June 19, 2005
Rain pounded down last Sunday on the tin roof of the ranch house where we gathered to explore the wilderness. A fire crackled in the fireplace and the scent of wood smoke filled the air.For the dozen of us packed into the warm, cozy room, the wilderness has provided sanctuary and respite. We are all backcountry hikers with many peaks and trail miles under our belts. There would be no peaks or trails today. Our journey on this rain-drenched, cloud-swept Sunday was purely of the mind, an exploration of wilderness through literature.We opened our reading packets to “Genesis,” and there it was: “In the beginning …” The creation story at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition establishes a profound duality through Man’s interpretation of his dominion over the whole of creation. Some mandate!Our next reading narrowed dominion to white Europeans. “Manifest Destiny,” coined in 1845 by John L. O’Sullivan, claimed “… the right to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and self government …”… liberty and self-government for some. Today, Manifest Destiny still rules in natural resource extraction, land development, exurban sprawl and a wide range of entitlements. “The destiny of growth,” as O’Sullivan called it, threatens every square mile of the continent.Yvon Chouinard provided a pointed riposte in his treatise on corporate responsibility, in which he inveigles businessmen to become stewards of the earth, concluding that “without a healthy planet, there are no shareholders, no customers, no employees.”Chouinard, founder and president of Patagonia, excoriates willful ignorance as a chief cause of environmental destruction and urges us to lead an examined life. “People love to figure out how to do the right thing, once they know what that is,” hopes Chouinard.A classic Richard Brautigan satire lightened the mood by describing a used trout stream stored in a dusty warehouse. A customer learns that the stream sells for $6.50-a-foot, with waterfalls at $19-a-foot, and that deer, flowers, birds and insects are extras. The stream is pieced together from separate parts, reducing nature to an absurd commodity.We turned to poems by Wordsworth and Shelley, both poets lauding the blessings and awe of nature: Wordsworth from the bucolic, pastoral setting of the River Wye; Shelley from the wild, untamed terror of Mount Blanc’s impossible summit.Dave Foreman led us through the “Rewilding of America,” a grand scheme to reconnect wild lands throughout North America. The Wildlands Project aims to “Reconnect, Restore, and Rewild” in what Foreman calls a “bold, scientifically credible, practically achievable, and hopeful vision of an enduring wilderness …”Then Jack Turner, a reformed academic turned mountain guide in Jackson, Wyo., pushed all the buttons in a probing essay from his seminal book, “The Abstract Wild.” Turner brilliantly explores Thoreau’s famous dictum “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” concluding that wildness is a vital but endangered quality in nature and Man.Finally, we turned to Rod Nash, wilderness historian and author. Nash admonishes Man to embrace “ecological morality.” Weighing the whole of our readings, we agreed that the first step is reinterpreting dominion as stewardship.Nash ends with a suggestion for a classified ad in the personals: “Temperate but endangered planet. Enjoys weather, continental drift, photosynthesis, evolution. Seeks caring relationship with intelligent life form.”We closed our packets and the rain still pounded on the tin roof. The fire was dead, and we suddenly craved rain-scrubbed air, the coolness of a mountain breeze, the mist of low clouds. We parted with rich ideas to ponder for many hikes and peaks to come.Paul Andersen thinks wilderness is worth contemplating. His column appears on Mondays.
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