Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wild Mercy Is In Our Hands

TO TRY TO FIND wildness in urbanization can seem like an overreaching quest when more important work, such as the preservation of unsettled landscapes, cries out for our attention.  However, with urbanization as the now-predominant human habitat, our “established” concepts may misread the world as it is, and be potentially destructive to both human and non-human life on Earth.  Our concept of wildness has never been fixed, but rather has evolved from being a threatening terrain to be avoided, and then to a wasteland in need of human exploitation to be activated, and then to a Romantic Eden that has now become an archaic remnant to be preserved, to a now still effusive, ecological vision of wildness as a vast cosmic dynamic of an ongoing cosmic creation process that is inside our identity and at the heart of our core economics.  As our sense of wildness has changed, so has our sense of human nature.

The explicit sense of wildness in the post-industrial era is still that of a quality found in unsettled nonhuman landscapes.  There is an emerging implicit sense of wildness as a quality that is not limited to a specific place,[i] and that is inherent throughout the universe as a central dynamic, that “can be seen as a property of the body or mind,”[ii] and that can be found in the city and suburb as well as the rainforest.[iii]  The emphasis upon nature and wildness being separate from human life—as “out there”—is beginning to be challenged as a misperception.  Our predominant sense of wildness may be a beautiful belief in an idealized pristine nature.  Further, 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.[iv]

Despite the “gray….man-made desert”[v] 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.[vi]  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.”[vii]  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.[viii]  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.” [ix]  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.[x]

[i] Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996, pp. 83-84.
[ii] John Knott, Imagining Wild America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002, p.7
[iii] There is a longstanding natural history literature identify nonhuman species in urban environments.  For examples of more contemporary statements that also begin to challenge the sense of wildness as completely separable from human life see: Peter Friderici, The Suburban Wild. Athens: University of Georgia, 1999, p.6; John Tallmadge,
“Resistance to urban nature,” in Robert Grese and John Knott (eds.) Reimagining Place. Michigan Quarterly Review, 40 (Winter, 2001, special edition), pp. 178-189, and John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch: Learning From Nature in the City. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004; and John Knott, Imagining Wild America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002, p.7.
[iv] Jennifer Price, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
[v] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, pp. 12-13.
[vi] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, pp. 123 and 35 respectively fro quotes.
[vii] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, pp. 35 and161 respectively for quotes.
[viii] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, p. 40.
[ix] John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch, p. 42.
[x] Terry Tempest Williams, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. New York, Pantheon, 2001, p. 229

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