Thursday, January 31, 2008

William Cronon: A More Thoughtful Thoreau

The short movie below, "Wilderness Trouble v1.0," was inspired by one of my favorite nature essays of all time, William Cronon's "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature." I read this essay for the first time just after college graduation, following my first season at Zealand Falls Hut. It might owe something to my circumstances at the time, having just relocated transcontinentally from a city into a "wilderness area," but this was a tremendously influential essay for me, and I still consider it to be the most insightful piece of nature writing I have ever read.

Cronon is a historian (I first read his work in a college course on the history of the 19th century American west), and he begins this essay by tracing the way the term "wilderness" morphed from being associated with evil and chaos (in Biblical passages) to something sublime and Edenic (in nineteenth century Romantic literature and ever since). He also notes that wilderness as we know it today may be perceived as something separate from or beyond the works of man, but in fact our wilderness areas are almost always the products of specific cultural perceptions or political decisions. Wilderness is manmade: "the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history."

So it is that wilderness can be the creation of Korean and American military culture in the late stages of the Cold War. Or it might be the baby boom's interpretation of an intensively logged forest during the second-home real estate boom at the twilight of their generation's productive lives.

Nothing wrong with this, in and of itself. "Wilderness" may be a cultural creation, but we can still go there to study and appreciate wild nature, no matter how the place came to be wild.

The real trouble with wilderness, Cronon argues, is the quasi-mystical (and unintentionally elitist) reverence the environmental movement all too frequently uses to obscure human relationships with wild places:
"The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living—urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die. Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land.

"This, then, is the central paradox: wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not. If this is so—if by definition wilderness leaves no place for human beings, save perhaps as contemplative sojourners enjoying their leisurely reverie in God’s natural cathedral—then also by definition it can offer no solution to the environmental and other problems that confront us.

The deification of Wilderness undermines our everyday sense of environmental stewardship by removing humans - and our responsibilities - from what we consider to be "real nature." Wilderness becomes a form of escapism: a way to assure weekend warriors that their SUVs aren't inflicting permanent damage on our environment, or a way to convince ourselves that it is better to burn coal out of sight than to install clean wind power on mountain ridges near our favorite ski resort. Wilderness is a place we go to tell ourselves lies.

What an incredible insight. And a damning criticism of the dominant environmental values of the twentieth century (what I've less eloquently labeled "jackass environmentalism" in this blog).

But Cronon's essay isn't simply critical: it also expresses a beautifully hopeful vision of an environmental ethic that encompasses the whole Earth, and not just the rare places where people aren't.
"As Gary Snyder has wisely said, 'A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness. The planet is a wild place and always will be.'

Learning to honor the wild... means striving for critical self-consciousness in all of our actions. It means the deep reflection and respect must accompany each act of use, and means too that we must always consider the possibility of non-use. It means looking at the part of nature we intend to turn toward our own ends and asking whether we can use it again and again and again — sustainably — without its being diminished in the process. It means never imagining that we can flee into a mythical wilderness to escape history and the obligation to take responsibility for our own actions that history inescapably entails.

Most of all, it means practicing remembrance and gratitude, for thanksgiving is the simplest and most basic of ways for us to recollect the nature, the culture, and the history that have come together to make the world as we know it.

If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world — not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both."

Wonderful, inspiring stuff. I highly recommend reading the full text of "The Trouble With Wilderness," which is available from William Cronon's web site.

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