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.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Wilderness Trouble v1.0

Source: EcoArtTech.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bollevarts and Urban Renewal

I'm currently reading A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski, a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. This is an enjoyable book for several reasons: it follows Olmsted through the history of nineteenth century America as it happens, from Olmsted's reporting on slavery in the antebellum South to his Civil War volunteerism to his gold mine management in wild west California to the establishment of his landscape architecture firm. Along the way, Olmsted's various careers and interests also reflect America's changing and emergent attitudes about conservation and wilderness, especially in cities.

Anyhow, I just learned from this book that "The first leisure promenades in European cities were on top of abandoned city fortifications. These promenades came to be known as bollevarts, or boulevards, after the German bollwerk (bulwark)."

Now, we don't really have abandoned fortifications on which to build new public spaces here in America. But there is a growing trend of tearing down ugly downtown freeways to replace them with new parks and other walkable, humane public spaces. New York demoted its West Side Highway, and San Francisco removed the rubble permanently when the Loma Preita earthquake rendered the Embarcadero Freeway as useless and dangerous to cars as it had been for pedestrians. As a matter of fact, some people think that we ought to do something similar in my hometown of Portland, Maine.

60s-era freeways are kind of the opposite of medieval fortifications: instead of protecting the cities they encircle, they wage war against them with an assault of murderous vehicles, pollution, noise, and isolation. It's a credit to civilization in general that these aggressive structures are eventually abandoned and transformed.

But if European "boulevards" are an appropriation of Germany's bellicose "bollwerks", what should Americans call their reclaimed freeways? Cabrini Greens, perhaps? The parting of the Moses Seas? How about De-Detroits?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Korea's DMZ Wilderness

Here in the USA, we come by our officially-designated wilderness areas by acts of Congress. In Korea, a 4 km-wide strip of wilderness that runs all the way across the peninsula, from the Yellow Sea in the west to the Sea of Japan in the east, came about by an act of war. This is a satellite view of Korea's demilitarized zone, northeast of Seoul:

View Larger Map

Korea's DMZ is a no-man's land - no roads, no towns, no campsites, no nuttin' - guarded by some two million soldiers/park rangers. There is now a diplomatically symbolic railroad that cuts across the DMZ at one point, and one equally symbolic "truce village," where residents can enjoy the scenic and wild surroundings under the crosshairs of two belligerent armies.

But mostly, the DMZ is pure wilderness. And because it traverses the entire Korean peninsula, it encompasses a broad array of ecosystems: "'The DMZ and its adjacent Civilian Control Zone are unique containing wetlands, forests, estuaries, mountains, coastal islands, riparian valleys and agricultural fields,' says Hall Healy of Facilitated Solutions International, an organization that aids conservation groups working in the border area," according to CNN.

The area is also a refuge for thousands of species of migratory waterfowl that have been exiled from other habitats in the rapidly-urbanizing Asian Pacific Rim. Evidently the birds are too lightweight to set off landmines.

You know the old saw that instructs hikers to "take only pictures"? Well, you're not even allowed to take those in Korea's wilderness. Nevertheless, the Smithsonian Institute did manage to get this shot (source) of a family of endangered white-naped cranes, which rely on the DMZ as one of their last refuges:

And here's a stunning barbed-wire and snow landscape from Green Korea, an NGO working to protect the DMZ as diplomacy weakens the strict wilderness regulations:

Friday, January 18, 2008

The baby boomers are going to love this.

The nexus of ridiculous wealth and ridiculous immaturity in this second gilded age has had its share of problems - broken marriages, Hummer sales, SEC investigations, and global environmental destruction, among them - but if you're willing to do the heavy lifting to assuage bourgeois guilt pangs (case study: WhoFooMa), there are some tremendous business opportunities. Like this one:

Want to make a purchase? Visit

Previously on The Vigorous North: Carbon Indulgences

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The People's Car

"That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest."
- Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Environmentalists worldwide have been wringing their hands this week with the introduction of the new Tata Nano, a $2500 "people's car" intended to make car ownership affordable to India's burgeoning middle class.

So will 1 billion new motorists in India push the world's carbon-soaked atmosphere over the brink? How could those third-world nations be so inconsiderate?

I'm actually not that concerned about the Nano. I do think that this car is going to cause big problems in India: as thousands of new and inexperienced drivers take to streets that are already congested to the point of uselessness, and as those thousands of newly-minted members of the middle class sink a huge portion of their incomes into cars - a depreciating asset - instead of into their homes, education, medicine, or even safe drinking water.

But who are we to say that India shouldn't drive? Their middle class is merely following the lousy example we've set. We should actually be heartened by the fact that the Nano is remarkably fuel-efficient, and its engine will generate less pollution than most of the three-wheeled rickshaws and two-stroke motor scooters it's intended to replace.

In fact, as this NY Times article attests, the Nano is actually a model of automotive efficiency and frugality: no power steering, no power windows, no air bags or antilock brakes, one windshield wiper instead of two. Stripping out everything they didn't need allowed Tata's engineers to reduce material costs and build a car light enough to run on a tiny 35 horsepower engine (by comparison, this American couch-potato lawnmower runs on a 25 horsepower engine). This is almost the platonic ideal of an automobile: a car stripped down to its barest essence.

So as world environmental crises go, the Nano has got nothing on the hundreds of new coal power plants that China is building to keep our Wal-Mart shelves full of cheap plastic crap. Even if millions of people do embrace the Nano, India will have to respond with even tighter pollution rules (in fact, new auto regulations are already on their way), congestion charges for crowded city streets, and other measures to reduce driving.

Plus, like their Chinese counterparts, new Indian motorists are likely to drive up the global price of gasoline even further - and that should help the developed world trade in our own autos for something a little more frugal.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Crucifying Mankind on a Cross of Corn

This is William Jennings Bryan, the 1890s Democratic Party presidential candidate who might be most famous for his populist rant against the gold monetary standard, the "Cross of Gold" speech.

In Bryan's day, the "gold standard" meant that anyone could trade in a dollar for a specific amount of gold at the national treasury. Since the amount of gold in the world was fixed, there wasn't any inflation to speak of: a dollar was always worth the same amount of gold, no matter what. Meanwhile, America's farmers were struggling with debt as they bought new industrial-age farm equipment.

Bryan and his fellow populists understood that by getting rid of the gold standard and printing more money, inflation would rise and the costs of farmers' loans would be reduced significantly. If you've got a 5% bank loan, but inflation is also 5%, then the real interest rate is zero. Better still, if the inflation rate rises up to 10%, then the bank is effectively paying you a 5% rate of return - which would really screw those fat cat industrialists. Here's the last line from Bryan's famous speech, which he delivered hundreds of times across the nation:
"Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
And the toilers and the producing masses in the crowd went wild.

The United States wouldn't officially abandon the gold standard in 1971, although expanding government indebtedness during the world wars and an emerging global economy had made the gold standard all but meaningless, and inflation more and more common, long before then.

But now we have a new problem: agribusinesses (the big conglomerates that bought out Bryan's farmers when they succumbed to bankruptcy) are making money hand over fist while the rest of us pay for $5 gallons of milk. The rising prices of groceries have led some journalists to coin the term "agflation." : inflation in agricultural commodities. As many have noted, a major factor in "agflation" has been increasing demand for corn thanks to rising fuel prices and ethanol subsidies.

Ethanol refineries now consume 1/5th of our corn. Since corn also feeds livestock, sweetens your Fruit Loops, and greases your fries, the hundreds of groceries that contain corn or animal products are getting more expensive as a direct result of ethanol production. At the same time, farmers eager to profit from expensive corn are planting less of other crops, which means that everything else is more expensive as a result of diminished supply.

Now that people are beginning to think of corn not only as a staple source of food energy, but also as an alternative source of transportation energy, this old-fashioned commodity is taking on a big role in our global economy. The gold standard may be long gone, but now we've got something like a corn standard.

The United States doesn't usually include food or fuel prices in its inflation measures, so "agflation" hasn't translated into the more usual "inflation" quite yet. But it is putting the screws to low-income households that spend a higher percentage of their incomes on food and gasoline. What would William Jennings Bryan make of our the twenty-first century toiling masses being crucified on this new Cross of Corn?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Mark Dion, this blog is for you.

A buddy here in Portland recently told me that I should check out the work of artist Mark Dion. He was right, because Mark Dion turns out to be totally awesome. Dion creates installations and expeditions that focus on urban nature study, and he seems to share my interest in getting more people to appreciate the wild places in our inner cities. If you like this blog, you'll love this guy.

Here's one amazing project I was able to find. In 2002, Dion set up a wildlife observation center in the middle of New York's Madison Square Park. From that project's description:
"Fashioned after a 19th-century wildlife refuge viewing area, Dion will adorn his field station with objects, drawings, and other props that pertain to the park's natural surroundings. Created with input from park rangers and New York-area naturalists, Dion's interactive sculptural area allows for a unique and educational engagement with Madison Square Park."
This project also led to the publication of A Field Guide to the Wildlife of Madison Square Park. If you're looking for a way to express your appreciation of this blog, purchase a copy and send it to 64 Winter Street, Portland ME, 04102.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Comic relief

I've you've been reading this blog for two years now, you know that I used to work in the Appalachian Mountain Club's huts in northern New Hampshire (here's the archive from those days). Now, an old boss of mine is managing the construction of a new string of huts in northern Maine. An article in today's Kennebec Journal describes the project's long permitting process. I almost never waste my time reading the comments on Maine newspapers' web sites, but I did happen to see this one and I'm glad I did, because it seems to have accidentally stumbled on comic gold:

Brian of West Gardiner, ME
Jan 4, 2008 8:52 AM's funny that as soon as the liberal democrat granola environmental whako hikers with walking sticks and backpacks who are trying to find themselves in the woods and become one with nature want to improve property by building on trails for their own personal comfort,they feel that is ok!

However they vehemently oppose any other property improvements for the rest of us normal people!

Case in point, the opposition to plum creek!

Lets see, liberal democrat granolas want to construct...$11 million project, 12 "huts", 4,500-square-foot structures would provide a total of 400 beds and would each accommodate 35 to 40 guests and staff!

How can you call these buildings HUTS?! These are not HUTS but GRANOLA HOTELS!

These people talk out of both sides of their mouth! This project should not be allowed to go through! It hurts the wildlife and places too many treehuggers in the woods!

Never...Ever...elect democrats!

Brian makes some very cutting points on the contradictions and elitism inherent in old-guard environmentalism. Too bad he assumes that all hikers are "democrat liberal granola environmental whakos [sic]". That's a lot of baggage for our backpacks.

I also think that "GRANOLA HOTEL!" is a great description of the AMC huts.