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The Abstract Wild

I’ve just finished reading The Abstract Wild by Jack Turner. The book is a series of essays, a ‘rant’ for wild Turner says.  Wild, as Turner defines it, is not wilderness, not a managed environment with collared animals, hunting quotas, ‘fun hogs’, 7 1/2 minute maps, gps, cell phone availability, not to mention logging, mining, open grazing or other forms of exploitation.

For Turner, and I agree, wilderness or the wild contains our place in it, not as tourists or observers, and is a sacred experience, defining our place in the world and the cosmos.

A few wonderful quotes:

Maps and guides destroy the wildness of a place just as surely as photography and mass tourism destroy the aura of art and nature.  Indeed, the three together–knowledge (speaking generally), photography, and mass tourism–are the unholy trinity that destroys the mysteries of both art and nature.

The majority of Americans no longer know this experience of the wild.  We are surrounded by national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife preserves, sanctuaries, and refuges.  We love to visit them.  We also vist foreign parks and wilderness; we visit wild exotic cultures.  We are deluged with commerical images of wildness: coffee-table books, calendars, postcards, t-shirts, and place mats….

From this we conclude that modern man’s knowledge and experience of wild nature is extensive.  But it is not.  Rather, what we have is extensive experience of a severely diminished wilderness animal or place–a caricature of its former self.  Or we have extensive indirect experience of wild nature mediated via photographic images and the written word.  But this is not experience of the wild, not gross contact.

Turner’s best essay, in my opinion, is the first one, which relays an experience he had in the 60’s in Canyonlands National Park before it was a park.  After surviving a small plane crash, he wandered around the Canyonlands for days.  One evening he came upon large ancient pictographs of life-size figures.  Their presence, spookiness and power absorbed him.  It formed a sacred and lasting impression.

Years later, he revisited the site.  But now the area was part of the Park, there was a family  picnicking nearby, and signage explained what little was known about the pictographs.  The entire area is now mapped and known.

Humans become foreigners to the wild, foreigners to an experience that once grounded their most sacred beliefs and values. In short, wilderness as relic leads to tourism, and tourism in the wilderness becomes the primary mode of experiencing a diminished wild.

Turner’s book identifies the problem eloquently and articulately.  He doesn’t present solutions.  Are there solutions?  I’ve been pondering this.  It doesn’t seem to take much more than a generation for cultural amnesia to begin settling in.  The loss of wild areas, or the loss of social freedoms, taken away bit by bit, and soon the present generation has no memory of what once was.

Just 200 years ago, not even a blink of the eye in human history, Lewis and Clark came through the West and witnessed the land filled with bison, grizzlies, elk, deer, prairie dogs, clean waters, and people living of and on the land in ways that had preserved it for hundreds if not thousands of years.  The way of life of the native americans was gone a few generations later, as well as most of the abundant wildlife.

I walk these hills and know that I am a pauper.  I have no cultural references for living in ‘wilderness’ as my home.  I have survival skills that might keep me alive for maybe a week or more, but not a lifetime.  Although many people know more wilderness skills then I do, and many know much more scientific knowledge than I do, there is no living culture here anymore that can teach us how to live in the wild, sing the songs, harvest and prepare the plants, give thanks before we hunt, or help clue us in on how to contact the sacred that imbues this place.  As a culture, we are bereft.  As individuals, we are reduced to finding our own way without cultural help.

Turner’s book is a must read for all who love nature and wilderness.  It turns conservationism on its head and offers a new definition and goal. But the vision of ’21st century wild’ must emerge from all of us.