How Nature Became The Ultimate Muse Again

By Angelica Frey

What do De Beers, Nikon, Away, and even Sweetgreen all have in common? In the last year, they all set out to campaign against artifice. 

Nikon and Away decided to take a stand against AI: Nikon urged us “[not to] give up on the real world,” and Away purposely used AI in its ads to spotlight its stark limitations. However, De Beers, the diamond conglomerate responsible for making engagement rings a life-defining status symbol, launched a  2023 campaign to make a more direct connection to its top-tier jewels. Using the tagline “Nature’s Mic Drop,” the brand promoted its usage of natural diamonds as opposed to their chemically and physically identical lab-grown counterparts. 

Culturally, we’re in the midst of technophobic romanticism. Brands like the Utah-based influencer and homesteader Ballerinafarm make ranch tending (and selling meat-subscription packages) an aspirational aesthetic thanks to the stunning and clever use of photography and cinematography.

Nature is having a moment. Not because social media and AI are beckoning us hither. Because Nature is the 2020’s cultural and commercial Muse. 

Not Just to be Gawked At: The History of the Muse as a Teacher

In Lara Vapnyar’s 2006 novel Memoir of a Muse, the protagonist Tanya immigrates to the United States following the fall of the Soviet Union with the main aspiration of becoming the writer’s Muse — an ideal her mother had instilled by imprinting in her the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky. 

This delightful book is satire, but it exemplifies the biggest misconception surrounding the Muse as a concept — and it’s a trap marketers, creatives, and brands fall into time and again: The Muse is not just a pretty thing, able to passively steer literary minds, auteur directors, fashion designers, and lifestyle creators in equal measure. (Think Jane Birkin as she crashed the idyllic vacation of Romy Schneider and Alain Delon in La Piscine.). It is not merely her beauty that inspires, but her wisdom.

Originally, Muses were a source of wisdom that inspired writers and artists because they instilled in them the knowledge and skills to perform their tasks. The root word of “Muse” is the Indo-European *men/mon/mn, which you can see in words like memory, mantra, and mind. 

The origin of the Muses as deities is debated, but canonically, they’re the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and preside over the arts. Poets relied on them. Homer asks one to “sing” for him about the wrath of Achilles in the opening of the Iliad, and to “relate” to him the ever-wandering multi-witted  Odysseus in the opening of The Odyssey. Hesiod, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton follow in these footsteps, signaling their kinship to a millenary literary tradition. A “Museum,” an institution first established in the 3rd century BC was, originally, a shrine to the Muses that also doubled as a repository of art and knowledge (or vice versa?).

The Muse and the Creator have a symbiotic relationship: without the “Muse” being the oral tradition that constituted the basis of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the poet we know as Homer would not have been able to weave together either epic poem.

Creativity is borne not in a vacuum but from a dialogue rooted in memory. Regardless of the exact beliefs, Muses are repositories of memory and knowledge, acting as a teacher and a blueprint. 

The Greeks revered the Muses so much there were cults devoted to them. They held festivals in their honor, and contests between those skilled in song and writercraft. One can blame Christianity for downgrading the Muse to a passive object of artistic adoration, first in courtly poetry and romances, then in the visual arts.

Think of Dante’s Beatrice, Botticelli’s Simonetta Vespucci, and Lizzie Siddal for the Pre-Raphaelites. And sure, relying on a deity to find creative inspiration does, indeed, sound very pagan or demonic. In a 1928 ballet by Stravinsky titled Apollo Musagete, Apollo is the one teaching them their arts, even though they are repositories of knowledge in their own regard.  Some managed to transfer the reverence to the Muse as a repository of knowledge elsewhere. For instance, in the 16th century, Flemish draftsman Joris Hofnagel coined the motto natura magistra — “nature is the teacher of the art” — to better state his interest in the realistic depiction of nature. Amsterdam’s zoo, known as Artis, is actually named Natura Artis Magistra.

In 2020, Natura magistra seems the guiding principle of the culture across industries.

Nature’s Return in Scenes

We live in a technologically advancing age, and, despite the subpar performance of metaverse spaces that were universally ridiculed after the downfall of the crypto market post-pandemic, generative art is making tremendous progress. Yet a yearning for nature permeates subcultures, lifestyle, food, and fashion.  

The most apparent space for this is in the -cores, a suffixation of aesthetic categories popularized in the late 2010s and that reached critical mass (or oversaturation) in the 2020s. Cottagecore romanticizes countryside or bucolic living, with fashions that are the antithesis of sleek, urban, and corporate uniforms. They run the gamut from modest, yet hyper-feminine mid-century silhouettes to fieldwork-appropriate work garments, and, depending on your inclination, take cue from anywhere between the Japanese and the Norwegian countryside. 

Gorpcore, which derives its name from the colloquial term for trail mix, popularized wearing utilitarian, technical, outdoor-fit gear. It was an evolution of streetwear calling for a nature-inspired and rugged look, and unlike the other -cores, it lacks the whimsy and escapist element, unless you count your yearning for nature as escapism. Staples include cargo pants, technical jackets, and layers. In the past few years, the designs have become sleeker, the colors Prada-like (rust, goldenrod, olive green). These -cores succeeded so that smaller, memified subcores could succeed: Barbiecore, Clowncore, Mermaidcore; and many, many others failed. They’ve become full-fledged subcultures, and it’s because they’re interlocked with nature as opposed to something as ephemeral as a meme or popular media.

Nature, and naturalism, are dictating food and health trends. On the health and nutrition front, alternative nutrition has extended its reach beyond conspiracists and into the mainstream. One of the best-known banes of alternative nutrition is the umbrella term “seed oils,” which include canola, sunflower, soybean, peanut, rice bran and “vegetable” (usually just another name for soybean, in this context) oil. Seed oils, the reasoning goes, require significant chemical interventions, the use of high heat, colorants, and deodorants. There are apps like Seed Oil Scout, chains like Springbone Chicken, and now the office-lunch mainstream spot Sweetgreen has said goodbye to seed oils for its lemon dressing. It usually starts with shock jock or alternative spaces: Joe Rogan’s podcast or the Weston Price Foundation’s podcast “Wise Traditions,” which idealizes the diet of pre-industrial, non-Western civilization for optimal dental health. You can see it in women’s health spaces too: the first time I was fed an anti-birth-control narrative was not via obscure, hippie literature, but via a former barre teacher at a Brooklyn Equinox. And now, normie influencers partnering with Gen-Z-friendly fashion retailer Revolve also caution you against “suppressing your hormones.” 

We saw a similar trend pattern when, after the plant-based milk predominance of the 2010s, people began to rediscover whole milk. “Cow's milk is back. Hot girls are ditching the alternatives and are going back to basics. I can tell you this because I make coffee three mornings out of the week in Manhattan on an hourly dime,” tweeted photographer and waitress Meetka Otto on August 1, 2021.

Most plant milk, the reasoning goes, is heavily processed and full of additives for them to have the thickness and frothiness of cow milk, which counteract most supposed benefits of lactose avoidance. 

Fashion’s antithesis to the myriads of -cores appears to be a rediscovery of 1980s-era “typing” schemes, where a series of tests administered by image consultants could, among other things, determine your best “natural” attributes. This is the case of David Kibbe’s typing, which studies a person’s balance between Yin and Yang to determine what clothes best naturally complement one’s body; of Color Seasons, which studies your colors in terms of hue (cool-warm) value (deep-light) and chroma (soft-bright) to determine your best natural color palette; then there’s John Kitchener’s “style essences” which resemble Kibbe’s method but study one’s face rather than one’s body. 

On one hand, the revival of these methods, which all went viral on TikTok in the aftermath of the pandemic, seems to stem from trend exhaustion and to encourage people to break free from the fast-fashion cycle. In theory, once you know “your colors” and “your lines,” you’ll build your wardrobe more efficiently. However, it’s easy to notice how prescriptive these categories can be. As the podcast Nymphet Alumni posited in its “Beauty Pseudoscience” episode, what could have started as a legitimate reaction to the never-ending cycle of trend and some of the most extreme drifts of body positivity, actually ended up being more limiting (and maybe even more harmful) than good. “It’s a reaction to self-deprecation and self-destructive behavior. It makes people pretty judgemental,” one of the co-hosts, Alexi Alario, assessed.

But hey, we all like being sorted into categories and, in the case of Future Commerce, Archetypes. As a Sage, I seek knowledge and I am naturally drawn to taxonomizing and analyzing things I observe, and this is why you are reading all of this.

Much to my chagrin, there’s a place where all this love for prescriptive beauty, a rejection of artifice in all of its forms, and ancestral living coalesce and make it reach critical mass, and that place is not Ballerinafarm’s ranch in Utah. It’s a small neighborhood in New York City colloquially known as Dimes Square, which occupies the Easternmost part of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, along the East Broadway stop. The space went from being the purview of gallerists and fashion insiders in the early 2010s to a heterodox cultural space that became a beacon of counterculture. 

Contentious podcasts like Red Scare, which first became popular for sneering at cultural tenets of the 2010s, such as Brooklyn witchcraft stores and the now disgraced coworking space The Wing, managed to reach audiences around the world (their subreddit now has more than 100,000 subscribers) and popularize perhaps reactionary beauty standards, (body positivity was and remains one of the banes of their show) an ironic version of Trad Life, an aversion to hormonal birth control, and alternative diets such as raw milk, no seed oils, and the wisdom of some guy called Ray Peat, the proponent of the bioenergetic theory of health. I think I first heard about seed oils, Kibbe, and even Ray Peat from them.

Nature is not trad; it’s not dowdy. It’s countercultural. 

Nature as a Conduit to World Building

Nature as a Muse is also a helpful tool for worldbuilding, providing underlying lore and vocabulary (visual, auditory, olfactive, and tactile) to your brand. 

Take a cue from video games. In the past six years, the most popular video games all put nature and the environment front and center. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the 2017 title Zelda’s Breath of the Wild (and its sequel Tears of the Kingdom). The quaint Medieval Hyrule of 1998’s Ocarina of Time and the gritty landscape of Twilight Princess gave way to a world where civilization has waned and where the natural world took over. 

You can choose to just focus on the main tasks of the game to go straight to the final boss or you can devote hundreds of hours to the exploration of the sprawling world map. The ambient-infused soundtrack replaced the symphonic score of the older chapters, and it perfectly serenades you as you move your first step on the majestic Hyrule Plateau and discover the autumnal idyll of the Akkala Highlands, the tropical paradise of Lurelin Village, and the imposing Dueling Peaks. It’s quite telling to see that the first time we see the title screen in-game is when Link ventures onto the Plateau and stops to take in the sights, in a composition that is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” 

This world-building allowed gamers both seasoned and semi-casual to approach this title with a pure sense of wonder. Unlike, say, the script-heavy Final Fantasy saga, you could ignore the actual lore and just explore (and bash the obligatory monsters).

Granted, you don’t need a full suite of visual and auditory stimuli to build a world.

On the olfactive side, perfumer DS & Durga built its world well: their tagline is “Perfume as Armchair Travel,” and, in the past five years, they expanded from Americana (as immortalized in their sadly discontinued fragrance Poppy Rouge) and European nostalgia (smelled in their Siberian Snow, now modernized in Amber Teutonic) into an exploration of the wonders of the world through scents. You can tailor your shopping to whatever destination calls to you: do you want to visit a forest? Jazmin Yucatan has “jungle, humidity, snake plants, jazmín yucateco, crocodile by the cenote, shaded temple, limestone ruins.” Do you want to metaphorically visit the East Coast? Rose Atlantic conveys “Spritzers aboard the famous Salt Spray Rose. Sinatra’s summer wind, dunegrass in the distance, rosehip, the white lighthouse.” 

Even when the brand is yourself, you can build a nature-driven and expansive world. Think of Jamie Beck, who first rose to fame in the early 2010s with her Tumblr “From Me to You” as the photographer who best captured the opulent, nostalgia-laden millennial aesthetic and who, alongside her husband Kevin Burg, developed the cinemagraph, which is basically a high-res version of an animated GIF. They went on to shoot campaigns for the likes of Cartier, Bergdorf, Chanel, and Armani. Once they relocated to Provence between 2016 and 2017, Beck’s eye turned to the Mediterranean landscape surrounding her new home. But it did not become the core of her art until 2020, when, upon losing her commercial clients, she turned to her surroundings, posting floral compositions and landscapes titled “Isolation Creations.” Her style teeters between impressionistic when shooting landscapes and 16th-century, Flemish-Renaissance-like when shooting still-life compositions. 

Beck also built the world of her personal brand by promoting and collaborating with local, high-end brands, including the couture-like linen creations of Luxe Provence, the luxurious beauty line Bella Figura (now Casa Brava), known for its rose-infused body oil, and the St. Remy-based vineyard Domaine Milan. In parallel to that, she published two books celebrating the beauty of Provence: An American in Provence (2022) and its follow-up The Flowers of Provence (2023). She also sells her original photography as prints, as polaroids, and as phone cases. The bulk of her work is no longer her client work, but her collaborations with brands that specifically seek her aesthetic, her vision, and being part of her world. 

A similar ethos permeates Flamingo Estate, a three-year-old brand specializing in home goods and pantry staples that made tomato the most coveted scent for home fragrances after introducing its tomato candle. Between its tagline, “The Best of Mother Nature,” its cornucopia-adjacent CSA boxes, and its use of scents like olive tree, rosemary, sage, and, of course, tomato, the brand conveys the prosperity of a sprawling Roman-era or Tuscan estate. It’s actually a seven-acre villa located in the Los Angeles area and partners with local farms. 

“Mother Nature is the greatest luxury house, and we are selling her goods,” Founder Richard Christiansen told Harper’s Bazaar. “At its core, we try to bring the design acumen and style and thoughtfulness to the garden — which is something that hasn’t really happened before.” 

In terms of botanical-scented candles, there are indeed stronger players (look no further than Carrière Frères), but Flamingo Estate’s marketing is so brilliantly executed that they can convince you to purchase an $80 bag of manure: that’s what they did last year, around the holidays. 

So, did nature as a Muse herald a new monoculture? No, don’t worry!

The fact that the only -cores with any promise of longevity (Cottagecore and Gorpcore) are the ones that use nature as a Muse, and the fact that nature can provide a cogent, undergirding narrative, signals a reaction to the trend cycle and extreme fragmentation of online cultures. However, I do not think this is the death knell of different internet aesthetics.

It just provides an alternative tune, just like when abstract modernism existed alongside 20th-century neoclassicism, just like when flapper dresses were worn side by side with the robes de style. 

The more decentralized realities succeed in creating pockets of taste and subculture, the more our commerce and culture will remain rich and manifold. Using nature as a Muse and inspiration counterbalances, without stifling, our kaleidoscopic cultural landscape.

Angelica Frey
Writer, Self-Employed

Angelica Frey is a writer, researcher and translator based between Boston and Milan. She co-writes the disco-music newsletter