Wild Ambitions

Wild Ambitions

1996-03-15
Wild Ideas
David Rothenberg, editor
University of Minnesota Press, 1995. 225pp, $19.95 paper.

David Cassuto reviews Wild Ideas, a collection of ecocritical essays.

I want to like Wild Ideas. And I do like large segments of it. Compiled and edited by David Rothenberg, a professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, this collection of essays arose from a symposium on the “wild” and “wilderness” at the fifth World Wilderness Congress in 1993. It takes on several of the major bugaboos of the environmental movement, among them the difference between “wildness” as Thoreau uses the term in his famously misquoted adage, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and “wilderness,” a term whose meaning has changed more often than Boris Yeltsin’s Cabinet. The book also addresses a number of the core issues that bedevil wilderness philosophy: the historical racism embedded in the Wilderness Act of 1964, the problematic notion of wilderness as a playground for the rich and indolent, the cultural relativism of the term, and so on. Unfortunately, despite the importance and immediacy of the issues it treats and the excellence of several individual essays, Wild Ideas lacks both narrative propulsion and thematic unity. It falls victim to overambition, missing attainable goals in the pursuit of a new ecocritical understanding.

The first section of the book examines the history and future of wilderness and features essays by R. Edward Grumbine, Denis Cosgrove, and Max Oelschlaeger. Each writer treats the dual concepts of “wilderness” and “wildness” but there is little common ground among them as to definitions or methodology. As a result, the authors’ collective efforts to illuminate these terms serves instead to obfuscate an already vexing issue of terminology. Differentiating between wilderness and wildness forms a crucial subtext throughout the book, but only the first section treats the problem directly. Grumbine distinguishes between wilderness and wildness, Cosgrove conflates them, and Oelschlaeger begs the question. Grumbine declares that, while wilderness is culturally relative (and thus, assumedly, indefinable), wildness is “the process and essence of nature.” We should therefore, according to Grumbine, focus on preserving wildness rather than wilderness. Grumbine’s is the least interesting essay of this group because he shies away from drawing conclusions. He contents himself instead with observing that “the details will be discovered in the living” and that “we must concern ourselves with charting the course so that others may sail the ship and have the chance for a successful voyage.”

In the next essay, Denis Cosgrove tells us that Thoreau used “wild” synonymously with “wilderness.” Instead of expanding on this view, however, Cosgrove launches into a fascinating albeit lengthy discussion of historical western conceptions of the geographical unknown. Fifteenth-century European world maps portrayed a single landmass divided into three continents in the northern hemisphere of a spherical planet. Those three continents constituted the ecumene, or habitable earth. Beyond the ecumene lay the wilderness, an unknown region where, depending on whom you asked, lay either savage nonhuman creatures or a pre-lapsarian paradise beyond the reach of human culture. Embedded within both visions, Cosgrove maintains, lie two central themes of western socio-environmental evolution: a cyclical history from chaos to order and back again, and the belief that “the history of civilization follows the course of the sun - toward the west.” Wilderness, we learn, has always been associated both with origins and infancy, and with the Armageddon that lies in wait at the end of culture. This discussion segues into an analysis of Frederick Jackson Turner’s landmark essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American Society” and then a disturbingly persuasive situating of the American wilderness ideal within the rubrick of eugenics. Unfortunately, the essay’s conclusion does not live up to its midsection, ending with a tired homily about the cultural potency of wilderness ideology and, for this reader, lingering confusion as to the meanings of and distinctions between wilderness and wildness.

Max Oelschlaeger weighs in next with an ambitious critique of the vocabulary of environmentalism, suggesting that both wildness and wilderness have been subsumed into a pernicious new doctrine of sustainable development. Sustainable development, in Oelschlaeger’s view, is a contradiction in terms: a “psychological subterfuge by which our political and economic elites avert their vision from the sordid reality of the relentless growth of human population and the spread of industrialism grinding life beneath its heel…” The argument is important, but gets derailed by an inattention to the very vocabulary under discussion. Oelschlaeger uses environmentalism and sustainable development interchangeably, a rhetorical device that many environmentalists find offensive. That Oelschlager can so flippantly assign environmentalism this new definition highlights the term’s lack of a consensus definition and consequent susceptibility to misuse (for an example, we need look no further than George Bush’s famous “I am an environmentalist” speech). But, sustainable development is not a synonym for environmentalism. It remains a contested term in its own right, a mantra of the Wise Use movement, of proponents of an ecological steady state, and of many who fall in between. To link environmentalism ineluctably with an ecologically pernicious doctrine and then to ally all environmentalists with that doctrine is intellectually dishonest.

The only good environmentalist, we learn, is one who takes the next step and subscribes to Oelschlaeger’s doctrine of “earth-talk.” Earth-talkers are those who “lay down the illusion of the ego cogito and accept themselves as flesh of the earth.” Oelschlaeger offers no further insight into either “earth-talk” or his conception of a post-environmentalist rhetoric. As a result, his vision remains as opaque as the central distinction that the first section of this book purports to tackle - that between wildness and wilderness. And this lack of clarity, both within this essay and the first section of Wild Ideas, epitomizes the book’s characteristic overshooting of simpler goals in its pursuit of grandiose aims.

There are three more sections: Cross-Cultural Wild, which deals with the varying cultural visions of wilderness; The Art Of The Wild, which focusses on different ways of perceiving the natural world, and The Wild Revised, a section concerned with challenging contemporary notions of wilderness. Each section has essays of note as well as others considerably less so. Among the noteworthy is Lois Lorentzen’s “Reminiscing about a Sleepy Lake: Borderland Views of Women, Place, and the Wild” in Cross Cultural Wild. Lorentzen situates the wilderness debate within the context of the day-to-day existence of indigenous women. She offers stark examples of ill-fated western attempts to bring developing nations into step with industrial norms. One especially shameful case is India’s White Revolution, where cows have been desacralized and turned into milk machines. As a result, rural social structure lies dangerously weakened and seventy percent of the milk produced in India goes to make products like cheese, butter and chocolates, products consumed by only two percent of the population. Wilderness, Lorentzen suggests, has no place in the cosmology of people struggling to live off the land. Subsistence communities care little for nature preserves, but they are vitally concerned with healthy ecosystems that will continue to provide firewood, plant products, and other essentials for day to day life. This practical environmentalism falls somewhere in between the traditional demarcations of nature and culture and, Lorentzen argues, deserves an honored place in the pantheon of ecological thought.

Several other essays in this volume also deserve mention. David Abram’s essay in The Art Of The Wild, “Out of the Map, into the Territory: The Earthly Topology of Time,” is a thoughtful, articulate attempt to locate Heideggerian notions of time and space within eco-philosophy and the elusive sense of place. Irene Klaver’s “Silent Wolves: The Howl of the Implicit,” also in The Art Of The Wild, combines a trenchant ecofeminist analysis with an impassioned appeal for a return to experiencing things rather than naming them.

Andrew Light’s concluding essay in The Wild Revised, entitled “Urban Wilderness,” argues that in a world where the frontier has long since dissolved, the heart of darkness now beats in the inner city, a place where middle-class fears have combined with racism and difficult living conditions to create the urban “jungle,” first depicted by Upton Sinclair. Over the last century, the myth of the urban jungle has become firmly ensconced and perpetuated through city planning and a fortress mentality, evolving over time into a de-facto environmental racism. Light points to the recent film, Falling Down, in which an L.A. defense worker played by Michael Douglas decides he cannot take it anymore and attempts to clear out the jungle by force. The filmmakers claimed the film was a critique of racism and simplistic attitudes about the inner city. Unfortunately, film audiences saw it instead as an “ ‘accurate portrayal’ of the urban wilderness and audiences closely identified with this vision of a righteous inner-city crusader.”

In Light’s view, absent a prevailing notion that the inner city is the only truly uncivilized place remaining, films like Falling Down would not be possible. The federal government’s defining wilderness as three square miles without a road and requiring government-issued “wilderness permits” for entrance certainly lends credence to Light’s contention that the term’s original meaning has been diluted. In addition, many of those who gaily embark on wilderness adventures with little fear for their personal safety would never dare set foot in the inner city. This juxtaposition seems to support Light’s depiction of an urban wilderness as closer to the spirit of the term.

Still, it is a concerted discussion of the spirit of the term that this volume lacks. Though it contains a number of fascinating essays and some truly noteworthy scholarship, there is much unevenness as well. And, while there are areas that I wish had been covered, my principal quarrel with Wild Ideas lies with what the book sets out to do and doesn’t. For example, there is only a perfunctory and woefully reductive treatment of post-structuralist theory as it applies to eco-criticism, and a less than thorough analysis of how wilderness fits within a globally linked system of extractive economies. These scholarly gaps would be considerably less damning in a book with a strong unified structure. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. The lack of commonality among the various authors’ terminologies leads inevitably (since the book’s focus is, after all, a term) to very little commonality of purpose. A book purporting to “point a new direction for environmentalism” ought to provide the reader with a narrative compass and this one doesn’t.

[ Cassuto also reviews Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action in ebr, eds. ]