Wilderness

Two items from the recent news:

  1. The Obama Administration made a tentative modest proposal to set aside a large chunk of wilderness area in Utah and to designate it as “National Wilderness” or “National Monument” or some such title under some such law in order to protect this wilderness from ruin through exploitation.  It would only increase the size of the protected area that Clinton had already set aside.  You should hear the outcry.  Hordes of people and businesses and large companies cried “outrage,” “Federal Government keep out,” “local control,” “this is OUR land,” “socialism,” etc, etc.  The new designation would not have evicted anyone already living in this wilderness.  It would have restricted the use of ATVs–not eliminated them; it would have restricted the building of new structures, not totally prohibited them.  Most of all it would have prevented the creation of new roads, developments, and exploitation for natural resources like mining and generating plants.  I would have loved to ask these people exactly when did this land become “yours”?  When you stole it from the Native Americans and killed them in the process?
  1. A group of hunters in Alaska, hunting in a helicopter–probably fans of Sarah Palin, who subscribes to such practices–wiped out a pack of wolves.  What actually made this noteworthy is that these poor creatures had been tagged with radio collars.  So it was very easy to track them down–they had not a chance.

These two examples show a certain attitude and relationship to the “wild,” to the wilderness.  It can be characterized by the terms “dominance” and “exploitation.”  Though that is not all that is going on as we shall see–it is a view which is prominent in our culture.   People tend to look at the wilderness as something “to be used”–they will of course couch it in terms of benefit for humanity, etc.  Furthermore, this attitude has sometimes been seen as an evil offshoot of Western Civ and/or of Christianity.  However, the real picture is much more complex.  An alternative is sometime presented–a myth of serene Asians living in harmony with nature.  However, the reality is that the Chinese, for example, deforested their lands two thousand years ago.  Many ancient people were oblivious of the damage they were doing to their environment, except that they were less capable of damage than we are now.  Gary Snyder addresses the Asian myth:

“One finds evidence in T’ang and Sung poetry that the barren hills of central and northern China were once richly forested.  The Far Eastern love of nature has become fear of nature….  Chinese nature poets were too often retired bureaucrats living on two or three acres of trees trimmed by hired gardeners.  The professional nature-aesthetes of modern Japan, tea-teachers and flower arrangers, are amazed to hear  that only a century ago dozens of species of birds passed through Kyoto where today only  swallows  and sparrows can be seen, and the aesthetes can  scarcely distinguish those.  ‘Wild’ in the Far East means uncontrollable, objectionable, crude, sexually unrestrained, violent; actually ritually polluting.”

Again, Snyder:  “Although nature is a term that is not of itself threatening, the idea of the ‘wild’ in civilized societies–both Europe and Asian–is often associated with unruliness, disorder, and violence….  The word for ‘wild’ in Chinese, ye (Japanese ya) which basically means ‘open country,’ has a wide set of meanings:  in various combinations the term becomes illicit connection, desert country, an illegitimate child(open-country child), prostitute(open-country flower), and such….  In another context ‘open-country story’ becomes ‘fiction and fictitious romance.’  Other associations are usually with the rustic and uncouth.  In a way ye is taken to mean ‘nature at its worst.’  Although the Chinese and Japanese have long given lip service to nature, only the early Taoists might have thought that wisdom could come of wildness.”

What all this suggests is that our problematical relationship to the wilderness is an age-old problem and one that spans all cultures more or less.  It is in fact a human problem.  Let us be right up front–this is an axiom of our blog: human beings need wilderness in order to be fully human. We cannot prove this to be the case but we intuit its truth.  And a corollary that follows from it: what we do to the wilderness we do to ourselves. If this is true, then we are in deep trouble. And furthermore, if we live cut off or oblivious of real wilderness we become cut off from something deep within ourselves.  From the current issue of Adbusters:  “When we cut off arterial blood to an organ, the organ dies.  When you cut the flow of nature into people’s lives, their spirit dies.  It’s as simple as that.”

It is an undeniable fact that there is this dynamic in human beings toward civilization and culture.  We start out as hunters/gatherers/ herders, and we move toward farming, settlement and then  urbanity.  In the West, already in the Hebrew Bible,  you can see the tension between the values that lie on both sides of this divide.  In fact the city is already an ambiguous reality in the Old Testament.  It is out in the wilderness of the desert that one encounters the mystery of God in a very special way, while cities become the locus of prostitution, human sacrifices, economic injustices, war, tyrannical rulers, false religion, etc.  Today there is no such evident tension–there is for all practical purposes only the modern urban reality–everywhere.  Today most human beings in the West–and ever increasingly in Asia– live with all kinds of electronic media at their fingertips and are more likely to spend time with virtual reality than out in some wilderness.  (At this point we cannot address the separate problem of so many in the Third World who live in a situation that has been historically one of colonialism and exploitation to the point that they too are cut off from a healthy relationship with wilderness and at the same time benefitting little or not at all from modern gadgetry.)  If we are as human beings creatures who carry within ourselves a kind of balance of two sets of values–on the one hand that of civilizing the world around us, creating culture, and on the other that of cherishing and learning from the wilderness–then we can safely say that something has happened to the balance–it has tipped totally one way.  And this has been slowly going on for a long time and is coming to some kind of climax in our age.

A number of writers have addressed the problem eloquently and cogently and prophetically.  One thinks of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Joseph Wood Krutch, Barry Lopez, Bill McKibbin, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, etc.  There also have been fiction writers with a special sensitivity to the values of the wilderness–best example:  William Faulkner, maybe America’s greatest novelist.  And there have been prophetic organizations too, like Greenpeace and movements like Earth First–ambiguous at best in its willingness to condone a violent response to the exploiters and despoilers.  All these have been indeed a “voice in the wilderness”!!    And instead of blending all these voices into one blurred message, we will listen to them and comment on what they have to say in separate blog postings in the future–for they do have different things to say, differences in emphasis and approach and substance.  And the environmental movement as a whole has been a really mixed bag with really mixed results.  This too needs to be looked at

First, a few random quotes:

The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men.  The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing.  There was nothing to attract them.  There was nothing to exploit.

Thomas Merton

[Note: not true today–mining, power and tourist industries thrive out there]

If people destroy something replaceable made by mankind, they are called vandals; if they destroy something irreplaceable made by God, they are called developers.

Joseph Wood Krutch

The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.

John Muir

It has always been a part of basic human experience to live in a culture of wilderness.  There has been no wilderness without some kind of human presence for several hundred thousand years.  Nature is not a place to visit, it is home–and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places.

Gary Snyder

Next, to begin with, let us get at least a bit of a handle on the “state of the problem”:  the wilderness areas of the United States have diminished to almost nothing.  What little is left is being slowly turned into “playgrounds” where people can run around in their “off-road” vehicles all over the place–the wilderness becomes a setting for our entertainment, the wilderness as theme park. Many people head out to the mountains in the winter to ski, play, socialize.  This is really not that far from the view of wilderness as a place to make money by extracting whatever you can from it.  John Muir saw the great forests of the Sierras as a cathedral in which his soul was fed with a deeper life; his immediate predecessors of the Gold Rush era saw the same forests as hiding untold wealth in gold and opportunity.  We have become a civilization that evaluates everything by its apparent “usefulness”–this is what makes something “valuable”–mostly usefulness for profit.  But as the early Taoists (as the Desert Fathers) have tried to teach us the very definition of “usefulness” is in question. Perhaps it is precisely that which appears “not useful” which may be most valuable and necessary; e.g., the empty hole in the center of a wheel, the empty space within the pot, etc.   So, the poet, the monk, the wilderness, as these “empty spaces”  are truly necessary ingredients of a truly human way of life.  Personal note:  I was once sitting in a roadside café in the Mojave Desert when a group of German tourists piled in.  They were travelling from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.  One of them pulled out a map and asked me for help in finding the fastest route to Vegas.  I asked him why he wanted the fastest route. It was so beautiful out here.  He answered in his German accent:  “Because there’s nothing out here.”  It is precisely that “nothing” that we need, and we need to preserve it before it becomes “something.”

Gary Snyder:  “Thoreau says, ‘Give me a wildness no civilization can endure.’  That’s clearly not difficult to find.  It is harder to imagine a civilization that wilderness can endure, yet this is what we must try to do.  Wildness is not just the ‘preservation of the world,’ it is the world.  Civilizations east and west have long been on a collision course with wild nature, and now the developed nations in particular have the witless power to destroy not only individual creatures but whole species, whole processes, of the earth.  We need a civilization that can live fully and creatively together with wildness.”

Gary Snyder again:  “The longing for growth is not wrong.  The nub of the problem now is how to flip over, as in jujitsu, the magnificent growth energy of modern civilization into a nonacquisitive search for deeper knowledge of self and nature.  Self-nature.  Mother Nature.  If people come to realize that there are many nonmaterial , nondestructive paths of growth–of the highest and most fascinating order–it would help to dampen the common fear that a steady state economy would mean deadly stagnation.”

At this point it would be helpful to interject just a brief monastic note here.  Christian monks have a long history of making their homes “in the wilderness”.  Now it is true that the monasteries tended to become “outposts” of civilization of sorts, but in the hermit tradition there was this closer rapport with the wilderness.  The hermits often lived in caves or in small cabins in harmony with their surroundings and often, as the stories and myths unfold, making friends with the wild life around them.

On quite another note let us conclude with some words from Edward Abbey from his classic Desert Solitaire:

“Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages.  In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus.  When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.  Probably not.  In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast.  This is not a travel guide but an elegy.  A memorial.  You’re holding a tombstone in your hands.  A bloody rock.  Don’t drop it on your foot–throw it at something big and glassy.  What do you have to lose?”

Not exactly monk-like, not exactly Gandhian, but you have to respect Abbey–his anger is pure, not self-centered; his passion authentic.  Like with Jesus and the money-changers in the temple!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.