Colson: How we got here, and what we might do

with John Colson

I’ve been reading a book by eco-warrior Dave Foreman, a co-founder of Earth First!, the militant wing of the environmental movement, about how we got to where we are today and what course we might follow with regard to saving what remains of wild lands and “wildoers,” his label for the wild animals we routinely render extinct in our pell-mell rush to impose “progress” on the wild world.

Foreman, who has spent about four decades fighting for preservation of wilderness and the animals that live therein, has penned a meticulously researched treatise published in 2014 under the title, “The Great Conservation Divide,” which details the division in our national psyche and policy-making efforts concerning the wild terrain that our European forebears invaded starting in the 16th century.

Foreman makes the point that the word, “wilderness,” is derived from an Old English word, “wildeorness,” which means “a place of wild beasts,” according to researchers.

The breakdown of the word, wildeorness, is as follows: wil, meaning “wild” or “willed;” deor, or “beast;” and ness, or “place or quality.”

But, Foreman continues, there is another interpretation of the word, wilderness, in which the middle syllable, “der,” actually means “of the,” as used in what Foreman and his textual source called Old Gothonic tongues.

Under this interpretation, according to Scottish scholar Jay Hansford Vest, the term wilderness really describes something known as the “will of the land.” Along similar lines, another term of relevance to this topic, “wildeor,” means “will of the beast.”

And the “will of the land,” as well as the “will of the beast,” Foreman posits and I agree, is nothing less than a description of what we now refer to as the evolution of the natural world, free of any intervention or despoliation brought about by humankind.

That is to say that wildeorness and wildeor, as descriptions, refer to terrain and animals that have evolved and should be allowed to evolve further according to their own free will.

These etymological meanderings are important because words are important. They represent humanity’s attempts to describe and interpret the world that surrounds us, and necessarily underscore any efforts we make to affect that surrounding landscape.

As humans moved from hunter-gatherers roaming a wild and prehistoric landscape, and started organizing ourselves into communities that became towns, states and nations, we seem also to have reorganized our thinking about wilderness, or “wildeorness,” mostly in ways that have removed us from any intimate understanding of and empathy for the wild or “self-willed” land and its inhabitants, the wild or “self-willed” beasts.

Instead, thanks to a combination of religious posturing and other human-centric influences, we humans came to view both wildeorness and the wildeor as things that were put here by some sort of god figure, for our own use and exploitation.

That use, of course, can range from enjoyment of their beauty and appreciation for their interwoven dance of ecology and evolution, or greedy and opportunistic exploitation of the land and the animals for the goods they provide to us.

These divergent points of view have themselves evolved into what Foreman describes as “conservatism” and “resourcism,” respectively.

The former is the ruling ethos of miners, foresters, ranchers, and others who see the natural world as a source of profit and power.

The latter is the viewpoint held by what Foreman describes as a growing movement of people who believe there is an intrinsic value to “wildoerness” and “wildeors” beyond their value as producers of goods and as real estate.

It is this divide Foreman has illuminated, from its beginnings in the late 1900s up until today’s superheated fights over such things as petroleum resources and mineral wealth, timber, and other products that come from land that once was free and wild but now is increasingly exploited and trammeled (not “trampled,” I hasten to point out. Look up the two words for further enlightenment.)

So we have two different brands of “conservation” in this country.

The “resourcists” would have us view the earth and its denizens through the lens of “manifest destiny,” or humanity’s self-aggrandizing belief that the earth is here for use to use and abuse as we see fit.

The “conservationists,” conversely, would have us leave alone as much of our remaining wildeorlands and the wildeors therein, as they have evolved, so that they can continue to evolve for innumerable reasons.

You might realize that I am one who agrees with Foreman, along with some of the bright lights of the true conservationist movement, such as Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey and others who are appalled at the mess we have made of our home planet.

I heartily recommend “The Great Conservation Divide” and others by Foreman and his collaborators as essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the above-mentioned mess and possible ways of reversing it.