Monthly Archives: October 2022


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  1. What exactly do you see here?

Lets begin with this simple question…it will become a more and more important question as we progress with our reflection.  

Consider the following four instances:

 1st.  Near the Eastern Sierra town of Lone Pine, California, in the shadow of Mt. Whitney, you will find this intriguing landscape known as the Alabama Hills.  About 1920 the Hollywood movie people discovered this place as a marvelous setting for movies.  They came to make movies here, and they kept coming and coming…hundreds of  movies made even to the 2000s.  Science fiction, “cowboys and Indians,” epics, dramas, etc.  The Sierras and the Alabama Hills proved to be a stage prop for this fantasy machine known as Hollywood.  Remarkable how these people were not awestruck by the reality, the stark beauty, the silent mystery of this majestic land….instead the only thing on their  minds was this false mythologizing of American history, their self-absorbed fantasies, their skill at fabricating an illusion, when the reality right in front of them was so much greater.  What was it that they were seeing?  They created lies while the reality and the truth was staring them in the face.

2nd.  When the first Europeans came upon the Grand Canyon, they were men who were in search of “cities of gold.”  Their response upon beholding this majestic and awesome scene was dismay, cursing at their bad luck, wondering how ever to cross this “obstacle” to their search.  The Grand Canyon as “obstacle.”  Indeed!  And this kind of perspective was repeated so often by pioneers pushing for the California gold fields and “free” Western lands.  The land they walked and rode through was mostly an “obstacle.”  Exactly what was it that these people saw?

3rd.  Once I was camping near one of the great hiking trails in the whole world: the John Muir Trail in the Sierras.  One day a young backpacker appeared on the trail.  I always enjoyed seeing them, imagining the beauty of the vistas they witnessed.  But there was something wrong this time.  He was wearing earbuds and was obviously absorbed in his own music.  I asked him why he needed this.  He replied that on a long hike it can get quite boring.  I wondered what he was looking at on his hike.  No sign of boredom in Ansel Adams or John Muir!

4th.  Ronald Reagan, running for governor of California in 1966, had this comment about the ancient forests of the far West:

“I think, too, that we’ve got to recognize that where the preservation of a natural resource like the redwoods is concerned, that there is a commonsense limit.  I mean, if you’ve looked at a hundred thousand acres or so of trees—you know, a tree is a tree, how many more you need to look at?”

Maybe when you have seen one tree you have seen them all!  

Different people encounter wilderness for different reasons…and this creates disagreements and controversies about how we are to treat wilderness, how we are to relate to it.  Some see wilderness as a source of recreation and entertainment; some see it as a form of challenge to test themselves, a source of achievement; some see it as a source of wealth, a commodity; others see it as a potential home or a resource for our benefit/survival.  Still others will see it as a form of inspiration. And a new group sees it as a great place to grow pot (see this story:

And so on, and so on.  And this leads us to the next consideration.

  1. History and Controversy

So there are people with pro-environmental concerns; there are also people with what might be termed as anti-environmental attitudes, though to be accurate they usually disguise themselves as the more “moderate” environmentalists, like the “wise use” movement; and finally, the largest group, folks who seem to have no interest or no concern about all this.  But what is striking to me are the very serious arguments and disagreements, and yes the very different visions within the environmental movement from its beginnings.  And all this has some very serious impacts on the wilderness, what little there is left of it (less than 3% of all land in the lower 48).

In the 19th century there is the famous example of Gifford Pinchot vs. John Muir.  At first the two were good friends who championed the protection of large tracts of American forest land.  Later they ended up on opposite sides of this endeavor.  There were actually two different visions operative.  It became known as preservation vs. conservation, and to this day the argument still goes on!  “Conservation” is about a multi-use approach to the wildlands…protecting some and making compromises with logging, mining, and recreation interests.  “Preservation” is about keeping it as wild as possible.  

About the original dispute we  find this in the magazine Humanities (journal for the National Endowment for the Humanities):

“In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt’s Department of the Interior granted San Francisco the authority to dam the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley for use as a reservoir. For Pinchot, a close friend and adviser to the president, this was an obvious choice. San Francisco’s water system could not adequately serve its growing population, and the dam presented a solution. For Muir, damming Hetch Hetchy was a blasphemy. You might as well deface the world’s great cathedrals, he said, ‘for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.’ The issue was decided in December 1913, when Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Bill into law, authorizing the dam’s construction. Muir would die just over a year later, and many would define Hetch Hetchy as the tragic climax of his life.”

And author John Clayton writing in the same article said:

“People sort of tend to lean one way or another. If you’re a poet, if you’re religious or spiritual, or you’re an artist, you’re probably a Muir person. And if you’re an engineer or a manager, or if you’re interested in fairness or democratic processes, you’re probably a Pinchot person.”

One of the fundamental underlying differences in their vision (and this  holds for many subsequent followers of each man) is whether the human person is seen as the primary and dominant constituent of Nature or is the human person only one element of this great reality we call Nature.  Where you stand on this can have many interesting implications, as illustrated in this story about Muir and Pinchot:

“Once they traveled together — along with several other people interested in the future — on an overnight government expedition to the Grand Canyon. As the two men walked together along a rocky canyon trail, they spotted a tarantula. Pinchot raised his boot to step on the creature. Muir stopped Pinchot by telling him that the tarantula had just as much right to be on the trail as they did.”

In the last few decades another kind of argument has developed, one questioning the very notion of “wilderness.”  Perhaps hard to believe but these are “liberal,” “progressive,” folk, mostly academics, very highly educated (and one suspects not having spent much time in the real wilderness as opposed to reading papers about the wilderness).  The most widely known of these critics is William Cronon, a professor of environmental history at the University of Wisconsin.  The following quotes are from an article in the New York Times of 1995 which he wrote as a kind of summary of a major scholarly paper.  Cronon:

“PRESERVING WILDERNESS HAS FOR DECADES BEEN A fundamental tenet — indeed, a passion — of the environmental movement, especially in the United States. For many Americans, wilderness stands as the last place where civilization, that all-too-human disease, has not fully infected the earth. It is an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, a refuge we must somehow recover to save the planet. As Henry David Thoreau famously declared, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

But is it? The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems. Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation — indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history. It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an endangered but still transcendent nature can be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it is a product of that civilization. As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own longings and desires. Wilderness can hardly be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationship with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself a part of the problem.”

“One of the most striking proofs of the cultural invention of wilderness is its thoroughgoing erasure of the history from which it sprang. In virtually all its manifestations, wilderness represents a flight from history. Seen as the original garden, it is a place outside time, from which human beings had to be ejected before the fallen world of history could properly begin. Seen as the frontier, it is a savage world at the dawn of civilization, whose transformation represents the very beginning of the national historical epic. Seen as sacred nature, it is the home of a God who transcends history, untouched by time’s arrow. No matter what the angle from which we regard it, wilderness offers us the illusion that we can escape the cares and troubles of the world in which our past has ensnared us. It is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul, the place where we can see the world as it really is, and so know ourselves as we really are — or ought to be.

“The trouble with wilderness is that it reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject. It offers the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world. The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living — urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die. Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves no place in which human beings can actually make their living from the land.

“We live in an urban-industrial civilization, but too often pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness. We work our nine-to-five jobs, we drive our cars (not least to reach the wilderness), we benefit from the intricate and all too invisible networks with which society shelters us, all the while pretending that these things are not an essential part of who we are. By imagining that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves for the homes we actually inhabit. In its flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings somehow outside nature — in all these ways, wilderness poses a threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the 20th century.”

Cronon is a very intelligent scholar, and in his overall critique he makes some important points.  However, I think he is fundamentally wrong; and he misreads and misinterprets the meaning of the wilderness for human life.  I am not going to go over his claims point by point…that would take us well past this being a blog posting!  Cronon has converted a lot of environmentalists to his view, but there have also been some serious and vigorous challenges and counter-arguments by some important names in the movement, like Gary Snyder and David Foreman, among many others.  Here is a heated rebuttal of Cronon by Ken Brower:

What is striking is that within the environmental movement itself there are these very radically different philosophies and assumptions and visions.  Now what about religion?  

  1. Alternative Visions

I will primarily stick to Christianity and the West, except for a reference to China, Taoism and Buddhism.

Christianity is a real mixed bag when  it comes to our attitudes to wilderness and nature in general.  Consider this little gem from a conservative evangelical pastor:

“Any preacher who decides to get involved in environmental issues is like a heart surgeon who suddenly leaves an operation to fix a clogged toilet.”

To be fair, there is a growing number of evangelicals who have a  more enlightened attitude.  And of course among us Catholics we have Pope Francis summoning all the Catholic resources he could in support of  positive environmental concerns in his encyclical Laudato Si (and one should add some surprising sharp attacks on the economic and social systems that seem to be the cause of ecological degradation).  I am not going to waste any time in dealing with all the “anti-environmental”arguments and attitudes; there are enough problematic issues within the “positive Christian” camp.

In the 1960s, Lynn White, a historian at UCLA, caused quite a stir when he proposed that Christianity had a large role in bringing about the ecological crisis of the 20th Century.  This is from Wikipedia:

“In 1967, White conjectured that the Christian influences in the Middle Ages were at the root of ecological crisis in the 20th century. He gave a lecture on December 26, 1966, titled, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” at the Washington meeting of the AAAS, that was later published in the journal Science.  White’s article was based on the premise that “all forms of life modify their context”, i.e. every living organism in some way alters its environment or habitat. He believed man’s relationship with the natural environment was always a dynamic and interactive one, even in the Middle Ages, but marked the Industrial Revolution as a fundamental turning point in our ecological history. He suggests that at this point the hypotheses of science were married to the possibilities of technology and our ability to destroy and exploit the environment was vastly increased. Nevertheless, he also suggests that the mentality of the Industrial Revolution, that the earth was a resource for human consumption, was much older than the actuality of machinery, and has its roots in medieval Christianity and attitudes towards nature. He suggests that “what people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them.” Citing the Genesis creation story he argued that Judeo-Christian theology had swept away pagan animism and normalized exploitation of the natural world because:

  1. The Bible asserts man’s dominion over nature and establishes a trend of anthropocentrism.
  2. Christianity makes a distinction between man (formed in God’s image) and the rest of creation, which has no “soul” or “reason” and is thus inferior.

He posited that these beliefs have led to an indifference towards nature which continues to impact in an industrial, “post-Christian” world. He concludes that applying more science and technology to the problem will not help, that it is humanity’s fundamental ideas about nature that must change; we must abandon “superior, contemptuous” attitudes that makes us ‘willing to use it [the earth] for our slightest whim.’” 

Needless to say this led to a vigorous response on the part of Christian thinkers and theologians.  Even today you can see that Pope Francis is basically trying to say that whatever was the understanding in the past, that is not quite how we see it today.  However, there is a problem.  Item #1 above flows right out of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis.  Recall that there are 2 creation stories in Genesis:  Chapter 1 and 2.  The key line in chapter 1, v.26:  “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  The Hebrew word that is translated as “dominion” is a very strong, emphatic word; it indicates the right to dominate and to possess absolute control over the entire earth.  Now in Chapter 2: 15 the key line goes like this:  “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”  What is implied here is a significant difference of vision:  dominance vs. stewardship.  Pope Francis and many other Christian leaders are obviously emphasizing the latter:  the human being is to take care of the natural world.  But Lynn White was right that the former theological view greatly informed Western Civ which even now continues to degrade the environment because it assumes human mastery over all.  You can well imagine how all this plays out when it comes to assessing the value of wilderness.

There is another important point here:  the Christian vision is fundamentally anthropocentric, the human being is the center of creation.  This flows straight from items #1 and 2 above.  Even the “good steward” is still the one for whom everything else exists.  (And there is a strong dualism implied in this:  here I am, there is the “natural world,” the wilderness….this is perhaps a blindness to the fact that my being and the natural world form one reality.)  Ancient Taoism and Buddhism offer an alternative vision where the human being is simply a member, together with all other creatures, of a still greater reality.  Compare ancient Chinese depictions of the human being with say, European Renaissance.  In ancient Taoism and Chinese Buddhism, the key words are kinship, interdependence, interrelatedness, etc.  Now, guess what….Pope Francis uses some of this language in his encyclical.  It does not cohere very well with the anthropocentric vision, but in fact the title and inspiration of the whole encyclical comes from a source that displays still some hope that the Christian vision need not be dominated by the big human ego to be the big boss of creation:  St. Francis and especially his Canticle of all Creatures:

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Here is a vision that we are all one family.  And I thought of another source of this kind of alternative vision, a more ancient source, perhaps not as clear as the one above and surely not as well known: St. Isaac the Syrian, 6th Century.

“And what is a merciful heart?  It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and at the recollection and sight of them, the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears.  From the strong and vehement mercy that grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation.  For this reason, he offers up prayers with tears continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.  And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles, because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.”

(From the Holy Transfiguration Monastery translation)

And in conclusion I return to the question, What do you see when you go out into the wilderness?

“Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south?”  Job 39: 26