Place of the Wild: A Wildlands Anthologyby David Clarke Burks
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Where and what is the place of the wild? Is the goal of preserving biodiversity across the landscape of North America compatible with contemporary Western culture?Place of the Wild brings together original essays from an exceptional array of contemporary writers and activists to present in a single volume the most current thinking on the relationship between humans and wilderness. A common thread running through the volume is the conviction that everyone concerned with the natural world -- academics and activists, philosophers and poets -- must join forces to re-establish cultural narratives and shared visions that sustain life on this planet.The contributors apply the insights of conservation biology to the importance of wilderness in the 21st century, raising questions and stimulating thought. The volume begins with a series of personal narratives that present portraits of wildlands and humans. Following those narratives are more-analytical discourses that examine conceptions and perceptions of the wild, and of the place of humanity in it. The concluding section features clear and resonant activist voices that consider the importance of wildlands, and what can be done to reconcile the needs of wilderness with the needs of human culture.
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Place of the Wild
A Wildlands Anthology
By David Clarke Burks
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1994 Island Press
All rights reserved.
The Far Outside
GARY PAUL NABHAN
Any good poet, in our age at least, must begin with the scientific view of the world; and any scientist worth listening to must be something of a poet, must possess the ability to communicate to the rest of us his sense of love and wonder at what his work discovers.
EDWARD ABBEY, The Journey Home
I was in a small room in Alaska when I heard it. That was part of the trouble. I was supposed to be paying attention to what was being said in the room; after all, this was a nature writing symposium. But from where I sat I could hear ravens coming in to roost in the spruce trees above us, and wondered how their calls were different from those of the Chihuahuan ravens down where I live. I could look out the windows and see bald eagles swooping over the waters of the sound. Worse yet, I already had the stain and smell of salmonberries on my hands, and had been perplexed all morning as to why the ripe berries on two adjacent bushes were entirely different colors.
It was then that I heard it. A familiar warble came out of the well-educated, widely read humanist a few chairs away from me. She asserted a truism I had heard in one form or another for nearly thirty years:
"Each of us has to go inside before we can go outside! How can we give any meaning to the natural world until each individual finds out who he or she is as a human being, until each of us finds our own internal source of peace?"
Queasy, I immediately felt nauseous, indisposed. Something she said had stuck in my craw. Instantly, I was so out of sorts I had to leave the room. Our moderator followed me out to the porch, where I gasped for air.
"Are you okay?" she asked earnestly. "You looked green all of a sudden."
"I dunno." I breathed deeply and looked up at the crisp blue sky. "I must be ... uh ... under the weather a little. Let me see if some fresh air will help.... If you don't mind, I had better go for a walk."
As I ambled along, I wondered what had set me off. I wandered around on a rainforest trail, trying to spiral in on what in that room had disoriented me. First, I felt uncomfortable with the notion that we can give the natural world "its meaning." The plants and animals which I have observed most diligently over twenty years as a field biologist hardly seem to be waiting for me to give them meaning. Instead, most humans want to feel as though we are meaningful, and so we project our meanings upon the rest of the world. We read meaning into other species' behavior, but with few exceptions they are unlikely to do the same toward us.
Humans may, in fact, be rare even among primates in the attention we give to a wide range of other species' tracks, calls, and movements. To paraphrase one prominent primatologist: "If their inattention to their neighbors other than predators is any indication, most monkeys are extremely poor naturalists." The same can be said of many other wild animals which live in sight of, and in spite of, human habitations.
While it may somehow be good for us to think and write about plants and animals, I am reminded of John Daniel's humbling insight while hopping through a snake-laden boulder field: the snakes were not fazed by his thoughts, fears, or needs. As Daniel writes in The Trail Home: "The rattlesnakes beneath the boulders instructed me, in a way no book could have, that the natural world did not exist entirely for my comfort and pleasure; indeed, that it did not particularly care whether my small human life continued to exist at all."
Walking along, my restlessness increased as I considered the premise put forth in that room: the shortest road to wisdom and peace with the world is that which turns inward. I will not argue that meditation, psychotherapy, and philosophical reflection are unproductive, but I simply can't accept that inward is the only or best way for everyone to turn. The more disciplined practitioners of contemplative traditions can turn inward and still get beyond the self, but many others simply stumble into self-indulgence.
As Robinson Jeffers suggested over a half century ago, it may be just as valid to turn outward: "The whole human race spends too much emotion on itself. The happiest and freest man is the scientist investigating nature or the artist admiring it, the person who is interested in things that are not human. Or if he is interested in human beings, let him regard them objectively as a small part of the great music."
Finishing my walk among the great music of crashing waves and hermit thrushes, I conceded that the wisest, most inspired people I knew had all taken this second path, heading for what I call the Far Outside. It is the path found when one falls into "the naturalist's trance," the hunter's pursuit of wild game, the curandera's search for hidden roots, the fisherman's casting of the net into the current, the water-witcher's trust of the forked willow branch, the rock climber's fixation on the slightest details of a cliff face. Oddly, it is hanging onto that cliff, beyond the reach of the safety net of civilization, where one may gain the deepest sense of what it is to be alive. As arctic writer and ethnographer Hugh Brody says of his predilection for working in the most remote human communities and wildest places he can find, "it is at the periphery that I can come to understand the central issues of living."
Unlike conditions within the metropolitan grid where it seems we have got nature surrounded, the Far Outside still offers the comic juxtapositions, the ones worthy of a Gary Larson cartoon. The flood suddenly looms large before Noah can get his family onto the ark full of animals; the bugs in the test tube have the last say about the entire experiment.
INWARD AND OUTWARD PATHS
When I returned home to the Stinkin Hot Desert, I had an urge to see how an elder from another culture might view this apparent dichotomy between inward and outward paths—or for that matter, the dichotomy between culture and nature. I drove a hundred miles across the desert to see a seventy-four-year-old O'odham farmer who had worked all his life "outdoors": tending native crops, chopping wood, driving teams of horses, gathering cactus fruit, hunting, and building ceremonial houses for his tribe's rain-bringing rites. He was consistently wise in ways that my brief bouts with Jungian analysis, zazen practice, and Franciscan prayer had not enabled me to be. And I knew that because he'd had a brush with death over the last year, he had been made sedentary and forced to be alone, and at home, for a longer time than ever before in his entire life. He sat outside on an old wooden bench, a crutch on either side of him, looking out at a small field which he would not be able to plant this year. I asked him what he had been working over in his mind the last couple months.
"I'd like to make a trip," he said nonchalantly for a man who had only traveled once beyond the limits of the desert—all the way to Gallup—and who now lived at the end of his life less than thirty miles from where he was born.
"Yes, before I die, I'd like to go over there to the ocean," he nodded to the southwest, where the Sea of Cortez lay a hundred miles away. It was a sacred place for the desert O'odham, where they used to go as pilgrims for salt and for songs. My elderly friend paused, then continued.
"Yes, I would like to hear the birds there in the sea. I would like to hear those ocean birds sing in my native language."
"In O'odham ha-neoki?" I asked. I must have looked surprised he felt the birds spoke in his language, for he then offered to explain his comment as if it had been scribbled in a shorthand indiscernible to me.
"Whenever my people used to walk over there to the ocean for salt, they would stand on the edge and listen to those birds sing. And they are in many of the songs we still sing today, even though we haven't walked or ridden horses there since the hoof-and-mouth quarantines in the forties. In the old days, they didn't start to sing those songs while they were still at the ocean. No, the people would go back home, and then some night, those ocean birds would begin singing in their dreams. That's where our songs come from. They would come to our medicine men, from the ocean, in their dreams. Maybe the ones who play the violin would hear them in their sleep, and their voices would turn up in their fiddle tunes. Maybe the pascola dancers would hear the way they flew, and it would end up in the way they sounded when they danced with their rattles. Those birds have ended up in our songs, and I want to hear them at the ocean before I die."
What struck me about my friend's last request was his desire to hear those birds for himself at the edge of the ocean. For a lifelong dweller in a riverless desert, the ocean must be a landscape wilder than the imagination, truly unfathomable. In the end, he sought to juxtapose his culture's aural imagery of ocean birds with what the birds themselves were saying. He desired to experience nature directly, as a measure of the cultural symbols and sounds he had carried with him most of his life.
My friend's songs and stories are conversant with and responsive to what we often refer to as "outer reality." This larger landscape is not superfluous or irrelevant to his culture's literature, music, or ways of healing. When I arrived at his home once, years ago, I saw him carrying into the kitchen a mockingbird which he had captured in a seed trap, killed, and carefully butchered, in order to cook the meat up and feed it to his grandson. Mockingbirds are not simply good mimics, they are irrepressibly loquacious; his grandson was not. In fact, the boy was nearly three years old and had not spoken a word. Concerned, my friend recalled the sympathetic ritual of his people for curing such difficulties: feed the mute one the songbird's flesh. He will have the best chance of being able to express himself if he ingests the wild world around him. In the O'odham language, the words for curing, wildness, and health come from the same root.
This is where "inner" and "outer" become not a duality but a dynamic—like every breath we take. We are inspired by what surrounds us; we take it into our bodies, and after some rumination we respond with expression. What we have inside us is, ultimately, always of the larger, wilder world. Nature is not just "out there," beyond the individual. The O'odham boy now has seed, bird, and O'odham history in his very muscles, in the cells of his tongue, in his reverberating voice box.
Lynn Margulis has recently pointed out that thousands of other such lives are literally inside each so-called human "individual." For every cell of our own genetic background that we embody, there are a thousand times more cells of other species within and on each of our bodies. It would be more fitting to imagine each human corpus as a diverse wildlife habitat than to persist with the illusion of the individual self. Or better, each of us is really a corpus of stories: bacteria duking it out for the final word in our mouths; fungi having clandestine affairs between our toes; other microbes collaborating to digest the world within our intestines; archetypal images from our evolutionary past roaming through our nerve synapses, testing out groin muscles against our brain tissue.
If I could distill what I have learned during a thousand and one nights working as a field biologist, waiting around campfires while mist-netting bats, running lines of live traps, or pressing plants, it would be this: each plant or animal has a story of some unique way of living in this world. By tracking their stories down to the finest detail, our own lives may somehow be informed, and perhaps enriched. The zoologist who radio-collars a mountain lion may call his research a range utilization analysis, but he is simply tracking that critter's odyssey. A botanist may refer to the adaptive strategy of a cactus, but only after carefully recording chapter and verse how the plant endures and prevails, despite droughts, freezes, or heat waves. An ecologist interested in the nutcracker's dispersal of pine seeds is slowly learning the language of the forest, and the birds are her newly found verbs.
Perhaps due to what Paul Ehrlich calls "physics envy," many biologists feel inclined to mask their recording of stories in shrouds of numbers, jargon, and theory. We find their remarkable insights buried beneath techno-babble about life histories, optimal foraging tests, or paleoecological reconstructions. Most of them, however, are merely tracing the trajectory of another life as it demonstrates ways to survive in the Far Outside. In Writing Natural History, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner E. O. Wilson tells of the struggle scientists have simply to be storytellers: "Scientists live and die by their ability to depart from the tribe and go out into an unknown terrain and bring back, like a carcass newly speared, some new discovery or new fact or theoretical insight and lay it in front of the tribe; and then they all gather and dance around it. Symposia are held in the National Academy of Sciences and prizes are given. There is fundamentally no difference from a Paleolithic campsite celebration...."
In short, scientists too grapple with the challenge of telling the unheard-of stories which may move their tribes. And yet it is tragic to realize how few of these stories any of us will ever glimpse. In The Diversity of Life, it is E. O. Wilson again who reminds us that we have only the crudest of character sketches—let alone any understanding of the plots—involved with most of these floral and faunal narratives:
Even though some 1.4 million species of organisms have been discovered (in the minimal sense of having specimens collected and formal scientific names attached), the total number alive on the earth is somewhere between 10 and 100 million.... Of the species given scientific names, fewer than 10 percent have been studied at a level deeper than gross anatomy. [Intensively studied species make up] ... a still smaller fraction, including colon bacteria, corn, fruit flies, Norway rats, rhesus monkeys, and human beings, altogether comprising no more than a hundred species.
Try to imagine the still-untold stories, the sudden flowerings, the cataclysmic extinctions, the episodic turnovers in dominance, the failed attempts at mutualistic relationships, and the climaxes which took hundreds of years to achieve. In every biotic community, there are story lines which fiction writers would give their eyeteeth for: Desert tortoises with allegiances to place that have lasted upward of forty thousand years, dwarfing any dynasty in Yoknapatawpha County. Fidelities between hummingbird and montane penstemon that make the fidelities in Port William, Kentucky, seem like puppy love. Dormancies of lotus seeds that outdistance Rip Van Winkle's longest nap. Promiscuities between neighboring oak trees which would make even Nabokov and his Lolita blush. Or all-female lizard species with reproductive habits more radical than anything in lesbian literature.
And yet, with the myriad stories around and within us, how many of them do we recognize as touching our lives in any way? Most natural history essays are so limited in their range of plot, character development, and emotive currents that Joyce Carol Oates has come to an erroneous, near-fatal assumption about nature itself. In her essay "Against Nature," Oates claims that nature "inspires a painfully limited set of responses in 'nature writers' ... reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness."
Most environmental journalists offer an even more limited set of "news" stories: (1) that someone has momentarily succeeded in disrupting the plans of the bastards who are ruining the world; and (2) that the bastards are still ruining the world. Most newspaper and magazine journalists who ostensibly cover biological diversity tell the same doom and gloom story over and over, with virtually nothing substantial about the nonhuman lives embedded in that diversity. One week, "Paradise Lost" is told with the yew tree as the victim in the temperate rainforest; the next, the scene has shifted to peyote in the Chihuahuan desert; but the plot is still the same.
Excerpted from Place of the Wild by David Clarke Burks. Copyright © 1994 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Editor/Contributor David Clarke Burks is a writer, editor, and lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Oregon. His articles, essays, and stories have appeared in various publications across the country, and he is a correspondent for Wild Earth. He has traveled extensively throughout North and Central America.
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