able
to appreciate the quality of his wares, he will let us have our choice
for an outrageously low price.
What will we choose, if the only price nature asks today is to give up our
clothes for a few hours or a day? A taste of freedom? An ample boquet of
new sensations? A feeling of connectedness and belongingness to the
Yes, and what if we could afford at times to splurge, to be without our
clothes for whole days all together, even at the price of occasional
discomfort? What then?
By now I was utterly deprogrammed. I walked along naked
usually, clothes being not only putrid but unnecessary. My
skin had been baked a deep terra-cotta brown and was the
constituency of harness leather. The sun no longer
penetrated it. I retained my hat.
Robyn Davidson, Tracks
With a little inner pirouette of excitement I realised just
how much there was to look forward to tomorrow. The thought
of being all day naked in the sun was delicious enough in
itself, but there was the whole of our new world to explore.
Lucy Irvine, Castaway
Nature is not, of course, always benign and beautiful. It can be frightening
and terrifying also. Not too many generations (note: a gen-word)
ago, raw nature and wilderness tended to inspire fear and dread in
"civilized" people. They represented Otherness and the Unknown. That which
is "wild" is also "bewildering".
Today, wilderness is usually considered to be something good and in need
of preservation. The beauty and awesomeness of it dominate our attention.
We are attracted by wilderness, the Otherness of it, the sense
it is something inevitably outside of us. Always beyond us, it is what is
We cannot adequately appreciate this aspect of nature if we approach
it with any taint of human pretense. It will elude us if we allow artifacts
like clothing to intervene between ourselves and this Other.
To apprehend it, we cannot be naked enough.
In wildness is the preservation of the world.
Henry David Thoreau, Walking
Back to Being and Nakedness
Copyright (c) 1997 by Charles Daney, All Rights Reserved
Last updated: October 7, 1997