It’s Only Natural: Nature as “Thou” Versus Nature as “It”


By Richard Gambino

In 1923, Martin Buber wrote what has become a classic book on relationships between persons, and of the stances of people toward each other and toward God. I assigned the work many times to college students, and the great majority of them were very “taken with it,” as the saying goes. Buber’s short book is titled, I And Thou. (“Thou” is a very personal version of “you,” but we no longer use the word, as distinct from works written centuries ago, as in, the King James Bible, e.g., “Thou shalt not kill,” and Shakespeare’s works, e.g., “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou, Romeo?”)

When you think of someone as “thou,” you are not considering him or her in a strictly objective way, that is, as an object, as an “it” in an I-it relationship, as you would do, e.g., in doing strict statistics – “You are in one third of the age group of your neighborhood.” Instead, in thinking of someone as a “thou,” we consider him or her as a subject, as a person with the individual characteristics of a person. And when you face a person with your own subjective, personal nature, you have an “I-thou” relationship, as, for example, in a true friendship. Now, we may ask, is it possible to relate to nature in an I-thou relationship, and what does this mean?

Well, suppose we open ourselves to the subjective individual aspects of, say, an animal, a tree, a field, a beach or a mountain. Suppose we open ourselves to the degree of beauty of one of these, that is, to the degree of perfection witnessed in its individual form and/or its functions or activities. Or suppose we open ourselves to the injury or sickness of an animal, or damage to a tree. In both circumstances, we would feel a kinship with it, a “family” sense of life related to life. In opening ourselves to the beauty, or the injury or sickness, of an animal, or damage to a tree — the sympathy regarding the first, and the sadness regarding the other enriches our selves, with each of us feeling as one with other life. And, in such circumstances, we might feel not only sympathy, but we might also have empathy, e.g., actually feeling the pain of an injured animal, and even perhaps this might grow into love for the individual creature. Just ask anyone who has adopted a dog or cat who previously had a painful life.

Similarly, in opening one’s self to all of nature, we invite a feeling of family-like kinship with all of life. The kinship might start with sympathy, then move to empathy, and even eventually to love, of nature. The rewards of this in terms of the greatness of our inner life would approach the religious in quality, thus a famous statement by St. Paul: “So faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Over a long lifetime, I’ve learned the truth of what Wordsworth wrote about the rich quality of life resulting from a love of nature, more than two hundred years ago — it is well worth taking the time to read it carefully today:


For I have learned / To look on nature … / And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts;

a sense sublime … / well pleased to recognize / In nature and the language of the sense / The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being. …

Knowing that Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege, / Through all the years of this our life, to lead

From joy to joy: for she can so inform / The mind that is within us, so impress / With quietness and beauty.


RICHARD GAMBINO was inspired to write these thoughts when he looked up at a tree that towers over his home.


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Gavin Menu is the sports editor, advertising director and co-publisher of The Sag Harbor Express and Express Magazine. Reach him at