False Idyll

Art: Bobby Neel Adams
Art: Bobby Neel Adams

OF ALL THE FEELINGS said to sweep over us in wild places — awe, peace, a sense of the divine — there are a few that rarely get mentioned. My last two-week trip into the woods, for example, was frankly depressing. The year had been a cold one, and the forest was not its usual refulgent self. A black bear was hanging around, skinny and sickly from the bad berry crop and probably bound for death by starvation in its winter den. Pink salmon had just begun to spawn in a nearby creek, where their battered bodies were a reminder of the grand cycle of life, yes, but were also an intimately dismal spectacle. Then I discovered a colony of bats, the year’s pups just learning to fly. Not a lot is known about the mortality rate of bats in this fledgling period, but I am inclined to predict it is high. The little ones peeped fearfully before their maiden flights, and with good reason — I watched several crash into the tall grass, unlikely ever to make it home again. They might, at least, make easy meals for the garter snake I saw that had somehow lost half its face.

All of this took place in a valley that, blessed with steep slopes, icy winters, wet summers, and remoteness from the world’s stock exchanges, has somehow retained the full complement of predators, including wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions. I do indeed feel awe in that place, but not much peace. By day I carry pepper spray, and by night I sleep with a twelve-gauge shotgun close at hand, because a couple of years ago a bear tried to break into my “cabin” — a ninety-year-old homestead shack that can’t even keep out the rain — in the first light of dawn. If a god is in charge of the area, he is surely of the mercurial, Old Testament variety.

The idea that nature is a bittersweet and sometimes forbidding place is not, as they say, currently trending. More prevalent is the view reflected in a recent caution from the Chicago Manual of Style editors that capital-N “Nature” is to be used only to denote “a goddess dressed in a flowing garment and flinging fruit and flowers everywhere.” The comment is tongue-in-cheek, but the point is well taken. The natural world is increasingly seen as a gentle and giving realm of the spirit. In some cases, this view is actively religious or quasireligious, whether we are speaking of the biosphere as the provident Earth Mother, the being-of-beings that is James Lovelock’s Gaia, or simply the handiwork of one or another god. But above all else, the actual experience of being in nature seems to affirm its essential holiness. The natural world feels like a spiritual respite: a literal sanctum, where we are safe to reconnect to what is larger than ourselves. Compared to the cosmic rhythms of mountain, sea, and sky, it is ordinary daily life — driving at rush hour, punching security codes, navigating a shape-shifting digital culture — that seems hostile.

Yet there is a serious problem with our idea of sacred nature, and that is that the idol is a false one. If we experience the natural world as a place of succor and comfort, it is in large part because we have made it so. Only 20 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is still home to all the large mammals it held five hundred years ago, and even across those refugia they are drastically reduced in abundance. The seas have lost an estimated 90 percent of their biggest fish. For decades there were almost no wolves, grizzly bears, or even bald eagles in the lower 48, and modern recovery projects have brought them back to only a small fraction of their former ranges. Scientists speak of an “ecology of fear” that once guided the movements and behavior of animals that shared land- and seascapes with toothy predators — an anxiety that humans once shared. In much of what’s left of the wild, that dread no longer applies even to deer or rabbits, let alone us. The sheer abundance and variety of the living world, its endless chaos of killing and starving and rutting and suffering, its routine horrors of mass death and infanticide and parasites and drought have faded from sight and mind. We have rendered nature an easy god to worship.

If humankind’s relationship to the wild were to be embodied by just one of the gods we have invented, I would nominate Janus, the twin-faced deity of the ancient Romans. Our sense of the divine can connect us to nature, but it can divide us from it as well. Spirituality can help us see ourselves as kindred to every living and nonliving thing, all sprung from the same celestial dust. This primeval understanding remains deep and broad today, revealed everywhere from the Garden of Eden story shared in one form or another by Christians, Jews, and Muslims; to the Tibetan name for Mount Everest, Chomolungma, the Holy Mother; to $2,995 shamanic journeys of reconnection to Mother Earth in Sedona, Arizona, complete with one-night vision quests, “weather permitting.” On the other hand, spirituality has long been used to place ourselves on a pedestal above the rest of creation. The Garden of Eden story includes instructions to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “have dominion” over every living thing, among other phrases that amount to a mission statement for latter-day capitalism; Mount Everest is a challenge to be conquered; and that same Arizona wilderness retreat promises to refresh the “natural power that is your birthright.”

Old Janus has been staring in these opposite directions a long time — the tension between being a part of nature and standing apart from it is elemental to what it means to be human. “The archaeological record encodes hundreds of situations in which societies were able to develop long-term sustainable relationships with their environments, and thousands of situations in which the relationships were short-lived and mutually destructive,” wrote the Arizona State University anthropologist Charles Redman in his seminal 1999 book Human Impact on Ancient Environments. The pattern Redman points to is not, as some might suppose, divided neatly between destructive societies in the lineage of so-called Western civilization and sustainable societies in the more earth-toned traditions often associated with, for example, Native Americans. A recent scientific review of human impacts on the oceans found “overwhelming” evidence that aboriginal coastal cultures “often” depleted their local environments; in fact, the editors speculate that it may have been the struggle to survive in increasingly degraded surroundings that gave rise to the conservation values that many Native Americans appear to have held at the time of European contact. If so, then 1492 was a clash of Janusian timing: European nations reveling in the discovery of God-given riches just as Native American cultures were formulating a spiritual understanding of natural limits.

We know which of those two worldviews prevailed in the centuries that followed — a history that astounds us with the extinction or near-extinction of even the most superabundant creatures, from the great auk to the buffalo to the Atlantic cod, though these iconic species are best thought of only as reminders of a wholesale assault on animate life that left no species unscarred. In the midst of it all, a countercurrent emerged. A small minority of people still mark the beginnings of that turning with the 1864 book Man and Nature, by George Perkins Marsh, a pioneer of ecological thought. With the exhausting thoroughness of autodidactic science-geekery, he presented an inventory of “the extent of the changes produced by human action in the physical conditions of the globe we inhabit.” For the most part, however, Marsh is a footnote, massively overshadowed by his more lyrical, less empirical contemporaries. I don’t even need to use their first names: nature writing in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, of Wordsworth and Coleridge, has called on us to see the face of God in every trembling leaf ever since. To do otherwise is to fall into the cold rationalism so often said to have betrayed the wild world.

This modern love of the earth is ironic — it is a reaction against the destruction of nature, but is also a product of that destruction. Witness Great Britain, once home to deep forests, bears, wolves, wild boars, wild oxen. We celebrate England’s Romantic poets for seeing divinity in a landscape that others found dark and threatening. Yet the Romantics were only opening their eyes to a new reality: Almost every threat posed by that wild landscape had been vanquished. By the time of the Romantics, Britain was much as it is today — a deforested island, its fauna largely reduced to butterflies, birds, and hedgehogs.

The pattern repeated itself on the American shore. Thoreau wrote from a forest that had lost its capacity to instill fear in a young man’s heart. (Marsh could have detailed this history for him; Marsh’s childhood home near Woodstock, Vermont, had in his lifetime lost its moose, wolves, and mountain lions, and seen its spruce and hemlock forests replaced with European trees.) Annie Dillard’s pilgrimage to Tinker Creek plays out in a denuded Virginia, and even Edward Abbey, that singular voice of wildest America, went to his deathbed never having seen a free-living grizzly bear. Such versions of nature still inspire wonder — I held a wild hedgehog in my hands last year and was speechless with the thrill of it. In fact, one might argue that the works that have brought us closest to nature have depended on a more welcoming wilderness. But another truth should be foremost in mind: that what we call nature today is a kinder, gentler, more depauperate world than at any time since at least the late Paleozoic, some 300 million years ago. Nature is not a temple, but a ruin. A beautiful ruin, but a ruin all the same.

According to recent statistics, most people on earth now live in cities, with few if any daily reminders of things ecological. There is considerable evidence that this disconnect costs us at a personal level. Among the most durable findings in the field of environmental psychology, for example, is that we prefer natural settings over the built environment. Among natural landscapes, we show the greatest preference for open spaces dotted with trees, with a little water nearby. (Picture the views from the apartments that border Central Park in Manhattan; as the biologist E. O. Wilson puts it, “To see most clearly the manifestations of human instinct, it is useful to start with the rich.”) These preferences have a consistency across cultures and generations that approaches evolutionary natural law.

I want to call attention to two aspects of these discoveries. The first is that the salient feature of our most preferred environments — savannalike spaces — is long sightlines, which would have helped us to survive the eons when our species was still a link in the wild food chain. In other words, we prefer nature when it is unthreatening, and on that count, we have had our wish. The second point is that we nonetheless have a deeply embedded psychological attachment to the living world. Having lost our daily communion with that world, our modern spiritualization of it can be seen as a kind of prosthetic — or, if you prefer, a way of turning up the volume on a signal that is increasingly faint. We have created an imaginary connection with nature because we lack a tangible one, and we carry that connection in spirit because we no longer follow it in body. The sense of the divine that many feel in wild places is less a bond with nature than it is another symptom of the absence of that bond.

Ecologically speaking, this sanctified nature is not nearly enough. “We live more and more in an enchanted illusion of what nature is, which I think is counterproductive to conservation,” says the Cornell University biologist Harry Greene. It’s the back half of that statement — counterproductive to conservation — that contains surprises. At the time, Greene was responding to the movement that seeks, in effect, to protect feral mustang horses in the American West from natural life and death, permitting neither human culling nor wild predation nor starvation from drought or harsh winters, and instead using pharmaceutical contraceptives to control the population. This approach falls close to the farthest end of the spectrum of enchantment, where we find “end of suffering” activists who see a high moral calling in technocratic intervention against every cruelty that regulates natural systems: no more frogs swallowed alive by snakes, no more calf elk gored by grizzlies in front of their mothers’ eyes, no more exhausted hummingbirds drowned during their arduous migration across the Gulf of Mexico. “Let’s aim to be compassionate gods,” concludes one essay from the end-of-suffering sect, “and replace the cruelty of Darwinian life with something better.”

But such extreme examples aren’t necessary. We might instead simply reflect upon the ecological consequences of our having created a wild world that has, for the most part, liberated us from fang and claw and distanced us from unseemly reality. Writing in the 2010 book Trophic Cascades, editors John Terborgh and James Estes, both prominent ecologists, describe the simplification of nature’s architecture by human actions as a crisis “every bit as serious, universal, and urgent as climate change.” When fishermen’s nets fill not with fish but jellyfish; when pestilent tsetse flies spread with the scrublands once held in check by browsing elephants; when overpopulating deer eat the flower gardens of suburban America — all of these bear the markings of the ecological cascade. Here’s one example that hints at the scale of the losses: The best available estimate suggests that whales before whaling ate up nearly 65 percent of the energy — as transformed into living things — produced yearly in the world’s oceans. Paradoxically, however, the same seas that teemed with ravenous whales also brimmed with other creatures great and small, from swordfish to shad to oysters. They did so, paradoxically, in seas that despite the whales’ ravenous appetites would have seemed nearly to burst with creatures great and small, from swordfish to shad to oysters. “We know very little about the direct and indirect effects of reducing whale populations by more than 90 percent, but they must be substantial,” note Terborgh and Estes, with the typical restraint of lifelong scientists. It’s knowledge that could be of some use to us right now. By conservative estimates, a single animal — us — now consumes at least a quarter of the annual productivity of the planet, with the critical difference that our myriad hungers are satisfied only at enormous expense to the abundance and variety of species.

Are we to blame a global society’s accumulating insults against the biosphere on people who meditate in the desert or find divinity beneath the redwoods? No. But the way you see the world determines much about the world you are willing to live in, and the spiritual lens has failed us as a tool for seeing clearly. Here are Terborgh and Estes again: “There is little public awareness of impending biotic impoverishment because the drivers of collapse are the absence of essentially invisible processes . . . and because the ensuing transformations are slow and often subtle, involving gradual compositional changes that are beyond the powers of observation of most lay observers.” Our collective response to these shifts in our surroundings, as Michael Soulé, a founding figure in conservation biology, puts it, is to “excuse, permit, and adapt.” The romanticization of a denatured living world is one such adaptation. We have turned a fierce and ambiguous nature into a place of comfort, and if we embrace the result as a sanctuary of the soul, to be visited every second or third long weekend, then we may ultimately see little purpose in returning to a deeper and more risky engagement. We’ll end up with the twin faces of Janus both looking the same direction, having found all the wildness we need in the tamed.

Every year, I try to return to that cabin where the bears roam and the salmon spawn and die, and the baby bats risk their new lives in fragile flight. There is no road; the access is by train, or by boat across a river of terrifying cold and current. I once told people that I went there for the peace and quiet, to escape into the sublime, and that was not entirely a lie. But I have to admit that I often feel a growing dread as the moment of entry into that wilderness approaches. It’s not the solace of mountain and forest that keeps drawing me back. It is something more demanding.

Every day in that wild place is an opportunity to pass time with eagles, ravens, toads, snakes, moose, grouse, salmon, and the year’s local black bear, which somehow always seems to be everywhere at all times. I often find myself filled with wonder, but the challenge of living nearer to nature will never be having to cope with more beauty, or that our hearts may explode from so much swelling. Instead, the challenge comes from the wilderness’s countless mortal shocks, from maggots teeming in the brainpan of a dead deer, to the steady watchfulness required of life among large predators, to weirdly disturbing realizations such as that adult mayflies have no mouths, no digestive tracts, no anuses. Yet another memory from this past year’s visit leaps to mind: a strange preponderance of bleeding tooth fungus, Hydnellum peckii, which weeps transparent beads of red liquid across the white pulp of its mushroom cap. If the bleeding tooth fungus is the answer to any question, that question could only be, “Why?”

If the modern spiritualization of nature is the product of distance and diminishment, observations such as these are the opposite, the outcome of muddy hands and scratched skin, of having time to waste in places where our species is a curiosity and potential source of protein. Slowly, haltingly, I am coming to see the community of species around my cabin with the same eyes with which I have come to see other communities — to the extent that even that word, community, sounds clinical and precious to my ears. Think instead of your friendships, or your neighborhood, those fragile constructions of toleration and embrace, of the heartwarming and the bleak. We understand our friends and neighbors as imperfect, even essentially tragic, and yet, at our best, we know that they are a part of us — that we are enriched when they are enriched, impoverished when they are impoverished. I am still new to the neighborhood of salmon, cedar, and raven, and I won’t claim any insight into their world that is more profound than this: I feel their absence when I leave, and it’s their presence that always draws me back again.

It hasn’t been my experience that full-force nature directs the mind toward thoughts of positive vibrations or divine master plans. Nature itself is enough, its stories written in blood and shit and electrons and birdsong, and in this we may ultimately find all the sacredness we seem to need.

One final story: Several years ago, I interviewed a woman named Sally Mueller who had moved with her family from New Mexico to the remote Tatlayoko Valley of British Columbia. She had, in effect, made the decision that I have never found myself quite ready to make — to seek a life in the wilderness. There, many happy years later, she was charged by a sow grizzly protecting her cubs. The animal stopped only inches away and, roaring, swiped with a paw, slicing through two layers of clothing and the flesh of Mueller’s thumb. Only then did the mother bear’s fury drain away. The grizzly retreated; the scales of life and death tilted back into balance; the crawl of time returned to its regularly scheduled programming.

“It was really a highly spiritual experience for me,” Mueller said. She shared that revelation cautiously, aware that it would be difficult to understand. But in those terrible instants, she said, she knew that the bear was only doing what it must, and so was she, and so, too, were even the meadow grasses and the trees, the earth and the sky, and all of it was blurred into a pattern too infinite and ancient to explain. At last, Mueller found the words for the feeling: “It was just like coming home.”

J.B. MacKinnon is a best-selling author and award-winning magazine writer based in Vancouver. He is winner of the Charles Taylor Prize (Dead Man in Paradise) and the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Book Award (The 100-Mile Diet). His most recent book is The Once and Future World (2013). He also is the recipient of 11 National Magazine Awards, many of them for his articles about nature and the outdoors in Explore. MacKinnon, in addition to his writing, works in the field of interactive documentaries including Bear 71 and Welcome to Pine Point.

Comments

  1. Interesting article and good food for thought. Some big questions are raised.

    I agree that seeing nature as wholly beneficent is inaccurate. That said, I tend to disagree with the notion that the sacredness we see in nature is largely a consequence of the taming of nature. For example, the interaction with the bear that the lady had at the end of the essay was very sacred to her, and clearly not a tame experience.

    Sacredness aside, I think the author makes a good point that the taming of nature has resulted in people being able to access nature more easily (e.g., don’t have to bring bear spray in many areas) and that certainly has influenced people’s views of and experiences of nature.

  2. What a fascinating and challenging article. Thanks for giving us many things to think about!

  3. Interesting and thought stimulating article. I would use awe inspiring, and humility generating, but sacred is OK. Life is a great engine, and all we can do is bear whitness, and acknowledge how the complexity of it all sustains us, what ever the force that drives it is, it is. For the first 190,000 years or so the constant challenge and variablity of the environment, of the Pleistocene, created whom we are today. We have only had 10,000 years of the Holocene to grow lazy, complacent, and little challenged. Little wonder so many of us feel at home and comfortable in wild places, it is where our genes still are. We just can’t percieve the awesome complexity and interconnectedness of life and place living in the environments we have created for ourselves. Where many of us feel truly alien. Paul Sheppards, ” Home to the Pleistocene”, is probably the best place to explore these ideas. Joseph Campbell is also a good place to begin.

  4. I guess there is a shallow nature appreciation movement that seeks solace in a denatured wilderness. But I don’t run across it very much. Most of the true devotees of wilderness and its sacred qualities I’m aware of know that a wilderness without predators is no wilderness at all. It’s not wilderness if there’s no chance you could wind up as dinner. And that is the very essence of its sacredness.

    It’s true that the Romantic movement appreciated a tamed nature, but it replaced fear of predators with the sublime, a more sedate form of fear (or awe, as they called it). And then you have Muir, pursuing the sublime on Mt. Ritter, and exulting over nearly falling to his death. And from there you have Doug Peacock exulting in moving through bear country in Yellowstone’s back country. Nature is not where you go to find relaxation, but to feel fully alive.

    You’ve done a great job of describing this spiritual experience, both in your own stories and the story of the woman and the bear. It just seems wrong to deny that it IS a spiritual experience.

    On the subject of mitigating the cruelties of nature, the wild horse example shows how absurd this impulse can be when taken to extremes. But I couldn’t help thinking about Loren Eiseley’s essay, “The Star Thrower,” in which he lauds exactly this impulse, silly though it might be.

  5. I think that the author and many other readers may enjoy the literary genre of Naturalism. Naturalist literature portrays nature as cold and uncaring about the plight of humans within it. It was prominent in the late 19th Century. Humans are depicted as very small and relatively powerless in comparison to nature. It can be quite pessimistic at times, but the quality of writing in most cases is usually high. This article reminded me of the short stories “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane and “To Build a Fire” by Jack London. I read them a few years back, but they were quite good. I’ll have to go back and read them now.

  6. Thoreau wrote:

    Very few men can speak of Nature … with any truth. They overstep her modesty, somehow or other, and confer no favor. They do not speak a good word for her … The surliness with which the woodchopper speaks of his woods, handling them as indifferently as his axe, is better than the mealymouthed enthusiasm of the lover of nature. Better that the primrose by the river’s brim be a yellow primrose, and nothing more, than that it be something less.

  7. While it’s true, technically, that “Nature” can become an idol, the fear that any sense of the sacred in the world is idolatry is an annoyingly Calvinist concern. Many of us are perfectly capable of experiencing the world sacramentally without confusing “Nature” with God. In the future, please consider that not everyone is a Calvinist or, for that matter, a Romantic.

  8. Just as the mention of Janus suggests, this article continues our notion that there is a duality, and because of it, a disconnect. And as this article addresses this disconnect, the point is again missed.
    The idea of “right” and “wrong” in our current world view is forever tied into notions of the sacred and profane, ambivalent and nurturing, wild and subdued. I agree that an awareness of our perspective on this duality is important, but to say it is a definition of the human experience in relationship to our natural world is only defining the duality. We are not separate, however, and I think that that is what we are realizing in those feelings of the ‘sacred wilderness’. It resonates because we are not separate from it.

  9. Good point, Sara! And indeed, in the last paragraphs you see McKinnon struggling with his experience of feeling a part of it (neighborly) and of feeling apart from it (the sublime, or the “unheimlich” as German Romantics called it, literally, the un-homelike). It’s tearing away this false sense of separation, of apart-ness, that will be the key to seeing that WE ARE nature. It’s when we recognise the abiding and immediate presence of “nature” — as I did at 3 am on the fifth floor of a hotel in Santiago de Chile during the earthquake — that we’ll finally realise nature is not “out there” no matter what floor we live on.
    Believe me, I no longer need to go to the Yukon to feel awed.

  10. Isn’t it the very wildness, danger, unpredictability of nature that attracts some people to the outdoors? I’m not thinking of a family toasting marshmallows around the campfire, but of people like Christopher McCandless, Aron Ralston, or George Mallory. I think there’s a deep human need to conquer nature or at least feel like nature is tame. For some people that means policed Central Park, guided mountain hikes, and bullfights, while for others it means braving the unknown and pushing oneself to the limits. That’s a lot like spirituality, when you think about it. Some are complacent sitting in the same pew, fearing anything controversial or challenging. Others are out there dangerously living their faith, giving to those in need until they themselves are no longer living a comfy lifestyle.

  11. Dear Mr. MacKinnon,

    Many thanks for your essay. I believe the thoughts you raise about absences are particularly vital and interesting. I am also thinking more about what you raised regarding western and aboriginal relations within the world. Toward that end, could you please post the citation for the review you refer to in these words:

    “A recent scientific review of human impacts on the oceans found “overwhelming” evidence that aboriginal coastal cultures “often” depleted their local environments; in fact, the editors speculate that it may have been the struggle to survive in increasingly degraded surroundings that gave rise to the conservation values that many Native Americans appear to have held at the time of European contact.”

    Many thanks,
    Julianne
    jw156@nyu.edu

  12. This article irritated me because it seemed to be addressed, at least in the beginning, to urban/suburban readers. I live in a rural area and as such participate in nature pretty much every day in some way. I understood what McKinnon was getting at but it didn’t resonate. I’m one of those people for whom nature is a spiritual experience, and my father was the same way. That said, I in no way believe that nature is benign, kind, compassionate. It can feel that way at times and isn’t it wonderful? But it’s totally impersonal in the sense that my single person doesn’t matter. At the same time I am filled with a love and awe and sense of wholeness that feels personal, like it’s there just for me. This would seem to be a conflict but I chose not to see it that way. That’s the uniqueness of being human. We create meaning, we act from that meaning, and in turn it helps create who we are and how we relate to nature, to others, to ourselves. When I interact with another species, whether it be a bear lumbering into my backyard, birds nesting in the nearby trees, even the bees and other insects in my garden, I have a choice how to perceive this relationship. And at times there’s a connection that feels very mutual, even if just for a moment. And, again, I have a choice regarding the meaning this has for me. And then, of course, there are natural events, coming more and more frequently thanks to climate change, that serve to remind us all, no matter how removed we may be from nature or how romantic or spiritual we perceive our relationship to be, that seriously brings home how small and ultimately powerless we are and how dangerous, even deadly nature can be. And it’s nothing personal – you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s the way it is. I admit as I was reading the beginning of the article I was thinking, “Well, climate change will take care of people’s feeling removed from nature – it’s going to force us to deal, whether we want to or not.”

  13. Jung says that the shadow side is not “evil” but a powerful energy to incorporate. Buddhism has peaceful, blissful buddha-images, but also fierce ones, with fangs and carrying severed heads or skulls. And the latter are most often the protectors… And these fierce protectors are for sure the epitome of compassion as they wield their swords. Charming and fearless.

    The way-making=Dao of Daoism names the interdependence of all conditions, thus beyond dualities.

    Thus both are there, in a nondual emergent unfolding: There is the awesome tranquility of the natural as well as the awesome fierceness of the natural–and both are one, not two and not one, a dynamic onefold that is not reducible to a static unity.

    The thing is to be in touch with life, to be connected engagingly in the fullness of the pulse that is life, and to be awesomely aware in life and earth. Whether that is the tiny wildflower that D.H. Lawrence knelt down to smell and see, in tears. Or the mighty, fierce force of the natural that almost took John Muir’s life.

  14. so many stories,like if we kill thousands of animals,to get rid of bugs that carry disease,that didn’t help. the bugs just moved on.These are things that come to mind.I like finding creatures where you wouldn’t expect them,healing their wounds by standing in water,beavers on a hill away from a main water source,in a shallow swamp.A woodchuck walking over my body as i nap.Pileated woodpecker in a tree,surrounded by shopping centers.the brightest bluebird with snow as a backdrop in the middle of the winter.Silly young me,meeting a bear, on a log,to share my lollipop,and laughing hysterically,to the story i told my friend minutes later how i was invited back to the bears cave,sharing an extra fur coat for my stay.the pitch blackness in the burning morning sun,of a cub after running into my tire,saving each others lives,as i held a beach towel,like a matador,to get the cub out of the path of a really long dump-truck coming down the steepest hill for miles around.Compassionate article,and i have no problem inviting the picnic ants,back outside after cleaning the crumbs of food from my apt.I guess generations of mammals are lucky enough to dwell in the same location over the years.We me become sporadic and unconsciously still take nature for granted some where along…thanks you Orion

  15. good essay, good points, my opinion: its true nature is forcibly being backed into a corner however it is survival of the fittest and mankind is the fittest. i do not take for granite the awesomeness of the outdoors, i just want more. i believe it is every individuals responsibility who shares this feeling to respect the laws of nature and do their best to set an example oh how a modern 20th century outdoors man acts. truth is when i get outdoors all the b.s. gets left at the trail head, i dont think the world will ever be the same or as it once was it is in a constant change reacting to our impact, therefore i do my part in treating the outdoors with love and i look to god for answers as to what might come to our beautiful planet. deep down i know the wilderness is doing its best to sustain however long that might be. spiritual experience ?? if you haven’t had one in the outdoors keep coming back there’s a reason people don’t meditate on a street corner

  16. When you carry bearspray and a shotgun into the wilderness you aren’t going into the wilderness, you’re going into some dark little hidey hole of fear inside yourself. You can’t “experience” anything if you are so in fear of it you are carrying with you the means of destroying it. Rosvita is the only one who said it correctly: we ARE “nature”…when you stop seeing yourself as “something else”, then you’ll be ready to take the next step, the one past your “nicely worded writings about it” and actually get to BE. (one note, to the person who said “people don;t meditate on street corners”…. oh yes they do.

  17. It is a thread here that most commenters and the author of the aritcle are people who don’t live or have limited exprience with wild places.
    i was perfeclty content to follow the thread, with interest, until the last comment by Robert C. such macho B.S. Humans have never wandered about in wild habitats without their tools. Without our tools we would never have evoved to the point of recognizing what wild means. I live on the east side of Yellowstone National Park, we have people having aggressive encounters with grizzly bears every year resulting in serious injury or worse. Even people who survive an attack seldom fault the bear. nearly everone who frequents the mountains here value the presence of the grizz and the sense of wild it brings with its presence. All the macho BS goes out the window when one is in the presence of the most awsome animal on the continent. Pepper spray can not only protect the person carrying it, but protect the bear from serious trouble. It will also repel lions and aggressive bison. Carrying pepper spray or a fire arm doesn’t in the least lessen the heightened sense of awareness we need in wild places. For those of you who may chose to visit the wild places of the northen rockies or else where learn what it takes to have a respectful visit. People have been living in these mountains for the last 11,000 years, and to those who live here and ferquent the wild places it is where we live. It is the place where even the most callosed will admit it is where time, space, experience, and sense of individuation dissolve in to commonality, a seamless existence. That was once our lives and it is that we feel drawn to return.

  18. Actually, Sean, I’ve spent the last three years guiding tours and camping in the Andes on the border between Chile and Argentina. That’s AFTER plenty of years of experience with “wild places”. So, it’s probably best not to make assumptions, and one of the most pleasurable things about this conversation is the tone in which it has been carried out. It would be great if it could carry on that way. On the other hand, if anything, your comment’s conclusion bears out my own and Robert’s. Practical approaches to bears and their awesomeness aside (and you are correct in your description) you write, rather more beautifully, about the dissolving of the individual into commonality in those places. This is what my statement “WE ARE nature”, and Robert’s praise for it, also pointed to. Our day-to-day lives seem dependent on drawing a veil over our own place within it. But by recognizing nature — and even, the wild — is wherever we are, and that we carry it inside us, it needn’t become “false” idyll as Mackinnon describes it.

  19. Frankly, I think this article is the last thing I would want to have in my mind when going into wilderness. I really have to wonder what it was the author intended to deliver to us? I don’t go into wilderness to think about it, I go there to have an experience. And I don’t need someone to analyze my experiences, or tell me whether they were really spiritual, or just some mixture of fantasy and self-delusion. I ken this fellow doth think too much; such men are dangerous.

  20. I think it might be best not to read this article as the author personally attacking the way that you as an individual interact with your environment. It feels to me that this is addressing a more general social attitude towards nature that he feels is detrimental. I think he opposes approaching the wilderness as a sort of “spiritual commodity.” I thought it was very well written and articualted a lot of important ideas.
    Just remember, Mackinnon didn’t write this article because he wanted to put down you as a person (he doesn’t know you after all). From the last paragraph I would gather that he does in fact respect the individual’s right to define their own interaction with nature as they please.
    Let’s all be nice and love each other.

  21. Great article. The author raises an interesting point about religion and spirituality–how desperately we want to be comforted–and yet the Christian God, unafraid to dwell among those who will nail him to the cross, seems to bring a life that is exuberant even in the midst of death and sorrow and frustration. Indeed, the Christian God is clearest to us mere mortals when we are not comfortable. Only then do we understand the love that endures suffering.

  22. Many thanks to James for sharing a disjoint for which I’d not pinned down words. I believe the essence of relationship James points to is where the line is drawn between those who are choosing to touch soil, plant seed, and hunt full-time, and those who work to protect “nature” for beauty and escape from the harshness of “civilized” life that invites us to live as many boring and comfortable days as possible until all drugs and technologies finally fail us. Ironic it is that a desire to escape discomfort and death has led us here to this haunted land where death and struggle overwhelmingly exceed birth and enjoyment, a time when some like me speak with a touch of romantic appreciation for belonging and others are bold and courageous enough to belong. Had we been meditators all the while, though, we would not have sought escape from death and struggle in the first place. As long as the fires of industry burn, there will be need for the writer who reminds us to return home not to a land void of pain, but an honest land whole with the raw nature of birth and death in balance, a balance that we are ignorant to judge. We are called to return home not as a visitor but as a community member. Only here will we appreciate birth and death with equal and full understanding as if they are one. Still, we should be cautioned against falling again into the trap of good and bad, better and worse. Yes, what we experience now is a rather quiet, tamed world subsequently less brilliant on our senses. Recognizing the absence of an experience is a profound way to learn the fullness of that experience. We would not know the consequences of trying to escape discomfort and death had we not come to this point by way of attempt at escape. The big lesson is learned.

  23. McKinnon’s article was thought-provoking and so are the comments.

    As someone who is happiest living in the city and merely visiting rural and wilder areas, I really appreciate Rosvita’s story about the hotel and the earthquake. If only those who “touch soil, plant seed, and hunt full-time” can understand that humans are a part of nature, then we are doomed.

    I confess that I prefer to read about getting clawed by a bear than to experience it first-hand. I hope I can appreciate the lesson in that story without finding my own bear to tick off.

    For all their faults, cities, towns and villages are in many ways natural and efficient places for humans to live (and meditate). Rural life does not appeal to everyone, nor should it. Remember that one vision of everyone spreading out from the cities to live on the land basically turned out to be suburbia. People, as a part of nature, always leave our mark on the environment no matter what. As McKinnon points out, the question is can we do it wisely.

  24. on what was read by S. Brown as an assertion of mine that a subsistence lifestyle is the only way one can grasp the fullness of life (aka part of “nature”), I recognize there are many ways to be and learn the important lessons. I do think that an intimate relationship with our food source is essential for the human being to understand the fundamentals of reciprocity in relationship and belonging to life. an acute understanding of what it means to endure a “rough” growing or harvest season may be the key to ensuring thriving systems (urban and rural). that’s my opinion based on personal experience and a rather long look at the human condition. others may have this theory grounded in research? i too have appreciated the tone of both the article and most of the comment threads. apologize if my earlier comments read as cutting and judgmental…if anything, i wish only to point to the contradictions and tensions I live. there’s a song out there with a line that goes “if you love the country, live in town” or something like that. with the big picture in mind, i personally agree with that sentiment…i live in town for my own reasons (albeit a small town on the edge of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness…again, my own reasons). and, Sean, thank you for clarifying that carrying bear spray in no way compromises the visceral experience of walking in grizz homeland, as well as the value of spray for protecting both human and grizzly…ditto.

  25. This is one of the most spot-on essays regarding current trends in the relationship between man and the wild world that I have ever read. Thank you, J.B. McKinnon.

    There is so much much romantic drivel that surrounds luxuriously-removed notions of sanitized nature that it’s time to call “bullshit.” Of course, those who live close to the land, who fish, who hunt, who eke a living off of the fringes of society, are continuously reminded that nature is both beautiful and savage, serene and merciless, and cannot afford to think otherwise. Not as dichotomy – but as one and the same.

    Too bad many of the comments seem to miss the point entirely (if not exemplify it), eager as they are to proselytize their own beliefs instead.

  26. While researching as a grad student I found that in early America frontiersmen only began wearing buckskin clothing once the local Native American peoples had been subdued and were no longer a threat. Similarly, we encounter nature only after it has been tamed. Last week as I hiked Bryce Canyon (UT) I thought about how I walked along unarmed and unprotected, something my predecessors 250 years ago would have thought insane. The “wilderness” most of us visit today is more akin to a Disney theme park than the wild. I am unsure what we want to experience. Millions of years of evolution led our species to desire safety: I for one do not want to face down a grizzly. But to see a predator in the wild is sacred…and bone chilling.

  27. For every person who imparts onto nature a spiritual, “good”, or “pure” like identity there is another person who projects a menacing, untamed, or “evil” view. As in that bear, elk, etc etc who attacked that hiker was “bad” , that animals ( and even plants) have some sort of inherent emotional agenda and make a conscious choice to sometimes do what in human eyes is considered negative. It is not just wild animals that people do this to, it is domestic ones as well. Animal attack and predator themed shows always have that same attitude about them. We are even this way about weather sometimes like branding storms and earthquakes “murderous” and “vengeful”. My point is that it works the other way too, regardless of how much truly wild and dangerous places there are left. It is the human need to project human emotions and concepts onto nature that contributes in producing this phenomenon, wether it be making nature a “good” place or a “bad” one. The truth is of course that it’s neither. To humans it is often nice or not so nice and my point is that stressing the harsher side to get a more accurate well rounded view isn’t enough, we have to also understand the part that our mind plays in determining our perception. Nature just seems one way or another, but it really simply just ” is”.

  28. Beautiful writing, beautiful article. It does seem that modern views of nature fall into either the benevolent goddess or malevolent destructive force versions, both of which are reductive. And neither of which address the point you make so well — that we’ve had a huge hand in constructing the “nature” we have around us now.

    I recently read a book by Morris Berman, titled _Wandering Gods_, in which he posits (and I’m simplifying wildly, the book is very nuanced) that the modern human “need” for religion and spirituality actually came from the Neolithic separation of humans from the rest of nature. In other words, once we moved inside, we lost a lot of our physical senses (literally), and along with them a lot of our ability to feel pleasure and our sense of ourselves as part of a larger world (and I don’t that in any touchy-feely kind of way. We were prey as well as predators in those days).

    As a result we had to create a god or gods to give us back the feeling we once got from simply living. Berman suggests that, prior to that, we were more at home with nature’s inherent ambiguity — as most wild nonhumans have to be — and felt no need to deify or demonize. There’s terror in the wild, but also intense curiosity, engagement and physicality, in ways we no longer have any access to, because we’ve created cultures that deify comfort and control and demonize any kind of suffering.

    But even now that we’ve subjugated a lot of the natural world, many of us feel compelled to seek it out, either in packaged “vision quests”, or by getting ourselves up in camo and long-range rifles and shooting us some of it to bring home, depending on our particular point in the cultural/political spectrum.

    Anyway, I’m just rambling here. Your article is beautiful, and makes a strong case for recognizing and respecting the ambiguity in nature, instead of trying to “manage” the hell out of it. Which we’ve already pretty much done.

  29. I am sorry that J.B. is unable to find spirituality in nature, but is obsessed with its darker side. When he writes: “It hasn’t been my experience that full-force nature directs the mind toward thoughts of positive vibrations or divine master plans. Nature itself is enough, its stories written in blood and shit and electrons and birdsong, and in this we may ultimately find all the sacredness we seem to need.” Maybe some day he will refocus his attention on what some of us find in wilderness; a deep vibration of eternal stillness and blessing, a profound feeling of being home. If I constantly dwelled on everything that is difficult, disturbing, and imperfect around me when I went into wilderness, I think I would stop going there. One reason I have almost always gone there alone is to avoid the over intellectual critical viewpoint that companions like J.B. bring with them. I try to discard my judgments and inner baggage when I enter the forest in order not to block what are always new understandings and spiritual awakenings.

  30. I am reading Derrick Jensen’s recent book: Dreams. In it he deconstucts the world view of scientific materialism in terms of its claims to be the only valid source of knowledge. J.B. seems to be of this flawed school of thought. He goes out of his way to disparage any other realities or ways of knowing, discounting them as not having the weight or significance of simple physical facts like shit and blood, which are for him the paragons of real meaning.

    Trapped in a rational/material worldview of our own creation we are suffocating from a lack of beauty and mystery, which realities would be essential helps if we are to live beyond the nightmare our materialism and foolish certainties has produced. I pity these folks whose tragic flaws render them incapable of perceiving the faint rays of light from another dimension that could guide us out of the darkness in Plato’s cave.

  31. Today, after reading his “Life Is Sacred,” also on-line, I had the special satisfaction of reading the somewhat more optimistic piece, eloquently and richly written by Mr. MacKinnon. Then I realized that Henry David Thoreau (living for a period in a simple cabin deep in a forest and recording vibrant details in his journal) also contributed much that serves as an alternative to the offspring of sensationalism in tv and current politics. ORION is one publication that, in every issue, provides a cluster of alternatives. I write this aware that another ORION admirer likewise cherishes this publication with passion. Thank you all! A Portland, OR reader

  32. This article epitomizes what I look for in Orion. This is the sort of thought that renders the magazine truly profound. These are the most important questions we need to ask ourselves as humans.

    Bravo.

  33. well, a thought provoking article.
    I’m fine with ‘nature’, and when the kids were little, as we visited wilder country, I always kept the larger axe handy in case a black bear decided the kids would make a good snack(please don’t tell me they attack unprovoked). When I’m out there now, I feel how nature makes me small, and am quite peeved that we’ve had to wreck it to make it smaller to fit our fears.

  34. well, a thought provoking article.
    I’m fine with ‘nature’, and when the kids were little, as we visited wilder country, I always kept the larger axe handy in case a black bear decided the kids would make a good snack(please don’t tell me they attack unprovoked). When I’m out there now, I feel how nature makes me small, and am quite peeved that we’ve had to wreck it to make it smaller to fit our fears.

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