Monday, September 21, 2009

The Wild

"And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden"

Joni Mitchell

Atavism and kids go hand in hand, so last night we set up the tent and built a fire in the back yard. But after some blankets and pillows, the first object transferred to the tent was...a portable DVD player. ("Daddy, do you have a long extension cord? NO!").

Much has been made in the environmental age of a putative core relation of Homo sapiens to the natural world, of a kind exceeding mere pragmatism. I think there is something to this, but only ambiguously, and not in the way that John Muir may have experienced it. For there are two natural ideals, that of the wilderness and that of the garden. Most people in the history of the world, when given the chance, have preferred their nature cultivated and domesticated.

The very idea of wilderness depended on the great divide that was consciousness, the terrifying realization that so much of nature is not only "not me," but also "not of my kind." So history has consisted, among other things, of a stampede away from unrelieved wilderness. Only in the past century or so has the pressure of "our own kind" become so intolerable to some that wilderness seems like a relief by comparison.

The original Garden was well-named, of course, but it was in fact cultivated, by God if not by us. Indeed, the religious impulse could be said to entail an attempt to convert wilderness to Garden, to transform an inimical landscape to one that is somehow home to humankind. Nice try. And nice try, too, when we try to appreciate wilderness on its own terms these days, for we can't help importing humanity, whether physically or conceptually, as we do so. For the ideal of wilderness is human, all-too-human. If we learned that Earth's biosphere would be annihilated altogether tomorrow, who would shed a tear? No non-humans, that's for sure.

So the history of Earth, however complicated it may be to geologists, arguably contains two great phases: pre-conscious and conscious. If to paraphrase Wordsworth, we murder to landscape, it's hard to see how we could avoid doing so. Hamlet lamented of the world, "Fie on't, ah fie, 'tis an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely." To be cast into consciousness is to be painfully aware of the existence of weeds, and of the duty to cast them out.

Are there many things in this world that are more grotesquely "unnatural" than a marshmallow, burned to a carcinogenic but tasty crisp? No, not unnatural at all, merely a "weed" to some. But I rather enjoy the dandelions in spring.

1 comment:

Retriever said...

Great post! I enjoy visiting the wilderness but mostly tend my garden. Could so relate to theNO when kid wants tech outdoors.