Early on in the play, Faust conceives of nature as posing the ultimate mysteries to the human mind, mysteries that he is hell-bent on solving. He desires to learn what binds the universe together in the very depths of its being, and to contemplate all the forces that move the heavens and the earth. To this end, he summons the Earth Spirit, a personification of nature who explicitly symbolizes the constant changes of the natural world, day and night, summer and winter, life and death, ebb and flow. In short, the Spirit symbolizes the macrocosm in which human beings live and act, and is the changing expression of the eternal will of God. The Spirit judges Faust unworthy of forming a pact with him, however, as the magician is first too frightened and then too arrogant. And so it is that Faust instead contracts himself to Mephistopheles, who, in contrast to the Earth Spirit, is sarcastic and shallow, skeptical and negative.
Nonetheless, nature provides Faust with his moments of most sensitive feeling and deepest enjoyment, as in the “Forest and Cave” scene of Part I. After he has fallen in love with Margarete (significantly in a garden, the environment where nature harmonizes with human artifice), Faust himself thanks the Earth Spirit for both teaching him to know his fellow creatures and revealing him to his own self—even for teaching him that nothing perfect can ever be man’s. Nature, then, also comes to symbolize the joy one can experience in understanding the whole of which one is a part, as well as the joy one can experience in acting within one’s limitations. Faust may not be able to become a god, but he can achieve the humbler transformation of falling in love with another person, thanks to the erotic urges with which nature endows human beings.
It is not until the end of the play, however, that Faust both fully understands and can act harmoniously with nature. This is embodied by his great project of creating new lands by artificially driving the sea back upon itself, much as God made dry ground appear as distinct from the formless sea on the third day of Biblical creation. Nature becomes, at last, the aged Faust’s motive and joy, the canvas that both limits his imagination but which also empowers him to create, and the abundance that sustains the kingdom and society he builds.