Call of the Wild
Like Special Forces commandos, the L.A. County Sheriff's Deputies and Firefighters came at 2:00 am, when they knew their enemy would be asleep. Earlier that day, a force of two hundred had secured a perimeter around the camp, cutting off all sources of outside resupply, while a small reconnaissance team managed to steal most of the man's food and water. After a seventy-one-day siege, the lone warrior knew the end was coming and chained himself into place for one last stand.
The assault came off with military precision. A fire truck with a hydraulic-powered ladder moved in. Firefighters with metal cutters scrambled up and quickly cut the man's chains; sheriff's deputies read the charges against him and escorted him down the ladder to the ground. The public watched, mesmerized. The Los Angeles Times was there, its reporters putting out a metro section lead story, one of a dozen the paper had run during the long standoff. A local TV station canceled normal programming and spent two and a half hours providing live coverage, an action normally reserved for wars, assassinations, and extraordinary political scandals.
In fact, the drama was the arrest of a tree-sitter, who was charged with trespassing. For just over two months, forty-two-year-old John Quigley had lived amid the boughs of a four-hundred-year-old oak tree, trying to save it from a developer's bulldozer. The oak stood at the entrance to a new subdivision in the Santa Clarita Valley, north of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had ruled that the tree had to go because it blocked the planned expansion of a two-lane road into a four-lane thoroughfare. A developer was constructing several hundred homes nearby.
Locals had protested, contending that the road could be curved around the tree. The county officials said no. Their best offer was to move the oak, an act several arborists said would lead to its death. So on November 1, 2002, Quigley, a well-known environmentalist-about-town, climbed into the tree and refused to leave. Early on in the sit, he and his support crew took a lesson from an earlier tree-sitter, Julia Buttery Hill, who had lived atop a giant northern California redwood for twenty-one months. Hill claimed that her tree, dubbed Luna by the Earth First! activists who organized the tree-sit, communicated with her, teaching her how to climb and helping her endure winter storms. Hill routinely called the tree by name in her many interviews with the news media. By the time she successfully negotiated an agreement to save the redwood from logging, even conservative newspapers and her opponents in the lumber industry were referring to Luna as if the tree were a sentient being. Although Quigley never claimed his oak spoke to him, he and his closest advisers began calling it Old Glory. (The name apparently was the invention of two local boys who told Quigley, "We call her Old Glory because she stands in all her glory for all the oaks that have been cut down.")1
The name stuck, successfully turning the oak into a patriotic emblem of America for the post-September 11 era. The media loved the story, showing pictures of Old Glory with updates about the confrontation almost daily. The publicity created a strange carnival under the old oak tree. Parents brought their children to bear witness. Native American groups drummed and danced in solidarity. As posters, poems, and tributes collected at its base, Old Glory started to resemble a monument or memorial. Everyone—except maybe the recalcitrant supervisors—could see that to millions living in the suburban sprawl of Southern California, the oak had become far more than a tree. Just as Quigley and the boys who named it hoped, it had become a symbol of all the other trees, animal life, and open spaces lost to development.
Except in its particulars, this story was by no means unique. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, a new and striking kind of yearning was evident in the ways ordinary people felt and talked about nature. People were touched by stories of bears who befriended humans, enthralled by the fluid grace of whales, moved to the depths of their souls by majestic trees, dark mountains, and .owing rivers, newly alive to the sense of mystery, of a world larger than themselves. Some suburban residents came to feel deeply connected to the few remaining open spaces—slivers of forest, wetland, meadow— around them, dedicating years, even de cades to trying to save them from development. Others restored degraded places such as polluted wetlands and rivers. Naturalist Freeman House describes the effort to revitalize the Mattole River in northern California (which suffered from denuded stream banks and muddy runoff) as providing a kind of time travel, a journey back to a lost stage of human history. "Working together, with our feet in the water, moving large rocks and logs to armor raw and bleeding stream banks, or on the dry slopes above, planting trees, seemed to carry from our muscles to our minds a buried memory of human communities deeply integrated with the wild processes surrounding."2 House thought that through their work, the activists were "becoming indigenous," rooted in the land.3
Reported experiences of communing with animals were equally extraordinary. Scuba divers talked openly about the love they felt for the sea lions, octopuses, and manta rays they met face-to-face in the water. More adventurous souls even set out to re establish what they saw as lost intimacy. In Russia, for example, Angelo d'Arrigo, a two-time world-champion hang glider, decided that it was his mission to lead the world's last remaining western Siberian cranes to safety by taking them on a 3,400-mile journey from the Oka River in Russia to a wildlife refuge in Iran near the Caspian Sea. The birds had become threatened with extinction from habitat loss, hunting, and a perilous migratory route that exposed them to fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan when they made their annual trip from Siberia to India.
With the assistance of the U.S.-based International Crane Foundation, d'Arrigo raised ten cranes in captivity. The chicks nested under d'Arrigo's hang glider, were fed by him, and grew to consider him their mother. D'Arrigo dressed to resemble a crane; his glider was equipped with a small motor for help in taking off but had cranelike wings. At a press conference, he described the mission as part of his Metamorphosis project, a five-year program to become as close to being a bird as humanly possible. "I think inside any person, there remains one part of birds," he explained. "Maybe it is possible to find in my mind this little part."4
In 2002, Jacques Mayol, a pioneer in deep-sea "free diving," described his breath-holding efforts in similar terms. "I don't dive to conquer the elements," Mayol explained. "I melt into the ocean."5 His goal was to become Homo Delphinus, to reawaken "the dormant dolphin within man" and rediscover humanity's lost spiritual connection to the sea.6 D'Arrigo and Mayol and their fellow adventurers were part of a new avant-garde, artist-athletes who reimagined and dramatized relationships to nature through radical performance art.
Across the country, the prospect of seeing wolves return to their native lands filled yet another set of people with a transforming passion so great that it changed their lives. After thirty-four gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995-96, the Druid Peak pack, led by an alpha male named 21 and a female alpha called 42, became the favorites of scientists, documentary .lmmakers, and a band of extraordinarily committed amateur naturalists. Forty-two was eventually nicknamed Cinderella, because her older sister, a female alpha, had attacked her and killed her pups. One year Cinderella fought back, killing her sister and becoming the dominant female. So intense was the wolf family drama that people began traveling each year to watch and photograph it. One couple even moved from Denver to be closer to the pack, saying, "The Druids have almost become family members." Then one day Cinderella disappeared. Twenty-one "howled his guts out," said one observer, and Cinderella's human friends launched an intensive search. When a wildlife technician found her body—she'd been killed by another pack—radiation therapist Carol Yates, one of the amateur naturalists, wept. "I guess we're glad we were here when it happened," said her husband, Richard. "It's the way of the wolf." The story, in effect an obituary for a wolf, ran on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.7
Even more strikingly, people began speaking up for the dignity of ordinary domestic animals such as cows and pigs. Eric Schlosser's bestselling Fast Food Nation (2001) went far beyond Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1905), describing the suffering not only of the humans who worked in the fast-food and meat-packing industries, but also of the animals they butchered. The image of cattle spending their last days and flood-lit nights in feedlots, being stimulated around the clock to eat hormone-and antibiotic-laced grain while standing knee-deep in their own manure, was not easily forgotten. Equally important, Schlosser showed that the industry's manipulation of consumers, abuse of workers, and contempt for animals were all parts of the same process.8
A year later, a conservative speechwriter who sometimes worked for President George W. Bush further heightened public awareness of animal suffering. Matthew Scully's Dominion rejected the traditional Biblical interpretation that God gave humans the moral right to dominate all creatures. Humans are but part of God's creation, Scully argued, their sovereignty limited. And those limits, he claimed, were now routinely broken on factory farms, where animals spent their entire lives indoors, confined to crowded cages, lying on slatted floors without straw or grass or any kind of padding so that their wastes could be hosed down. On entering a building holding five hundred young pigs, Scully was deeply affected: "Eyes appear between the slats of the fences. . . . Some [piglets] are up on their hind legs, forelegs curled over the fences of their pens, ears half-erect, eyes filled with fear and life and what any man with eyes of his own to see will know as intelligence. . . . They are just like puppies."9 The old split between animals we name and love and the "nameless, faceless beasts we condemn in our farms and labs to lives of ceaseless misery" was no longer defensible, he concluded. "Factory farming isn't just killing. It is negation, a complete denial of the animal as a living being with his or her own needs and nature."10Widely and positively reviewed, Dominion helped fuel increased moral reflection about humankind's ethical obligations to animals and the natural world.
HOW ARE WE to understand this upsurge of feeling? To some degree, it can be considered a product of contemporary environmentalism. The current movement was born in January 1969, when an oil ell blew out off Santa Barbara, drenching the California coast in thick black crude. In the weeks that followed, the news media showed the corpses of hundreds of oil-covered birds and the struggle by volunteer rescue workers to save them and to rescue sea lions and other suffering creatures. A year later activists established Earth Day. During the 1970s, the movement—a loose coalition of counterculture types, concerned scientists, animal rights activists, bioregionalists, and public interest lawyers—achieved extraordinary political victories. President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and Congress passed the nation's first major environmental laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
Victories continued even during the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, which were actively unfriendly to environmentalism. Large national organizations such as the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and the Natural Resources Defense Council recruited millions of members through direct-mail campaigns. Armed with new monies and mailing lists of members ready to write and phone politicians and officials, the big groups effectively lobbied Washington and state capitols, becoming "players" on the political scene. When federal, state, or local governments failed to uphold environmental laws, the movement went to court. Thousands of lawsuits were .led by environmental groups in the 1980s and 1990s, and though only a fraction were won, they served to heighten recognition of and respect for these groups. Anyone who followed public affairs knew that the environmental movement fought for its beliefs.
Outside the courts, the movement's radical wing, its direct action troops, also kept the issue at the top of the news. Greenpeace activists captured global attention in the 1970s as they skimmed across wave-tops in fast, inflatable boats, positioning themselves between whales and Russian ships armed with harpoon-.ring cannons. The action was captured on .lm, and shown around the world, vastly increasing pressures that led to a moratorium on legal commercial whaling. Rainforest Action Network climbers unfurled banners across oil company office buildings, demanding that firms stop drilling in South American tropical rain forests, successfully bringing attention to the plight of indigenous peoples trying to save their lands—struggles the tribes eventually won. In 1999, when the World Trade Organization (WTO) convened in Seattle to endorse a new worldwide regulatory framework that, among other depredations, permitted increased commercial exploitation of the environment (including the abrogation of national laws designed to protect places and species), activists countered with sit-down strikes across the city, blockading entrances both to the convention center and to local hotels. Out on the streets, television cameras captured what looked like a bizarre, wilderness-themed costume party. Some protesters came as redwood trees demanding an end to clear-cutting, others as sea turtles in favor of turtle-excluding devices on fishing nets. Every creature had its advocate. And anyone who watched TV, listened to radio news, or read the paper witnessed the demonstrators shutting down the WTO meeting.
By the 2000s, environmental awareness had permeated much of the country's institutions and everyday life. The nation's public schools made concern for the environment an integral part of the curriculum. Edenic murals showing mountains, oceans, and forests .filed with wildlife came to grace school walls, and children learned to speak unselfconsciously of Mother Earth. Recycling programs encouraged people to think about the impact of their way of life on the world around them. Organic food experienced a surge in popularity, appearing on the shelves of mainstream supermarkets. Concern for the environment had become a majority position. By the mid-1990s, a stunning 90 percent of Americans agreed that "Justice is not just for human beings. We need to be as fair to plants and animals as we are to people."11
BUT THE SPREADING influence of the environmental movement only partially explains the last two de cades' fundamental change of consciousness. No political movement or platform can account for the intensity of feeling expressed by those who long to rediscover and embrace nature's mystery and grandeur, who experience an attachment to animals and places so overwhelming that they feel morally compelled to protect them, and who look to nature for psychic regeneration and renewal. More than an ideology, this quest for connection indicates a fundamental rejection of the most basic premises of modern thought and society.
Briefly stated, these premises centered on a view of nature as inert matter, void of spirit and consciousness. For an early scientist like René Descartes, writing in the first half of the seventeenth century, animals were simply unfeeling machines, incapable of emotions or pain. As the accomplishments of science earned it increasing prestige, this purely utilitarian view of nature became the dominant mode, further reinforced by the success of industrial capitalism founded on a scientific-technological paradigm. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels observed in The Communist Manifesto, the modern world was built largely through "the subjection of Nature's forces to man."12
This subjection was so complete it virtually eclipsed humankind's past, and, with it, the traditional unity between humans and the rest of creation typical of premodern societies. Among Native American tribes, for example, animal species were, like other tribes, deemed "nations," such as the buffalo nation or beaver nation. Premodern creation myths typically highlighted a tribe's moral relationships to animal and plant species important to its survival. On the Great Plains, the Lakota Sioux told how a powerful spirit, White Buffalo Calf Woman, brought the sacred pipe and the buffalo to them—and flow both pipe and buffalo must be treated with profound respect. long the coast of the Pacific Northwest, Native American tribal myths explained that the salmon they caught were actually the children of salmon-people who lived on the bottom of the sea; each year the salmon-people changed their young into salmon and sent them as a gift, a blood sacrifice bonding the two peoples. Beyond any particular group's connection to any particular creatures and places, the premodern cosmos possessed a kind of enchantment: Since animals and plants and places had spirits, people could communicate with them through rituals, prayers, and meditation. In an enchanted cosmos, humans were never alone: The crane flying overhead, the ground beneath one's feet, the great oak tree near the creek, the creek itself, could all be addressed as kin by those who knew the right words and rituals.
Modernity, as has been widely noted, drained the cosmos of that magic. In Max Weber's formulation, the West's elevation of "rational empirical knowledge" led to the "disenchantment of the world and its transformation into a causal mechanism."13 Radical and utter isolation followed. Carl Jung, a contemporary of Weber, grasped that loneliness had its tragic implications: "Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos. He is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto had symbolic meaning for him. Thunder is no longer the voice of a god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree means a man's life, no snake is the embodiment of wisdom, and no mountain harbors a great demon. Neither do things speak to him nor can he speak to things, like stones, springs, plants and animals."14
THIS IDEA OF the human world as separate from the rest of nature never gained complete acceptance in the West. There were always a few mavericks and romantics who saw such isolation as wrong in substance and unbearable in spirit. Over generations, they repeatedly fought back, launching waves of protest, both cultural and political. Led by such diverse figures as Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, John Muir and his successors in the public lands movement, photographers such as Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, and scientists like Rachel Carson, these protests have ebbed and .owed, risen in power and then become marginalized once again.
But the current wave of spiritual interest in nature is not simply another outburst of romanticism. For one thing, it is fueled by a new sense of urgency. Just how fast global warming is proceeding remains a legitimate scientific question, but there is no longer a question of its reality, or of the threat that it poses. Species extinction is accelerating to a thousand times beyond what fossil records indicate is a normal, evolutionary rate. Polar bears were listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser vice in 2008 because their icy habitat was thawing; reports of bears drowning while swimming between increasingly distant ice .floes conjure up haunting images of what the future might bring.15 Salmon have nearly vanished from the Northwest because dams impede their migrations. Ivory-billed woodpeckers have disappeared from southern swamps because of clear-cut logging; after years of habitat loss to development, some butterfly species in the Florida Keys are down to a few dozen members. Tropical rain forests in the Amazon and Indonesia, long renowned for their rich biodiversity, are losing thousands of square miles each year to logging and fires set by ranchers and farmers to clear their lands.
Moreover, the current change is much broader, deeper, and more varied than what has come before. Virtually every part of contemporary culture, from the highest realms of science, theology, art, and literature to the mundane world of commercial television programming, has experienced its revolutionary influence. Already, mainstream geneticists openly discuss the idea of human-animal kinship, while major Hollywood films such as The Whale Rider enthusiastically promote the idea of cross-species bonding. Even children's movies reflect a radical shift in the portrayal of human-animal relationships: Whereas coming-of-age classics like The Yearling (1946) and Old Yeller (1957) portrayed the killing of a beloved pet as a necessary step toward maturity, newer tales, like Disney's Brother Bear (2003), feature heroes that choose to remain forever in the animal kingdom. The ultimate goal of this sweeping change, which I call "the culture of enchantment," is nothing less than the reinvestment of nature with spirit. Flatly rejecting modernity's reduction of animals, plants, places, and natural forces to either matter or utilitarian resource, the culture of enchantment attempts to make nature sacred once again.
Of course, not all people touched by the culture of enchantment will devote their whole lives to it, in the style of Angelo d'Arrigo or Julia Butterfly Hill. But however dissimilar and partial their commitments, people respond to the culture of enchantment because it offers them something they need (and cannot find elsewhere in consumerist America): transcendence, a sense of mystery and meaning, glimpses of a numinous world beyond our own. The spiritual connections made to animals and landscapes almost invariably lead—often intentionally, sometimes not—to a new relationship to nature in general. And nature perceived as "sacred" is allowed to exist on its own terms, for its own sake, valuable simply because it is there. For nature to retain its mystery, it must retain its autonomy: While its products may be used by people, it is not to be exploited or perceived as a mere resource for human consumption. The culture of enchantment, then, alters the fundamental meanings that the West has given the natural world, imagining a new covenant between people, land, and creatures.
The implications of this shift are enormous. If first Luna and then Old Glory can be reenchanted, whole forests or entire mountain ranges or coastlines might come to command our love and respect. Even degraded and polluted landscapes—the kind often found in and around cities—might gain our compassion and be deemed worthy of care. In creating spiritual and moral reasons for reconceiving man's relation to nature, the culture of enchantment poses profound challenges to modern institutions, raising standards that few, if any, can now meet. But though no one knows what changes would have to follow from a conviction that nature is spiritually alive, the struggle for enchantment is a crucial part of the larger struggle over the kind of culture and society humanity will have. How that struggle began, the forms it has taken, and its prospects for success are the concerns of this book. The stakes could not be higher. Enchantment is the last remaining utopian dream.
Excerpted from A RECHANTED WORLD by JAMES WILLIAM GIBSON
Copyright © 2009 by James William Gibson
Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.