Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Wilderness: A Necessarily Long Post

In my Virginia Tech post, I wrote, 'I also don't understand going out into the countryside to shoot things. I feel it's a terrible failure of the imagination, like taking a television set on a hike. The wilderness is complete and self-justifying; all we are required to do is look at it.'
Duck responded, 'Bryan, your self-contained wilderness is no such thing, it is a manicured garden devoid of predators. You feel no need to shoot game because you eat beef and pork raised on some factory farm and slaughtered and butchered by low wage laborers. Your idyllic stroll in the woods is only possible because of modern man's absolute dominance over nature.'
Mainly under the influence of two of the greatest thinkers of our time - James Lovelock and Edward O.Wilson - I have come to believe in the wilderness as a good in itself and as the defining contemporary issue. It has, of course, instrumental value in that it keeps us alive by sustaining our eco-system. (This is one of the reasons bio-fuels will be such a disaster. By opening up yet more of our land to mono-culture, they will further erode ecological diversity. They will also, it seems, kill us.) But the primary value of the wilderness is metaphysical and moral. It is the sacred.
Yet Duck is right. It would be hard to find a place on the planet devoid of any human mark. He is, of course, wrong to speak of 'man's absolute dominance over nature'. There are two reasons: first, nature can shrug us aside in an instant through any number of mechanisms and, secondly, we depend utterly on nature for our food, air, water, for everything. But, that aside, Duck's primary point is that the wilderness is a self-indulgent dream.
Well, it isn't self-indulgent for the instrumental reasons I give. It is also not a dream. Merely because we have so extensively defiled the wilderness is not a reason for ceasing to hold it sacred. We should do so because, as Wilson has written with dazzling beauty, it is the otherness to which we belong, that which both is and is not us. (The Christian concept of 'stewardship' was a disaster in this context, it sustained our delusions of dominance. It was, however, somewhat redeemed by original sin.)
In addition, what is striking about the human-defiled wilderness is the way nature works its way round our abuse. The bleakest agricultural landscape is replete with wild activity and a few years of human neglect will return it at once to nature. The wilderness races back to reclaim its territory.
If we are to survive, we are going to have to withdraw from nature, to allow much of the planet to return to wilderness. If we don't, it will do so without us. There is nothing sentimental about this. It is necessary. And good.


  1. Juat read the two very interesting pieces, ie the above and the James Lovelock piece and the Lovelock piece in particular reagrding the wholeness of his vision and his remark on Darwin prompted my own thoughts on evolution. Sorry if it's a bit tedious and obvious but it would seem self-evident that life evolves from the very simple, simple in relation to higher life forms that is, towards higher complexities of being and profundity, culminating in us. Darwinian evolution, in my extremely sketchy understanding, seems to reduce the evolving beings simply to their physical existence, and evolution is so to be explained as aiding the survival of this physical existence. However there is also evolution in terms of the profundity of the animal's consciousness- his ability to understand hs world, evolution of emotions, etc. And so we have gone from the unicellular organism to the "what a piece of work is man" animal, and since this higher evolution is integral to life, our consciousness has a natural evolving destination towards higher and more refined experience of consciousness. I would argue that the great geniuses and saintlike humans are examples of consciousness at a higher stage of evolution. The archetypal Darwinian might argue that a Napoleon is such a being, he representing the survival of the fittest in action, though this would be in error as this is the infinite being of man reduced to a simply physical organism, and the glorification of crude values of dominion,subjection of enemies- a life artifically halted with the ego. Contrarily the Ghandi figure always exalts selflessness as the higher goal or true state of man.

    Sorry about all that, more in connection to the Lovelock piece than the wilderness though of course, it connects into the attitude of our relationship with nature.

  2. Not a very long post really, but a characteristically clear and refined one. Yes, the wilderness is sacred (for me, this term having no strictly religious connotation but rather deliberately understood in terms of a kind of naturalistic pantheism) and guns are quite simply profane (in the same sense).

  3. The error contained in much green arguments is one of separation. Man is of this earth, he is part of the wilderness. Shifting the concept of wilderness into into some Arcadian notion, removes responsibility. Replacing it with a false idea of safety. Peak Oil, is not wishy-washy, it is a cast iron certainty.
    You write,'But the primary value of the wilderness is metaphysical and moral. It is the sacred', and this may well be so. But it is also survival. Not the earth, just man. For me, green ideas are backward looking, without hope and tend towards the hectoring.
    A bit of 'can do' wouldn't go astray.

  4. You reminded me of the Werner Herzog film Grizzly Man where the wilderness is both Edenic (those playful little foxes) and savage (he misjudged his friends and was eaten). The phrase that stays with me from that film is the "monumental indifference" of nature. Reality just "is" and doesn't know itself for anything; the wilderness is our invention, and so can mean very different things in human history. Perhaps in our present age of ruthless acquisition, when the best we can see in a wilderness is untapped raw materials, we will need to look for new wildernesses in new places. As Lovelock points out, the exclusion zone around Chernobyl is one, and it's absolutely thriving with wildlife of every kind. Just my 2 cents, but I suspect the traditional idea of wilderness we've probably all grown up with has had it. Such places now require huge amounts of time, effort, money and international cooperation and there's little indication of anyone getting all that organized. Look at the hysterics (and greedy farmers) who pop up every time anyone suggests turning a small part of Scotland into a preserve and introducing the odd wolf there. We can't even agree about "wilderness" in our own back yard. You're spot on about bio-fuels and also about shooting, imho. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  5. I like the wilderness because no one minds where you crap.

  6. the wilderness is nature, but nature isn't necessarily the wilderness, and it isn't stewardship that's wrong but bad stewardship. we needed to tame it some in order to survive, despite the pleasures of blasting small critters with 12 bores on our days off, it's no picnic being a hunter-gatherer, 24/7.

    also I'm not keen on regarding nature as a single entity, benign if left to its own devices. These same mechanisms that gave us at least three ice ages and a couple of extreme global heat waves - before we even messed with it.

    lastly, does it always bounce back? again, it's not really this one recognisable thing. of course we know many, many species are extinct and, if I'm not mistaken, it isn't always natural, indigenous vegetation that's reclaiming wasteland and verges but GM rape - it's coming up everywhere like weeds!

    my vote's for better stewardship. for one thing it's more likely than giving much of it back to wilderness and putting our trust in bear grylls and ray mears survival weekends.

    but in the most part I share your opinions, I enjoy strolling with nature too.

  7. 'Who knows? Maybe over there in the dark alleys of Islamic extremism, maybe some day that same energy will be turned towards environmentalism.'

    Yes, that's something to look forward to, isn't it?

    Bryan, I'll spare you the rant about how this neo-paganism is destined to end very badly (I assume you are convinced it's a kinder, gentler paganism), but what exactly is your beef with bad old Christianity this time? It hardly stands for unbridled growth and it seems to me most ecological rape has been done in the name of state socialism or third world despotism cheered on as "nation-building".

    Before you invest too much time baying at the moon to propitate "sacred" nature, you may want to take a closer look at what nature-worshipping paganism entailed historically when it was the dominant faith and what issues the early Church fought it on. And also how, in modern times, it has regularly pulled its followers to eugenics, anti-Semitism, infanticide and other neat stuff. Not surprising really. When your faith holds man is the enemy, a little human sacrifice easily becomes a regretable necessity.

  8. 'This time', Peter, I'm not aware that I have been a serial attacker of Christianity, quite the opposite. Churchmen love me. In this case I am not even attacking a core Christian belief. Stewardship is an embellishment. It appears, obviously, in Genesis, but the New Testament modifies every thing in the old. 'Paganism' is a slightly sloppy word and, in any case, any belief can be mocked on the basis of people doing evil in its name. Humans are experts at finding good reasons to do bad things. The real 'ism here is post-humanism. Humanism killed more people in a shorter time than any other faith. Post-humanism is better.

  9. Sorry, that was sloppy and not meant personally. I was referring to the general and increasingly rote general tendency to see religion and especially Christianity as the source of all the world's ills.

    Granted paganism is a loose word, but I'll stick with it on this one. Lovelock, Wilson, Singer, and a lot of other modern intellectual lights (Club of Rome)doggedly base their theories on lowering the value of humans relative to the rest of nature, which does indeed pit them against traditional Judeo-Christianity. This is not being done in the name of stewardship, caution or tempering excess. Modern environmentalism is not being driven by charitably-minded folks rolling up their sleaves to do the hard work involved in wildlife protection, re-forestation, cleaning fetid rivers, etc. It is being driven by abstract theorizing under the guise of science that holds quite predicably that we're all going to freeze, fry, drown, starve or run out of resources unless there are many fewer of us and the lives of those that remain are controlled and restricted quite severely. Nature, wilderness, animals, flora, the air, etc. are all precious assets, to be sure, but how did we get to the point where humans are always liabilities?

    Here is a test if you believe I exaggerate about environmentalism being a neo-pagan faith or that it is all fact and science driven. Think of a colleague who is deeply concerned about gloabl-warming and is on board with the whole IPCC/Kyoto crowd. Tell him or her you have just read some encouraging news--this or that scientist claims his state-of-the-art research shows the threat from climate change is being seriously overstated. Watch the reaction, which I predict will be much like that of a strict fundamentalist preacher who has just been told that sin is on the decline.

  10. I'm not sure how withdrawing from nature has any bearing on our survival.

    The defining contemporary issue of our time is urbanism.

  11. Bryan, I find this post on the "sanctity of nature" almost funny in light of how you're upset about "sanctity" in the post above (on Va. Tech victims).

    You've quoted two modern thinkers, but you need to go back. When Jesus went into the "wilderness" to face his demons, he wasn't going on an Sierra Club hiking trip. "Wilderness" meant a scary place where bad things happened: You could get lost, or eaten.

    Read the diaries of the colonists who first tried to settle this "wilderness." They were terrified of the realm beyond their encampment: For good reason.

    The word's meaning changed relatively recently. Now "wilderness" is more like an English garden in most places.

    I fear on this one I agree with Duck and Peter Burnet.

  12. Bryan,
    Thanks for responding to my comments. I'm actually more in sympathy with your vision than you might think. I think that it is partially realizable. But the question to ask is where our reverence for Nature should fit on our collective hierarchy of values. And I have to disagree with you regarding Humanism. I think that human life and human flourishing has to be our highest value.
    I agree with vince that you are drawing a false dichotomy between Humanity and Nature. Nature includes Humanity, we are a part of nature. To sacrifice human life for the benefit of other natural forms does not add anything to the balance in favor of Nature. To the extent that Nature can be said to have a direction or an intent we have to conclude that our existence and flourishing is part of that intent.
    That said, I would like to see as much untrammeled wilderness preserved as possible. The absolutely worst way to accomplish that is for mankind to go "back to nature". We can almost certainly attribute the extinction of most species of megafauna to the predations of pre-agricultural mankind. We are too skilled a predator to allow back in the game of hunting for our livelihood. Ironically the best friend of untrammeled nature at this point in history is the factory farm.
    Hunting today is not a cruel throwback to the pillaging past, but a necessary ingredient in wildlife management. That term might seem like aan oxymoron, but it isn't. Today wilderness survives because of our desire to help it survive. I once abhorred hunting, considering hunters as sadists. I grew up in the city, and never hunted or knew any hunters. But living in Minnesota for the last 20 years has changed my perspective. Without an annual deer harvest, tens of thousands of deer would starve during the winter months. Hunters are merely filling the role that other predators once filled.
    120 years ago wild turkeys were practially extinct in most parts of the US. Nowadays I often see a flock of turkeys by the side of the road on my way to work. The eastern half of the US has more trees now than existed when the first English settlers arrived. Our best hope of restoring some balance to nature lies in the high tech future, not the low tech past.

  13. P.S. One thing that I am doing to save the wilderness is staying away from it. I think that the rise of "Eco-tourism" is actually a bad thing for it. Once people make a habit of tramping through the bush, then infrastructure, settlements and development will follow to support the industry.

    As with platonic love, wilderness appreciation depends on separation. The more unrequited the love, the stronger it is.

  14. Although generally an optimist, I think Arthur Balfour had it about right: in the end it all doesn't really matter. History (and pre-history) provides ample evidence that mother Earth takes care of itself, one way or the other.

  15. Ah, wilderness, and its lovely ebola viruses and suchlike.

    There was a brief flurry about a year ago about pictures of a New Guinea tribe that had never encountered other tribes before. Skeptics, who knew something about the New Guinea wilderness, immediately spotted the kicker: the alleged primitives failed to display the expected variety of hideous skin diseases.

    I can sum up my views with the headline I put on my review of Peter Huber's 'Hard Green': 'Only the rich can afford to be green.'

    However, whatever the merits of Bryan's approach, Lovelock is an ally to be softpedaled. However eloquent, he is simply a crank

  16. As an Irish bog hopper on the subject of the "bleakest agricultural landscape replete with wild activity",I'm afraid to say that purely from observation living in intensively farmed countryside the destruction of wildlife is almost total.Year on year the decline has been staggering.For example my childhood memories are of gardens thrumming with insects but now you can drive up and down the East Coast and need never clean the windscreen.Years ago I had to install a wire mesh in the cattle grid for the many frogs ,hedgehogs etc. to escape.Well, I did see a hedgehog recently but a frog? Not in 5 years.I mean anywhere.I don't think urban dwellers really suspect our true dependence on pesticides/herbicides/fungicides.I reckon the Government does but from their perspective this is not only allowed,this is necessary.

  17. i agree with Bronson/Bryan, and would also argue for the introduction of Tolkien-style dragons, to challenge man's supremacy. As long as we can destroy anything we want, and fancy ourselves invulnerable, top dog, we're insufferable and destructive buffoons.

    We need reminding that we're finite, incomplete, creatures, that we don't understand ourselves or much of our world. We live in an old chaos of the sun, as said Wallace Stevens.

    Dragons don't take any shit from anyone. They can breathe fire and fly, and seem to be only vulnerable to magic, of which there isn't a great deal to hand. They would put us in our place.

    To quote Elias from Platoon, "we've been kicking other people's asses so long, I guess it's time we got ours kicked."