Wild and Precious

“Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or framework. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does.

—Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas”

This morning I am thinking about the conversation we had on Tuesday. I am thinking about reading and what we make with the words of others.

The passages that you chose from the readings—Henry David Thoreau, Walking  (1862), Gary Snyder’s “The Etiquette of Freedom” (1990), and William Cronon The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature (1995)—offered a path through rough conceptual terrain. Your selection of of sentences, from one of the chosen texts that I had asked you to share before we talked, in particular, and our in-class work from those passages to make meaning, uplifted me in the best way possible: I learned from your selections to make connections across the three essays, and to find meaning in those connections.

What did I learn? Well, it started when Jonathan was explaining why he chose the opening anecdote in “The Etiquette of Freedom.” In class, I expressed my gratitude for Jonathan’s attention to the first section of the essay “The Compact.” Here are the two sentences Jonathan picked out:

That took my breath away. Here was a man who would not let the mere threat of cultural extinction stand in the way of his (and her) values

Coyote and Ground Squirrel do not break the compact they have with each other that are must play predator and the other play game (4)

Louie, the old Nisenan man who Snyder and his friend had come to visit, takes Snyder’s breath away because of his dignity, pride, and values. After the first sentence, and the paragraph that follows, there is a section break. The next sentence follows. One thing leads to another.

But what was that thing? And what does it lead to? The compact elaborated in the paragraph that begins with the second sentence above—the compact between coyote and Ground Squirrel, the baby Black-tailed Hare and the predator with wings and talons—is set alongside the opening story of the Nisenan man. This is precisely where Cloe’s choice of language (from the same paragraph) offers a path between the first sentence and the second sentence:

We can appreciate the elegance of the forces that shape life and the world, that have shaped every line of our bodies—teeth and nails, nipples and eyebrows. We also see that we must try to live without causing un-necessary harm, not just to fellow humans but to all beings. We must try not to be stingy, or to exploit others. There will be enough pain in the world as it is. (4)

Let’s isolate in this passage, first, appreciation. Specifically, let’s notice that the appreciation is for “the elegance of the forces that shape life and the world, that have shaped every line of our bodies.” The elegant forces that shape life and world, yes, but also in the act of appreciation seeing that the principles of  the agreement (the compact) include an attempt to live without causing unnecessary harm, to not be stingy, or to exploit the gift of life.

Cloe includes the following sentence, too, that makes possible another connection as we keep thinking and making:

To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are—painful, impermanent, open, imperfect—and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us…

This was the rich and dense sentence that we paused to consider in class. It is a sentence that, when we notice it, both guides us into the essay and prepares us for the sentences that will follow, such as the example from near its conclusion. “The lessons we learn from the wild become the etiquette of freedom” (25). We talked in class about the distinction between what we understand to be freedom and “true freedom. We acknowledged that the language above reminds us that what we call freedom is an illusion unless we “take on” the “basic conditions” of life: “painful, impermanent, open, imperfect.” Let us not deceive ourselves with what we assume to be freedom, Snyder implies here. Gratitude for the fact of impermanence is perhaps most succinctly put by another poet, Mary Oliver, who asks at the end of her poem “A Summer Day, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

What I learned from the passages chosen by Jonathan and Cloe, then, was a deeper appreciation for the values that might lead to what is unfortunately a less-then-common way of thinking and being in the world:

With that freedom we improve the campsite, teach children, oust tyrants. The world is nature, and in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence” (5).

Here freedom becomes a practice that finds its form in a life of improving the place where when comes to rest, of sharing and passing along the collective understanding of wisdom of the world, and of countering the tyrants that fetter the mind and who seek to shape lives and the world in their image. In this passage, too, Snyder defines wild—“the process and essence of nature,” also defined as “an ordering of impermanence.” In the final passage Cloe takes from the essay the point is made again, that wildness. . .is the world” (6).

With a working definition of wildness we come more prepared to take up what we are calling “searching for wildness.” One way of saying it is that the search is to find answers to the questions we are asking about ourselves and the world. The practice of wildness is seeking awareness–of the essence and the process of the world—that is, that elusive essence (who am I?) and the processes of which we are a part (where am I? What is going on?)

Now back to the essay. Having worked from particulars, made connections, and used those connections to make meaning, we can think with Snyder about what it means to recognize our bodies (“our bodies are wild”), to occupy our minds (“language is wild”), and to resolve to be whole. That is, by reading Jonathan and Cloe’s selections we think these thoughts, making meaning and sharing what we discover. Too, we can glimpse Thoreau’s singular insights in the 1860s about our condition (his speaking “for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil”), and we can appreciate more deeply the paragraphs that Peyton brings to our attention that conclude William Cronon’s essay:

Thus it is that wilderness serves as the unexamined foundation on which so many of the quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism rest. The critique of modernity that is one of environmentalism’s most important contributions to the moral and political discourse of our time more often than not appeals, explicitly or implicitly, to wilderness as the standard against which to measure the failings of our human world. Wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul. It is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives. Most of all, it is the ultimate landscape of authenticity. Combining the sacred grandeur of the sublime with the primitive simplicity of the frontier, it is the place where we can see the world as it really is, and so know ourselves as we really are—or ought to be. (Paragraph 27)

The task of making a home in nature is what Wendell Berry has called “the forever unfinished lifework of our species.” “The only thing we have to preserve nature with” he writes, “is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity.” Calling a place home inevitably means that we will use the nature we find in it, for there can be no escape from manipulating and working and even killing some parts of nature to make our home. But if we acknowledge the autonomy and otherness of the things and creatures around us—an autonomy our culture has taught us to label with the word “wild”—then we will at least think carefully about the uses to which we put them, and even ask if we should use them at all. just so can we still join Thoreau in declaring that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” for wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies. As Gary Snyder has wisely said, “A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness. The planet is a wild place and always will be.” To think ourselves capable of causing “the end of nature” is an act of great hubris, for it means forgetting the wildness that dwells everywhere within and around us. (Paragraph 53)

Henry David Thoreau, Gary Snyder, William Cronon–each in his own way exploring ideas and inviting us to think with them about values that arise when we begin finding out where we actually are in this world. Here is another offering from Snyder, in the 1960s,  the poem “For the Children”:

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us,
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

Those last three lines bring us full circle to the values we first encountered at the opening of the essay.