Massachusetts, part III: take a walk on the wild side

A Very Long Time Ago, my mother brought home a Peter Max-style poster with this quotation from Henry David Thoreau: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Each time we moved, its reappearance was an indication that I was home again despite the bewildering newness of my surroundings. Thanks to this poster, I associated “wilderness” with “home.”

During our recent and ongoing Thoreau binge, I discovered, disconcertingly, that the poster has it wrong. The quotation comes from Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” initially delivered as a (very long) lecture in 1851 and published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. “I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and Culture merely civil,” he begins. Walking is civilized humanity’s entrée into nature, but Thoreau’s notion of walking is highly particular: “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering….” For Thoreau, to walk in nature was to be a pilgrim, a “sainte-terrer,” simultaneously seeking the holy land and already graced: “It requires a direct dispensation from heaven to become a walker.” Clearly, according to Thoreau, hoofing it to the neighborhood grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread does not qualify as walking.

Nor does walking have anything to do with exercise or taking a break. Walking requires attention. “[I]t is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit…. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is; I am out of my senses.” Rather, he says, “you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.” (That’s a joke, I think, but even if it’s not, it ties in nicely with Martin’s post from last week.)

Thoreau found that his preferred direction for a walk was almost always southwestward. “It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient Wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon…. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe.” There is something specifically American in his way of walking, and he predicts that walks through the American landscape will form the American soul: “I trust that we shall be more imaginative; that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher and more ethereal, as our sky—our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains—our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests—and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas.”

He has nothing against civilization, culture, education, the arts, but he felt that they all rely on something unexpected: “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Here is where this Thoreauvian saunter has led us, gentle reader—back to that poster. In Wildness, not wilderness, is the preservation of the world.

I think the distinction is enormously important. “Wilderness” implies an external state; “wildness” is as easily internal as external. Thoreau didn’t want to erase human culture; rather, he sensed that it required wildness, both psychic and physical, in order to flourish.

In one of those beneficent coincidences, I put down Thoreau’s essay a couple of Sundays ago and discovered an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Is There an Ecological Unconscious?” The article described a somewhat inchoate field of study in which a clear link is made between human mental health and the health of wild nature. Glenn Albrecht, a philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, has coined the term “solastagia” to designate “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault… a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home.” A growing number of psychologists agree with Albrecht’s assertion that there is a direct connection between environmental degradation and mental illness. One of them calls not just for intact ecosystems that include large predators but for a “re-wilding of the psyche,” a term perhaps more appealing to poets and transcendentalists than to funders of academic research.

It’s an interesting proposition. What does a re-wilded psyche look like? In his book Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, David Quammen muses on the merits of what he calls “alpha predators,” among them lions, grizzly bears, Nile crocodiles, reticulated pythons, and white sharks. He considers mythical creatures as well, particularly Leviathan as he appears in the book of Job. In examining this uncomfortable perspective on humanity as meal instead of master, Quammen wants us to consider the crucial role this perspective has played “in shaping the way we humans construe our place in the natural world.” In short, it’s important for us to know ourselves as part, not masters, of the food chain. Why? For the same reason God beats Job over the head with questions about Leviathan: who can tame such a furious beast? Can Job? Duh, no. The man-eaters remind us of the life-promoting necessity of humility. As dangerous as they are, the destruction of man-eaters, or even their relegation to zoos, would be more dangerous: we might thus be further encouraged to behave as if we were masters of the universe—a time-tested guarantee for misrule if there ever was one.

A human psyche that resonates with, or trembles at, the roars of actual alpha predators is likely to be awake in a particular way, awake to its own contingency. (If you haven’t read Mary Oliver’s “Alligator Poem,” now is definitely the time to do so.) Years ago, walking in the back reaches of Madroño Ranch, Martin and I heard the unmistakeable scream of a mountain lion. I’ve never reentered that canyon—especially when I’m alone—without taking a deep breath.

So back to the misquotation. As much as I love that old poster, and as vital as I think wilderness is, I think Thoreau got it right. Without access to wildness, without knowing the necessity of bowing before it, we cease to be fully human. And if we can’t fully inhabit our humanity, what home is left for us?

What we’re reading
John Pipkin, Woodsburner: A Novel
Martin: Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., Lincoln, Life-Size

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One Response to Massachusetts, part III: take a walk on the wild side

  1. Anonymous says:

    you write so beautifully.
    thank you,

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