Tag Archive 'being human'

Dec 28 2009

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World Without Wildness

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I found a field mouse in the basement the other day – an uninvited guest.  Its sudden appearance inside my home, the ultimate expression of domestication, is proof positive that the wild cannot be completely eradicated.  I find no small consolation in this.  I absolutely dread the possibility of living in a world without wildness, so I’d like to let that mouse stay.   But I’ll be putting out traps soon.   After all, I have to protect my investment.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between humankind and nature, about the difference between what is wild and what is not.  We use the terms “wild” and “civilized” as if they were opposites, as if one cancels out the other, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  Our relationship to the wild is much more complicated than that.  I believe that a part of the wild rests deep within us all, and that the wildness within cannot be completely eradicated any more than the weeds in our yard or the pests creeping into our houses.  All the same, it can be pushed back to the point where any discussion regarding it is moot.

When all that’s left of the wild is the occasional intruder in the basement, we will be living in a world without wildness.  When all nature is under our thumb, one way or other, then the wild won’t be worth thinking about.  When what we call nature is reduced to gardens, woodlots and preserves, and we have the means to genetically alter everything at will, then the wildness within us will be lost as well.  Then wilderness will be a theme park – a mere caricature of what it once was – and we will be only shells of our former selves.

I find it impossible to adequately define concepts like “wild” and “civilization” no matter how much I try.  These are terms fraught with ambiguities.  But this much I do know:  without a place to roam freely, we are merely cogs in a grand, meaningless, self-perpetuating system.  Aldo Leopold got right to the heart of the matter when he said:  “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”   In an era of flying drones, GPS navigation, infrared cameras, and electronic tracking devices, this question is hardly an academic one.  Computer chips are showing up everywhere.  Soon it will be impossible to completely disappear into the wild no matter how hard we try.  Good news for fighting terrorism or finding lost hikers, but bad news for preserving the wildness essential to us all.

I fear the scientist with his radio collar more than the greedy developer with his bulldozer.  It doesn’t require a great deal of creativity to imagine a team of technicians descending upon a woods wanderer and tagging him or her like any other wild animal.  And why not?  The wild cannot be properly managed if there are gaping holes in the database.  So yeah, I’ll trap that mouse in my basement, but not without deep reservation.  Some part of the wild must be cultivated within me.  Some part of the wild must be allowed even in my own home.  Otherwise, civilization is all for nothing.

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Jul 27 2009

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Nature and Irrationality

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From what I can tell, there are two prevailing approaches to nature these days: the holistic and the rationalistic.  Those who take the holistic approach perceive nature as a seamless whole, which holds itself in eternal balance – when undisturbed by humans that is.  Those who take the rationalistic approach assert that there is a logical explanation for everything in nature, even the allegedly erratic behavior of individual plants, animals and people.  This is the fundamental difference between East and West, between the philosophies of the Orient and those that arose from ancient Greece.  Or so we are told.  But I don’t buy it.

In the 21st Century, a third approach is emerging – one that fuses the holistic with the rationalistic, the East with the West, the right brain with the left.  In this approach, Mother Earth is respected even as science is embraced.  Taking this approach, reasonable men and women work as stewards, helping nature restore itself to its proper balance.  But I don’t buy this, either.

There is, of course, that old-time view of nature as a world “red in tooth and claw,” where strong prevail and weak perish, but aside from a handful of libertarian anarchists, I’ve never met anyone who truly believes this.  The problem with this approach is that civilization keeps getting in the way.  What room is there for civility in such a world, for law and order?

The way I see it, the wild has no place in any of these views.  And when I say “wild” here, I mean truly wild – wild in a way that no theologian, scientist, or philosopher could ever fully explain.  The wild as fundamental contradiction, as aberration of nature, as inherent absurdity.  I seem to be one of the few people who believe that wildness of this sort exists.

After several decades of rumination, I have reached the conclusion that nature is predicated by the irrational.  I don’t think there can be any serious discussion about nature without the thorny issue of wildness being addressed, first and foremost.  And yes, I suspect that wildness and irrationality are cut from the same cloth, that all deviations from the norm are, in fact, as much a part of nature as the norm itself.  In other words, nothing stands outside of nature.

So go ahead and call me a Pantheist.  I won’t deny it.  It would be irrational for me to do so.  Then again, it’s hard to say how I’ll react to any box drawn around me.  And this is precisely why wildness, human or otherwise, is so dangerous.

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Jan 19 2009

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Passing Judgment

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I got out of bed yesterday, dressed in thermals and wools, then stepped out the door while it was still dark.  I woke up in a bad mood for some reason – maybe I had been pondering the human condition in my sleep.  All I know is that I felt a powerful urge to go for a long walk and air out my stinky thoughts.  Since my wife and dog were visiting a friend for the weekend, there was nothing to prevent me from breaking the morning routine.  So out the door I went.

At first I kept to the sidewalk, but snowdrifts made walking there difficult so I moved to the street.  On a wintry Sunday morning before daybreak, it didn’t matter.  A car cruised by every once in a while, but I had the street to all myself for the most part.  I imagined trying to explain to some policeman why I was prowling the town.  But that was only my stinky thoughts creeping to the forefront of my consciousness, so I let it go.

I listened the other day as our outgoing president made his last speech, justifying eight years of ineptitude and that, I think, is what put me over the edge.  He passed judgment on himself as a way of setting the record straight, before anyone else could do so.  He passed judgment on everyone and everything in sight, seizing the moral high ground.  Or so he thought.  But history will not be kind to him.  I’m sure of that.

We all do it.  Passing judgment is as common as passing gas.  It’s an integral part of being human.  But there are times when it seems to me like the root of all evil.  I recently read several books about the Eastern Front in World War Two and was appalled by what the Nazis and Soviets did to each other there, along with anyone else in the way.  Tens of millions of people died, combatants and non-combatants alike, as each side pursued its morally righteous agenda by sheer force.  80% of the war was fought on that front and none of it was pretty.  To what end?  Misery, cruelty, death, destruction, and ultimately back to square one:  the Cold War, taking sides again, us and them.  And so on and so on . . .

Where does it all end?  According to those passing judgment, it never does – not until heaven on earth has been firmly established.  All we have to do is stand tall against the bad guys and good will prevail, right?  This is precisely what our departing president believes and why the world is such a mess.  I pray that the incoming president has more sense, but there’s a stink in the air as the victors of the last election celebrate.  Is that the smell of moral righteousness?  It smells to me like something dead.

As I finished my frigid walk, I flushed a murder of crows from a long row of conifers lining a side street.  They whirled about the bleached landscape in predawn light, cawing with unusual menace before settling into a few naked maples.  I was cold, achy, sweaty but feeling much better than I’d felt an hour earlier.  Walking is like that. I was tempted to read something into the sudden presence of so many carrion-eaters, but quickly jettisoned the thought.  “Give it a break,” I mumbled, reminding myself how easy it is to pass judgment and how little good comes from it.   Then I went home to a hot cup of coffee and breakfast.  And the day began in snowy stillness and beauty despite the endless gray sky overhead.

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Oct 17 2008

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Surrendering Wilderness

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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.

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Oct 02 2008

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Philosophizing Nature

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Yesterday my wife reminded me that I’m weird.  I don’t hold down a full time job.  I wander alone for days on end, grooving with the wild.  I sit around pondering the universe, then write down my thoughts.  Okay, I admit it – I’m an odd duck, and not just because I have no fashion sense and listen to avant-garde jazz.  Lately I’ve been spending a great deal of time philosophizing about nature and it’s only widening the chasm between mainstream society and me.  So I make it a point to do something normal each day, like surfing the net or watching TV.  That helps.

Immediately following my four-day retreat in the Adirondacks, I started revising a new set of philosophical essays that I committed to paper last spring.  Three weeks later, I’m still at it.  But I should finish this particular draft soon.  At the risk of mislabeling the work, I’d call it existential naturalism, even though I’m not really an existentialist or a naturalist.  I don’t particularly care for “-ists” and “-isms,” and that makes describing my worldview somewhat problematical.  But this label gives the reader some idea what my work is about, anyhow.

No philosophy worth taking seriously can be adequately expressed in bumper stickers.  That people even try is a tribute more to their sense of humor than to their wisdom.  But simplicity is a virtue in this day and age, so here are a few statements that characterize my worldview:  1) The mysteries of the natural world (the only world there is) are greater than our ability to comprehend them.  2) God, nature (in general) and human nature (in particular) are inexorably entwined.  3) I, Homo sapiens, am entirely responsible for what I make of myself and the world.

Do you see any glaring contradictions here?  I certainly hope so, otherwise I’m just wasting my time.  To be useful at all, philosophizing has to bring fresh ideas to the table.  Everything else is mere apology for the same old, worn-out worldviews passed down through the centuries, or meaningless blather.  I’d rather be thought of as a walking contradiction than someone who has nothing new to say.

The word “nature” means a thousand different things to a thousand different people.  Like the words “truth” and “love,” it defies easy definition, and that’s probably why philosophers find it so attractive.  But I am certain that such a thing as nature exists when I go for a long walk in the woods.  Only when faced with the countless abstractions of human society – things like dollar bills, contracts and “-isms” – do I start having my doubts.

As soon as I’ve completed this draft, I’ll disappear into the woods for a while.  I’ll wander about aimlessly, grooving on the wild and clearing my head.  Then brand new ideas will crop up.  It’s a vicious circle to be sure.  This is what makes me weird, I guess.  I keep going back to the well, even though this constant re-visioning only complicates matters.  Good thing my wife loves me for it, otherwise I’d be in deep trouble.  There’s not much call for woods wanderers in either the personal ads or the employment pages these days.

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Jul 24 2008

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Hearing the Wood Thrush

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The melodic, flute-like song of the wood thrush rang through the trees the other day, stopping me in my tracks the same way it did decades ago when I first heard it. Amazing. That little brown bird still has some strange power over me.

Like Thoreau, I feel the gates of heaven are not shut against me when I hear that song. In fact, they are wide open as I venture ever deeper into the shadowy forest. Manifest in those few simple notes is the great mystery of the wild itself and my unspeakable desire to fuse with it, to become as much a part of the forest as possible. After hearing the wood thrush, each step I take becomes a prayer – a whole new way of being in the world. All the travails of my species become some sad travesty performed in the distance. They are largely irrelevant in the face of the real. And for a second, maybe two, I know what it feels like to be fully human.

For years I have tried to articulate that feeling, to lend words to a visceral belief in the essential goodness of the world. So far I have not succeeded. When I tramp alone in deep woods and hear the thrush, I know in my heart that my own wickedness prevents me from speaking for the wild in any meaningful way. Like all other human beings, I am too arrogant, self-righteous, too caught up in my own sense of self-importance to say what needs to be said. And the moment I try, I become a charlatan.

There are times when I am wild. Standing naked on a rock next to an emerald pool in a mountain stream, dripping wet, I understand as the other animals do exactly what it means to be fully in the world. But that knowledge escapes me as I dress, and I am left wondering if perhaps there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with the way me and my kind have organized our lives down in the developed lowlands. What’s out of whack? I must confess that I have no more of an answer to this question now than I did thirty years ago. All I know is that an essential part of myself is as wild as the forest and no less endangered.

Last night I read an article in Audubon magazine about the wood thrush and how its numbers have diminished over the past half century. My wife brought the piece to my attention suspecting, no doubt, that it contained something I should know about. I can’t say I learned anything new. The article was rife with the kind of environmentalism that has become standard fare in our day and age. But somehow it left me with an even better sense of what the wood thrush stands for and why I continue writing and publishing under that name.

The wood thrush is a bird that needs large patches of unbroken forest to prosper. So do I. And there is still enough primate in all of us, I believe, for this to be universally true. We need the forest, we need the wild in ways that can’t be measured. And if the day comes when there is no longer enough wildland for the wood thrush to survive, then we will not survive either. Life will go on, the planet will turn, and some kind of brainy biped will persist. But not the human.

As goes the wild, goes the human. Of this I am now certain. The only question remaining is which way the story will play out. Will we ultimately win the Darwinian struggle for existence, or will we join the long list of species that have come and gone? The answer, I believe, lies in our collective will to wildness, or the lack thereof.

The great danger, of course, lies in how we define both nature and ourselves. As Emerson said, “Nature converts itself into a vast promise, and will not be rashly explained.” The same can be said about being human. This isn’t easy terrain to navigate. Yet the song of the wood thrush provides a clue as to where to begin. Hearing it, I know I must go deeper into the forest to understand – much deeper. The wild is waiting for me there.

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