Monday, November 7, 2011

Evolving Wildness

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Blue Fire--Deep Imagination, 20"x24, 2002

“WILDNESS” AND “WILDERNESS” have been longstanding Western references both for a dangerous irrational state and a dangerous wasteland in need of our use to be activated.  Only in the last century have the terms come to represent both a valuable attribute and a complex ecosystem.  But with this dramatic shift, the terms continued to reference something essentially separate from human activity.  And as our use exposed us to overlooked qualities, our contemporary reach beyond the Earth and immediate environmental feedback begins to change these terms to include all human activity.  However, contemporary human life as wild and as occurring within a wilderness ecosystem is not broadly acknowledged.  Associating modern human life with wildness can seem to dangerously distort the meaning of the term and somehow contribute to exploitation of the nonhuman landscape.  However, the proscription of a strong association between human life and wildness may endanger both human and nonhuman life by encouraging the separation from the Earth ecosystem rather than intergration into the Earth ecosystem (and not just integration with, as if separate).   

Gary Snyder has written,
Cities and agricultural lands however are not wild.  “Wild” is a valuable word.  It is a term for the free and independent process of nature.  A wilderness is a place where wild process dominates and human impact is minimal. [i]

Widely cited, Gary Snyder’s eloquent definition of “wild” plants and land and societies delineates the popular general definition of wildness.  In The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder aspires to define “wild” for what it is rather than for what it is not:
Of animals—free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural
Of plants—self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate
Of land—a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction, and the landforms are entirely the result of nonhuman forces. Pristine.
Of foodcrops—food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of quantities of fruit or seeds.
Of societies—societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation.  Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory.  Societies which resist economic and political domination by civilization.  Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem.
Of individuals—following local custom, style, and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post.  Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent.  “Proud and free.”
Of behavior—fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploitation.
           Far-out, outrageous, “bad,” admirable.
Of behavior—artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned.  Expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic.[ii]

Snyder’s definition places wildness largely outside the possibility of being an expression of the city.[iii]  Wild human life is popularly associated with indigenous, First Nation or “Fourth World” localized hunting/gathering societies and to some extent nomadic societies with some animal domestication.  “Wild” characteristics of indigenous cultures generally include:
·      being spiritist/animist-oriented;
·      use of flora/fauna that does not exclusively serve human life [i.e., exclusively cultivated];
·      standing for and equality with non-human events–flora, fauna, place, weathers [e.g., totemism];
·      myth of origin and future related strongly to surrounding landscape;
·      intimate knowledge of bioregion;
·      local social support and social control; and
·      culture designed by place.

Interestingly, while the modern city may not explicitly describe these characteristics as urban characteristics, none of them are automatically excluded from being current or potential characteristics of urban habitats.  Myth in modern creation beliefs or activities or in acute scientific measures of the bioregion and biosphere tend to not be given status as complementing the intimate approach to knowledge by indigenous societies.  And the spiritist and mythic elements underlying modern activities are overlooked.  There is a real sense that modern societies have repressed their “animist” and “shamanic” elements, and this has allowed exploitation of natural resources such as, for example, rainforest timber by the Japanese.

Gary Snyder’s qualities that define “wildness” tend to be associated, for the most part, a place or landscape—to ecosystems that are popularly described as “wilderness.”  These ecosystems are clearly different from settled landscapes, and they are important to the overall functioning of the biosphere.  And in post-industrial life with the peopling of the Earth, “wilderness” popularly describes shrinking remnants of largely uninhabited landscapes.  Further, these remnants tend to be described in Edenic terms, while settled landscapes tend to be described negatively as intrusive and destructive.  However, prior to the industrial age, concepts that describe uninhabited landscapes have described wilderness as dangerous wastelands.  While still weighted with an Edenic quality perhaps due to their increasing remoteness and exotic quality, such landscapes are now described more neutrally as complexly fitted and diverse, and if dangerous, it is because they are indifferent rather than intentionally hostile.  And so, like all concepts, the concepts of wildness and wilderness have never been constant and are always evolving. 

Now, having viewed Earthrise over moonscape revealing the biosphere and having discovered a galactic universe rather than a ceiling of stars, wilderness dynamics make a quantum leap from being the activities of fading remnants to being the fundamental nature of an infinite cosmos.  And in this expanded context, human life continues to be immersed to the point of being deeply lost in wilderness and subject to its demands and even designed by this natural process.  “Wilderness” can now describe biosphere or “Gaia” and the cosmos. 

Traditional environmentalism might argue that to try to extend wildness to include the city might distort the meaning of the term rather than clarify it.  However, the exclusion of post-industrial life from wildness might also be harmful.  Definitions of wildness that make it external to the city can support a lack of attention to natural process in the city, diminished attention to urban environmental health, as well as alienate urban society from environmental values.[iv]  As with efforts to sustain ecosystems that are traditionally described as wilderness, it is crucial to revision cities as being an ecosystem needing ecologically adaptive solutions in a global, biospheric “wilderness” ecosystem.

Gary Snyder suggests that cities are in “the totality of the process of nature”[v] and therefore “natural” in that broad sense, but not wild because cities are “so exclusive…and so intolerant of other creatures.” [vi]  Snyder argues that ecosystems that are traditionally defined as wilderness are places “where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order.”[vii]  This is accurate in the sense that the city does not reach the balance found in a longstanding climactic ecosystem.  Accordingly, the city is not a wilderness per se.  However, while not “fully expressed” in a balanced system, the city is young in the history of the Earth, clearly imbalanced ecologically, but likely a wild adaptive response to meet the conditions of existence of the biospheric wilderness.  Wildness and wilderness are not the same things.  Clearly, nonhuman wildness is popularly understood to exist in the city, although it is described as being compromised by dependency.

This statement seems obvious to contemporary urban life, and it has appeared to be important to acknowledge a difference so that wildness is not co-opted to become another form of human “exploitation” of nature.

In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben clarifies the reality that we have reached the end of a separable nature[viii] if we had presumed that we had not, with the impact of human activity present in the most remote landscapes on Earth.  While the “end of nature” is more provocative, McKibben is really describing the end of wildness rather than the end of nature that is still cosmic in proportions.  McKibben’s idea of “wildness” is the traditional one that describes self-informing landscapes where human influence is absent.  Now, human influence is formally acknowledged to be present everywhere on Earth.

In finding no separable nature that is insulated from human influence, McKibben declares that contemporary human life or civilization is an intrusion upon nature.  He argues the popular belief that civilization is not only damaging natural landscapes but is decimating the core dynamic of nature—wildness—that is crucial to all life across the long run of events.  Specifically, McKibben suggests that human life has created a “post-natural” state,[ix] and is “ending the very idea of wildness…”[x].  In this broadly accepted view that McKibben describes, human life is something that is radically different from the non-human life of the Earth, and is certainly no longer wild.

In Hope, Human and Wild, McKibben defines the contemporary task as one of limiting an environmental damage that we cannot prevent.[xi]  His primary emphasis is upon lessening the impact of civilization upon the non-human landscape to sustain this wild dynamic that sustains unsettled places with both a grace for which many hunger and an economy that we all lean upon but can no longer realize within post-industrial life.  Modern human life has altered the Earth and can only compensate rather than attain a normal natural state or exceed it and be optimal.  This stance is the core stance not only of the environmental movement, but also of the popular ecological sensitivity of the general public.

While wonderful and logical, wildness and wilderness as separate and disappearing or even as lost or ended may illustrates the immaturity of our eco-literacy.  Even with this explicit separation of most contemporary human life from wildness and wilderness, the terms are also used to occasionally describe attributes of contemporary human life.  In defining “humanism,” Snyder encourages the emergence of an ecological consciousness that would aspire to not alienate itself “from the very ground of its own being—from the wilderness outside that is to say, wild nature, the wild self-contained, self-informing ecosystem and from that other wilderness, the wilderness within…”[xii]  Further, Snyder writes, “wildness gives heart, courage, love, spirit, danger, compassion, skill, fierceness, and sweetness—all at once—to language.”[xiii]  In his directive for “humanism,” Snyder clearly implies that wildness remains inherent in human life and that this wildness is crucial to avoid self-destruction across the long run.  Humanness involves more than human beings.

IN THE GREAT WORK, Thomas Berry offers a dramatic shift in perspective.  It is one that enlarges the context in which we define our terms.  It is a perspective that challenges our longstanding beliefs by looking at phenomena from the very real current state of our knowledge.  Thomas Berry looks at the contemporary moment from the broad perspective of the universe.  And from this perspective, the “great work” of the contemporary moment involves the integration of post-modern life into the larger Earth ecosystem.

With this universal perspective, Thomas Berry defines “wild” as
·      that which is uncontrolled by human dominance.[xiv]
and “wildness” as
·      the ultimate creative modality of any form of earthly being.[xv]
Berry continues,
Wildness we might consider as the root of the authentic spontaneity of any being.  It is that wellspring of creativity whence come the instinctive activities that enable all living beings to obtain their food, to find shelter, to bring forth their young; to sing and dance and fly through the air and swim through the depths of the sea.  This is the same inner tendency that evokes the insight of the poet, the skill of the artist, and the power of the shaman.[xvi]

At first, “that which is uncontrolled by human dominance” can seem to reinforce a traditional sense of wildness as present only in those events that are separate from human control.  However, in both our degrading environmental feedback and even within our human actions, we begin to understand that much of our experience is either separate from our control or not well controlled.  And now with a still rather new awareness of profoundly vaster context of the space-time—the universe and the dramatic shifts of the conditions of existence as evidenced in geological timeframes, we begin to understand that we are an expression of a still emergent, creative universe and subject to it, and deep within it rather than looking out at it.  There is a new sense that there is something inherent in human life that is never subject to human dominance, and that is creatural rather than cultural.  And there is a sense of cultural expression as capable of being a natural adaptive response that expresses the creatural rather than something largely separate.

But the heart of Berry’s definition looks at wildness as the creative mode of any earthly being inside a vast ongoing creative context.  Wildness is a flow of change or ongoing creation.  Nothing in the biosphere is preserved across the long run.  Human life in any era is creatural, and culture is an expression of the creatural—as a response to the changing conditions of existence--rather than a departure from it.  Like an eagle or a sparrow, we focus on our immanent needs rather than on the needs of other events or on total alertness to our landscape.  But our immanent needs cannot ignore changing conditions such as depletion of material resources. And so in the contemporary moment, there is a shift toward global urbanization as residency that begins intuitively, while continuing to consciously attend to immediate needs.  And human beings, we have an additional wild capacity to become aware of our immanent everyday reality as having very real, non-ordinary longer reach in which our activity extends into events beyond ourselves.  This gives us at chance at optimizing rather than either subsisting or disappearing. 

There is new concern that continuing to describe a pristine wildness creates a distorted image of a nature that has been free of human influence that is reinforced in a post-industrial mass culture of nature shows and stores and zoos.  And this image of pristine nature as external can avoid addressing societal and economic problems rather than highlight environmental problems as integral.[xvii]

Despite the “gray….man-made desert”[xviii] of the city, there is a new sense of nature as including the post-industrial rather than as “other” or “out there” or as external to civilization.  The very new, emerging “literacy” of ecology challenges our longstanding dialectic of self and other, creating a continuum of being so that self is transpersonal, making self-as-landscape a more authentic description of life.  Like all other life forms, human beings are continual, inseparable rivers of respiration and digestion with eloquent, shared macromolecular structures.  The word “ecology” is so very new and, as a result, effusive rather than explicit in its meaning, yet to be filled out in ways that will profoundly challenge our understanding of not ony the city but also of human nature. 
John Tallmadge offers a rare first step into the possibility of an authentic “practice of the wild” that includes “going in” urban life itself rather than a quest that is external to human settlements.[xix]  While disconcerting to his longstanding sense of wildness, Tallmadge writes that there is “more to this matter of wildness than I had ever imagined” and that “To practice the wild meant to step off the trail of received ideas about people and nature, to embrace learning and metamorphosis.”[xx]  Tallmadge suggests there is a new very effusive sense of the possibility that even wilderness—the epitome of wildness—might continue to be created, and that wilderness and civilization might not be opposed to each other.[xxi]  In the future, such self-questioning might seem laughable in the same way that past wondering if mountaintops might have once been seabeds now seems humorous to post-industrial life.

“Going in” urban nature, the traditional sense of the presence of wildness in the city continues to focus on the presence of nonhuman species in human habitation, overriding weathers, and acknowledgement of geological formations and ecosystems such as forest and coastline.  Rarely does a sense of going into urban nature, “go into” either human activity itself or the built landscape to experience wildness.  Going in post-industrial life to taste wildness is a new frontier.  As Tallmadge writes, “None of the nature writers had offered much wisdom for living in cities.  And he speculates further, “Perhaps urban nature remains largely invisible because we lack an appropriate philosophy and vocabulary.” [xxii]  Writing about the broader dimensions and subtlety of wildness and pondering the possibility that wildness remains an enduring aspect of human life that we have failed to articulate, Terry Tempest Williams lyrically comments,
Perhaps the wildness we fear is the pause between our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace.  Wilderness lives by this same grace.  Wild mercy is in our hands.[xxiii]

Wilderness has grown from being a landscape devoid of human activity, from, as Also Leopold suggested, “continuous stretches of country…devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man”[xxiv] to the biosphere and cosmos beyond it.  Civilization is now included in the raw material of a vast wilderness.  And the future hope of the world—Thoreau’s “preservation of the world”—is still, for all life on Earth, in an ongoing wild response to this vast uncompromising wilderness.

[i] Gary Snyder, “Writers and the war against nature,” p. 7.
[ii] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1990, pp. 10-11.
[iii] Gary Snyder, “Writers and the war against nature,” p. 7.
[iv] Michael Hough, City Form and Natural Process: Towards A New Urban Vernacular. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1984, p. 2.
[v] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 102.
[vi] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 11
[vii] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 12.
[viii] Bill McKibben, The End of Nature. New York: Random House, 1989.
[ix] Bill McKibben, “Postnatural,” Aperture, 150 (Winter, 1998)
[x] Bill McKibben, Hope, Human and Wild, p. 10.
[xi] Bill McKibben, Hope, Human and Wild, p. 11.
[xii] Gary Snyder, Turtle Island. New York: New Directions, 1974, p.106.
[xiii] Gary Snyder, “Writers and the war against nature,” p. 3.
[xiv] Thomas Berry, The Great Work. p. 48.
[xv] Thomas Berry, The Great Work. p. 48.
[xvi] Thomas Berry, The Great Work. p. 51.
[xvii] Jennifer Price, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
[xviii] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, pp. 12-13.
[xix] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, pp. 123 and 35 respectively fro quotes.
[xx] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, pp. 35 and161 respectively for quotes.
[xxi] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, p. 40.
[xxii] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, p. 42.
[xxiii] Terry Tempest Williams, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. New York, Pantheon, 2001, p. 229
[xxiv] Aldo Leopold, “The wilderness and its place in forest recreational policy,” Journal of Forestry, Vol. 19, (7), pp. 718-721, November 1921.

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