Oct 17 2008

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Surrendering Wilderness

Posted at 10:04 am under Blog Post

I read a musing on wilderness the other day that really got me going.  It was written by the award-winning essayist, Marilynne Robinson, who has a way with words but clearly doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  She started out addressing the idea of wilderness in the most general terms, then discussed various environmental woes, then argued that every environmental problem is fundamentally a human one.  Maybe so, but getting from there to her conclusion was quite the stretch.

“I think we must surrender the idea of wilderness,” she concluded, “Accept the fact that the consequences of human presence in the world are universal and ineluctable, and invest our care an hope in civilization…”  Hmm…  Did I miss something?  I went back and reread the first part of the essay to make sure her idea of wilderness and mine are roughly the same.  They aren’t.  She was thinking of the wide-open, relatively uninhabited landscape of the American West; I was thinking of wild country, as close to being pristine as it can be in this day and age.  There’s a big difference between the two.  You can site a nuclear waste dump in the former, but not in the latter.

Maybe I should cut Ms. Robinson some slack.  After all, the best essays aren’t rigorously argued discourses.  But that phrase, “surrender the idea of wilderness,” buzzes around my head like a pesky fly.  The last thing in the world I intend to surrender is the idea of wilderness.  I will surrender the idea of civilization first, though I don’t believe for a second that the two are mutually exclusive.

Again I’m thinking I should cut Ms. Robinson some slack.  Perhaps she doesn’t see the difference between wilderness and the idea of wilderness.  I don’t know how to show her the difference without dropping her in the middle of the Alaskan bush for a couple weeks with nothing more than a little food, gear, and her own wits to stave off oblivion.  The idea of wilderness is a gross misrepresentation of the wild, I’ll grant her that.  But to write off the wild altogether in favor of the civilized – I’m not buying it. There’s more to being civilized, I think, than living in a gilded cage.  Much more.

Ever since people have been able to throw up walls and declare themselves civilized (i.e. better than barbarians), there has been this prejudice against the wild.  I suspect that Ms. Robinson, along with many, many others living in this day and age, consider themselves intellectually and morally superior to our distant ancestors who scratched out a living towards the end of the last Ice Age.  If highly civilized people such as Ms. Robinson ever tried to chip a spearhead, attach it to a shaft, and get their lunch with it, they might see the fundamental error built into their preconceptions.

As for me, well, I spend a lot of time nurturing my philosophical abstractions but could just as easily be a fur-clad shaman fifteen thousand years ago trying to explain the world.  Reason is a handy tool but not the be-all and end-all of understanding.  I am human and wild, first and foremost.  I have sojourned in the wilderness on many occasions, however brief, and know the difference between what it is and any mere idea of it.  Civilization is optional.  The wild is not.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Surrendering Wilderness”

  1. Phil Ruddon 18 Oct 2008 at 12:08 am 1

    You write: “If highly civilized people such as Ms. Robinson ever tried to chip a spearhead, attach it to a shaft, and get their lunch with it, they might see the fundamental error built into their preconceptions.”

    This captured my interest. Children, especially feral boys such as the ones I attempted to “raise”, exhibit this spear/shaft/lunch behavior if you allow them. They “get it” instinctively. We are quite capable of returning to that way of life.

  2. Walton 20 Oct 2008 at 11:50 am 2

    Phil, we’re all quite capable of it, but a trip to the local grocery store is so much easier. Then we can think whatever we want to think.

  3. Phil Ruddon 20 Oct 2008 at 9:00 pm 3

    You wouldn’t want to hear nor think my thoughts at the local grocery store, Walt.

  4. Walton 21 Oct 2008 at 11:50 am 4

    Yeah, I’ll bet. My thoughts run pretty dark there, too.