Mapping the geography of hope: our place in the wilderness

Last week, during a visit to San Francisco that also took us to the nearby Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Martin and I spent a day exploring the Point Reyes National Seashore with his childhood friends Brad and Hans. Before setting off on our hike, we wandered into Point Reyes Books and wandered out again with the first two volumes of the West Marin Review, a nifty literary journal whose inaugural issue considers Wallace Stegner’s claim that “[w]e simply need… wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Even if I can’t give coordinates for the geography of hope, I like the idea that it might exist on some map buried deep under the mess in my brain’s glove compartment. In current mainstream environmental thinking, however, humans and wilderness cannot exist together because humans are an inevitable contaminant. Having spent the drive from San Francisco to Point Reyes with my face glued to the car window taking in an enticing new vocabulary of birds, I’d like to think that the geography of hope includes a place where humans are part of wilderness, not set off from it.

Our hike took us north between Tomales Bay and the ocean, through herds of tule elk, watching waves crash on the rocky shore and tender crocuses and poppies huddled in the chilly wind. As we returned to the parking lot at Pierce Point Ranch, we heard the whine of chainsaws; the Park Service was taking down an enormous Monterey cypress, maybe 75 feet tall. The presence of rot in some branches posed a threat to the uninhabited cluster of historic ranch buildings at the head of the trail. The decision to cut down the tree seemed iconic of the destruction endemic to human activity in the natural world.

So it was with interest that I saw an essay in the West Marin Review entitled “The Fiction of Wilderness,” by Mark Dowie, the former editor and publisher of Mother Jones. Dowie suggests that the Wilderness Act of 1964 set in stone the idea that wilderness was best preserved by balkanizing large tracts of land and ejecting any permanent residents who might have lived there, as the Miwok tribe was ejected from Yosemite. He says this creates “a commodified wilderness… a deliberate charade, a culturally constructed neo-Edenic narrative played out for weary human urbanites yearning for the open frontier their ancestors ‘discovered’ then tamed—a place to absorb the sounds and images of virgin nature and forget for a moment the thoroughly unnatural lives they lead.” (Ouch.)

But Dowie suggests an alternative. His research revealed that many aboriginal peoples have nothing analogous to the Western conception of wilderness and were stumped when he tried to explain it to them. The closest equivalents in their languages were domesticated ones: “back yard,” “big farmyard,” “food,” or “pantry.” There was, in other words, no sense of separation between the people and the landscapes they lived in. Dowie quotes a Tarahumaran ethno-ecologist from Mexico who says that in his culture the landscape is granted the same love and affection as family, resulting in a “kincentric ecology.”

Dowie hopes that environmentalist notions of wilderness can change to include the possibility of human activity intimately embedded within the land in a mutually profitable relationship. When we see ourselves as apart from a pristine nature that exists outside the bonds of kinship, we are more likely to commodify and exploit it.

Serendipitously, my reading took me from the West Marin Review to a publication that our friends Hugh and Sarah Fitzsimons of Thunder Heart Bison gave me just before we left for San Francisco. Entitled Five Ways to Value the Working Landscapes of the West, it may not rise immediately to the top of the New York Times best seller list, although it makes for compelling reading. The first essay, “In Praise, and in Appraisal, of the Working Landscapes of the West,” begins with this heartening pronouncement: “The simplest fact about Western ranches tends to be the one which most folks tend to forget: raising range-fed livestock is one of the few economic activities that produces food—and potentially ecosystem health and financial wealth—by keeping landscapes relatively wild, diverse, and resilient.”

We’re planning our first bison harvest in the near future and have hopes of developing a food culture that will feed whoever happens to be staying at Madroño Ranch and perhaps others in the immediate community as well. Our concern can’t stop at our bellies, though: what feeds us must be fed as well, and well fed. The essay’s authors, Gary Paul Nabhan and Ken Meter, write of working landscapes: “if we commit ourselves to eating their bounty, we derive a good portion of our nourishment from the very ground on which we stand. We do not stand apart [my emphasis] from the energy and water flows of our home ground. Instead, they work through us, and we work because of them. The land is not mere scenery suitable only for tourism and leisure. It is a functioning community in which we either live well or poorly, depending on how efficiently and conservatively we participate in the land’s work.” And then, as the clincher, they quote my new hero Henry David Thoreau: “[P]erhaps we are here to ‘meet the expectations of the land’ and not the other way around.”

This whole blog post may be nothing more than a stemwinding rationalization for contaminating the rapidly disappearing Texas wilderness. But I hate the idea that there is no room for an ongoing and mutually satisfying exchange between the landscape and its human inhabitants. We need guides to lead us from here to there, though, guides who know both the intimate history of the land and the capacities and limits of new technologies. Increasingly, these guides are ranchers like Hugh and Sarah who cherish their working landscapes and who, in return, receive its abundance, even in lean times. We’d like Madroño Ranch to find its own place in this geography of hope.

What we’re reading
Henri J. M. Nouwen, In Memoriam
Martin: Jay Parini, Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America

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3 Responses to Mapping the geography of hope: our place in the wilderness

  1. Brad says:

    Bravo! As Wendell Berry (of course) has repeatedly said: if we can't learn how to use land well, how can we ever expect to save it? If in wildness is the preservation of the world, then in agriculture is the preservation of wildness. Or something like that.

    Thanks for the great post Heather!

  2. Heather and Martin says:

    Thanks, Brad! Coming from you, we consider that high praise indeed.

  3. Charlie Lafave says:

    Why must we choose between untouched wilderness and working landscapes? Between Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Madroño Ranch? Why not both? Surely we can envision a continuum from New York City all the way to untouched Alaskan wilderness? Each has its place and its purpose, no?

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