In his 1862 essay “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau comments that every tree “sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild.” For Thoreau, the wild is contrasted “with a freedom and culture merely civil.” Thoreau identified the wild with the world of nature, human culture, and mind.
The poet Gary Snyder locates the term “wildness” in a particular historical and cultural moment. In his essay “The Etiquette of Freedom,” published in 1990, he describes the conceptual terrain:
‘Wild and free.’ An American dream-phase loosing images: a long maned stallion racing across the grasslands, a V of Canada Geese high and honking, a squirrel chattering and leaping limb to limb overhead in an oak. It also sounds like an ad for Harley Davidson. Both words, profoundly political and sensitive as they are, have become consumer baubles. (5)
Snyder’s elaboration of the wild, and the relationship of wildness to the term nature, is rooted in a comparative literary and cultural method as well as, with Thoreau, an impulse to engage in much more than what Snyder calls “environmentalist virtue, political keenness, or useful and necessary activism” (“Preface” ix). The practice of the wild, as Snyder’s poetry and prose so artfully says, goes much deeper and requires much more.
“In search of the Wild:” Thoreau’s phrase will continue to surface. It once again found its hold on me in Alaska, in a summer seminar for students in the summer graduate school of Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English. A course on the literature of place, taught by Middlebury College professor John Elder, was given the title “Searching for Wildness” by my friend and colleague Rochelle Johnson, professor of English and Environmental Studies at the College of Idaho. In the summer of 2006, I was invited to join the Bread Loaf faculty; and I organized and taught the course Searching For Wildness.
I designed the graduate-level course to introduce students to individual and cultural attitudes toward nature and their expression in narrative fiction, travel writing, poetry, and nonfiction–tracing the evolving conception of nature through the rise of preservation and the ongoing concern with the nature of wilderness, inhabited landscapes, bioregionalism and sense of place—with a special focus on the search for wildness in Alaska. The course was designed around weekly field outings with writers, scientists, cultural historians, and Tlingit elders to complement the readings and to foreground the distinctive cultural and natural history of the Southeast Alaska bioregion.
In the summer of 2013, I renewed these pedagogical goals in designing a course in the first-year writing program at Keene State College. The vision of the course is to introduce students to the search for wildness and to learn from the students, over successive semesters teaching the course, as they find their way into the real work of college-level reading, thinking and writing.
The Culture of Wildness: Literature, Film, Music, Criticism
Henry David Thoreau, Walking (1862)
William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: Norton (1995)
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild. Berkeley: Counterpoint: 1990. (Rpt. with a new preface 2010)
Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild. Tuscon: U of Arizona P, 1996
The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and the Practice of the Wild. Ed. Paul Ebenkamp. Berkely: Counterpoint, 2010. (Companion to the film)
“Gary Snyder on The Practice of the Wild.” The transcript of the interview with Steve Paulson is also available in audio
The Call of the Wild (2007) is a documentary by independent filmmaker Ron Lamothe that raises questions about the causes of Chris McCandless’s death
Into the Wild (2007), written and directed by Sean Penn, is an adaptation of the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer that chronicles the travels of Christopher McCandless across North America and his death in Alaska. Features Emile Hirsch as McCandless with soundtrack by Eddy Vedder
Wild (2014), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, written by Nick Hornby, is based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, featuring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern
Excerpts in Literature and Criticism
“The theme running through this exposition — indeed, the basic premise on which the book is constructed — is that human beings exist wholly within nature as a legitimate part of natural order in every respect. To accept this unity seems to be difficult for ecologists, who assume — as many do, in understandable anger and despair — that the human species is an interloper in the natural order of things. Neither is this unity easily accepted by economists, industrialists, politicians, and others who assume — as many do, taking understandable pride in human achievements — that reason, knowledge, and determination make it possible for human beings to circumvent and outdo the natural order.”
Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies
“To lovers of wild, these mountains are not a hundred miles away. Their spiritual power and the goodness of the sky make them near, as a circle of friends. They rise as a portion of the hilled walls of the Hollow. You cannot feel yourself out of doors; plain, sky, and mountains ray beauty which you feel. You bathe in these spirit-beams, turning round and round, as if warming at a camp-fire. Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence: you blend with the landscape and become part and parcel of nature.”
John Muir, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916)
“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.”
. . .
“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. Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild.”
. . .
“In literature it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us. As the wild duck is more swift and beautiful than the tame, so is the wild—the mallard—thought, which ‘mid falling dews wings its way above the fens. A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild-flower discovered on the prairies of the West or in the jungles of the East. Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning’s flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself—and not a taper lighted at the hearthstone of the race, which pales before the light of common day.”
. . .
“The wildest dreams of wild men, even, are not the less true, though they may not recommend themselves to the sense which is most common among Englishmen and Americans today. It is not every truth that recommends itself to the common sense. Nature has a place for the wild Clematis as well as for the cabbage. Some expressions of truth are reminiscent—others merely SENSIBLE, as the phrase is,—others prophetic. Some forms of disease, even, may prophesy forms of health. The geologist has discovered that the figures of serpents, griffins, flying dragons, and other fanciful embellishments of heraldry, have their prototypes in the forms of fossil species which were extinct before man was created, and hence “indicate a faint and shadowy knowledge of a previous state of organic existence.” The Hindus dreamed that the earth rested on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise, and the tortoise on a serpent; and though it may be an unimportant coincidence, it will not be out of place here to state, that a fossil tortoise has lately been discovered in Asia large enough to support an elephant. I confess that I am partial to these wild fancies, which transcend the order of time and development. They are the sublimest recreation of the intellect. The partridge loves peas, but not those that go with her into the pot.”
-Henry David Thoreau, “Walking” (1862)