Out of the Wild

What is wild? What is cultivated? And what can these ideas teach us about our relationship to landscape? Questions like these have been a lifelong passion for William Cronon and Michael Pollan, both of whom have written deeply on the blurry boundary between nature and culture. Michael’s first book on the subject was Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education; he has gone on to write about food in all its forms in books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the recent Cooked. Bill’s exploration of the wild and the cultivated has emerged from a historical perspective; his first book, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, traced the history of human alteration to landscape and pioneered an argument against the idea of pristine wilderness.

Recognizing the interplay between their ideas, Orion asked Bill and Michael if they would have a conversation that could be shared with Orion’s readers. They met in Berkeley, California, where they talked about ecology and storytelling, nature and artifice, and the promise and challenge of finding meaning in the natural world.

Bill: The chapter “Nature Abhors a Garden” in Second Nature is still one of the best things anybody’s ever written on the boundary between wild and cultivated. Part of what’s brilliant about that piece, I think, is your deployment of humor. What is it about humor that you find so compelling in terms of writing about nature

Michael: “Nature Abhors a Garden” is a comic piece about my war with a woodchuck, and there’s a lot of Bill Murray from Caddyshack in there. There’s a point in the essay at which I describe pouring gasoline down a woodchuck burrow and lighting it on fire, and when I tell that story, especially to young people today, they’re amazed and often upset with me — there’s an assumption that an environmentalist would never do something like that. But working out that conflict between the cultural baggage that we carry into nature and the practical necessity of getting ourselves something to eat — I think that’s a pretty good microcosm of many of the issues we face.

Bill: One of the things that makes the comedy in that piece work so well is irony, and irony, I think, is something we’re both interested in. In a way, you could say that irony is in tension with this notion of a sacred world that is purely itself, to be celebrated for its purity. But irony doesn’t lead to purity. It leads to hybridity and complexity.

Michael: Yeah, and it leads to questioning those supposedly eternal or transcendental ideas, which in turn leads to humor.

To get there, though, I really did begin in the garden. I started out steeped in the nature ideas of Thoreau, Emerson, John Muir, and that whole wonderful nineteenth-century tradition that found a measure of wisdom in wild nature. I wrote a master’s thesis on Thoreau, and did a lot of writing on Emerson, and just love those ideas to my bones. But for me, they rubbed up against some practical experience in the garden — that if you believe our relationship with other species can be completely harmonious, you’re not going to be a very successful gardener. If you believe with Emerson, for example, that a weed is just a defect of human perception, you’re going to find yourself with a very weedy garden. You’re not going to harvest much of anything. Thoreau found this out when he planted his bean field; he tried to garden in keeping with his ideas, but couldn’t fit his head around the notion that he had any more right to his beans than the birds did.

While working on Second Nature, I had this wonderful book called Changes in the Land to read, which made me realize that I had some false ideas about what was wild and what was not in the New England landscape where I was gardening and making a home. In trying to keep the forest from advancing down the hill, and in trying to bar the woodchucks, the foxes, and the raccoons from the garden, I was missing the fact that my yard was nothing like a wilderness. It had previously been second- or third-growth forest — there was a long history of clearing that land and of the woods coming back. Everything was a garden, and the line I was drawing around my garden was artificial.

Bill: And the line had been drawn a long time ago.

Michael: Right. That was liberating, to realize that I was in a historical landscape that’s already been trammeled. I think it granted me a larger scope of action, and it made me look at other things historically, too. For example, in the “Bean-Field” chapter of Walden, Thoreau talks about St. John’s wort and these ancient weeds that he declared had more right to be in the garden than his beans, which he was just introducing. Thoreau’s a very good naturalist, but he got some things wrong there. He didn’t realize that St. John’s wort was brought over by the Rosicrucians as a spiritual herb and was just as much an alien as the beans.

So what you see in front of you isn’t necessarily what it is. If something looks wild or cultivated — you’ve got a nice rose here and a mess out there — well, history can tell you, “No, that’s not really what you’re looking at.”

Bill: One of the places where you and I have clearly been in dialogue all along, even before we met, is the centrality of history. Everything has history: our ideas have a history, nature has a history, our place in nature has multiple histories.

Michael: Even the most seemingly ahistorical things have history. It’s inescapable.

Bill: But the wonderful consequence is that everything also has a story. And rather than take the world as a static, unchanging place—in fact, there’s always a story.

This might be a good time to talk about Point Reyes, on the California coast, which is an interesting story about the blurred boundary between wild and cultivated. Point Reyes is a national park north of San Francisco; its ridgelines appear to be wild forest, but it’s actually an old agricultural landscape. The lowlands are full of old pastures that used to be dairy farms.

Michael: Point Reyes is a little spur of land on the far side of the San Andreas Fault. It’s a great example of the power and the limitations of the wilderness idea.

Bill: That’s right: a little part of the continent that’s being ripped off into the Pacific. It joined the national park system in the 1960s, and there’s been an ongoing debate about what to do with the old agricultural lands. There’s also an oyster farm in one of the estuaries that has been operating for decades, the future of which has become a matter of controversy. Arguments at Point Reyes are about whether the park should be managed toward wild nature, toward removing the human imprints that are so visible in the landscape, or whether it should be managed to sustain those human imprints.

Michael: Many environmentalists would like to remove the farms, but the sustainable food community — which is very big in the Bay Area — wants to keep it. It’s torn apart relationships. People on both sides feel that they’re great defenders of nature. It’s a really interesting place to look at how we fight our environmental battles. I’ve argued in favor of keeping the oyster farm as well as the ranches going for several reasons, not least of which is that there are other stories we can tell in a national park besides the story of wilderness. One is the story of good husbandry. Another is the story of how you can combine the pastoral with the wild.

So, in the course of things, will it make a big difference if the farms are removed or not? No, not really. But I think it’s forced us to confront our feelings about nature and culture and how we fit in. Historically, it’s an agricultural landscape, so why should we deny that history? Why not celebrate that history?

Bill: What to my eye is so ravishingly beautiful about Point Reyes — and I’d be willing to bet that 95 percent of visitors experience it in the same way — is the juxtaposition of the pastoral with the wild, because it’s the pastoral that makes the wild visible. That classic vista of a grassy headland with the peaks behind, the hills covered in trees and the ocean beyond — these are only visible to the visitor because the pastoral opens up the view.

What’s important about the story of Point Reyes, I think, is that it raises questions about the sacred authority of nature. To realize that we are mingled with this thing that we’d like to believe is wholly apart from us — that realization provokes fear on the part of many environmentalists. They fear that the consequence, from a moral perspective, will be that anything goes. If we admit any ambiguity in the moral authority of nature, people worry that we’ll have no ability to recognize better or worse relationships to nature. All that will be left is whatever we want to do.

Michael: Well, I think one of the reasons people like nature, and read about nature, and write poetry about nature, is expressly to escape history. It’s the non messy place, or so it seems, the place where we look for a standard that isn’t contaminated by human desires and foibles. We want a place that isn’t about us. Without that, we’re suddenly cast on the sea of our own inventions, where it feels like we don’t have any measure, any moral compass.

Bill: I think you and I would both say that a traditional experience of wilderness — the kind where you’re living outdoors for an extended period, in a landscape far away from ordinary comforts — is wholly a creature of civilization. It’s an expression of certain cultural values, but it’s still a real experience. It’s still something we can use to take our compass bearings. We can still look to those values for our sense of self in these places.

Michael: I think science can give us a measure, too. When you study how nutrients cycle in a natural environment, for example, you can learn something about how to nourish soil. The study of ecosystems in their untrammeled state can teach us ways to mimic them, and that’s a really important resource for things like sustainable agriculture.

Leaving “wilderness” aside, I do think there’s this wild other — I don’t know what exactly we should call it — that has an enormous amount to teach us. I think the encounters we have with plants and animals are really useful. We learn important things about what it means to be human and what it means not to be human. There is that quality of wildness that’s essential as something to learn from, to reflect on, to measure ourselves against.

Bill: Right — we’re looking for a moral baseline to measure ourselves against. One is this wilderness baseline, which asks what the world would look like in our absence and says we should make choices pointed toward such a world; that we should try to erase our presence, whether in this particular place or on the planet as a whole. But, of course, that doesn’t tell us how we should feed ourselves, how we should live our material lives. So there’s another baseline, which I’d call the “sustainability baseline.” It asks, regardless of what nature would do in our absence, can we keep doing what we’re doing indefinitely? And that doesn’t actually require a natural other as its referent. One simply asks the question, “Can we keep doing this?” We need both these baselines.

Michael: But the sustainability baseline does require an understanding of natural systems. It requires an understanding of how they work, of what leads to breakdown and what leads to persistence.

Bill: The sustainability baseline is not without its problems. Part of the trouble, I think, is that it attempts to avoid the political process. In a way, it’s undemocratic. Environmentalists are more tempted to avoid politics than many other players — they want to be above politics. They want to say, “We have the science, it tells us what’s going to happen, and therefore we must do X.”

Michael: Right.

Bill: And that’s been true all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Early conservationists made the same move; Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot made the same move. Science will tell us what to do.

Michael: Yes, we want to transcend politics because it’s messy. But we’re stuck with it.

Bill: We’re stuck with it. It’s important to remember that another value expressed via politics is justice. If one cares about the claims of justice, if one cares about how different groups have differential access to resources and power, only in the political realm can those ever be contested. If one appeals to a transcendent nature as a solution to such differences, injustice will almost inevitably be reinforced. It’s only through politics that we address inequity and injustice.

Michael: That’s interesting.

Bill: I think sustainability is in the territory of “the end of history” — the philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s controversial concept — because it tempts us to believe that we no longer need to debate whether the market or the government will solve our problems. We’re just going to gather together, agree on what’s sustainable, and then do it; we can avoid political conflict.

Michael: And sustainability is expert-driven.

Bill: It’s driven by science and technology. We turn — as we’ve historically turned in progressive conservation — to what the scientists tell us. If we just follow “good science,” we won’t need to argue with each other. But as you and I have been saying, you never escape politics. It seems to me that any viable vision of sustainability must retain a commitment to a democracy in which people debate each other about the nature of the good. Those contests over the good involve struggles over justice, struggles over what can be continued in nature, and struggles over the good community.

Michael: Politics come in as soon as we attempt to define “sustainability.” I think we’re contesting it right now. There are meetings going on now between environmentalists and corporate leaders about how to define the sustainability labels put on products, and that’s a fiercely political argument.

Bill: That’s right. The other trouble with sustainability is that it tends to point toward a future in which the good system is a stable system. But that’s not how history works. History is unstable. Perhaps that’s why the word resilience now gets invoked. Resilience and sustainability together are the territory in which our political and theoretical work needs to be done. We need unstable systems that nonetheless operate within a band of sustainability.

Michael: The idea of resilience — there’s an example of drawing from what we understand about natural systems.

Bill: Correct.

Michael: And there is some role for science in describing those systems and explaining how they work. I find the word useful.

Bill: I do, too.

Michael: The word is useful in many different contexts, because it links to nature qualities we like in ourselves, in our children, and in the social realm, so I think it’s very productive. But where does it come from?

Bill: Out of ecology and climate science. It emerged as more and more scientists began to believe that the effects of climate change are such that we are going to lose ecosystems that we hoped could be saved. As the larger system migrates toward its limits, the question of which systems are going to survive has become more and more compelling.

Michael: But the word also comes out of biodiversity studies, right? The idea that the more species there are in a unit of land, the more it can deal with fire, with changes in temperature, and so on? It’s an interesting measure to apply to certain things. I mean, we need words that constitute value judgments, right?

Bill: We do — so we can tell stories about them. Environmentalism at its best has been good at telling stories about the connections we don’t ordinarily see in our lives. How what we buy in a grocery store has consequences for the earth, for people, for animals. Taking responsibility for the choices we make in our daily lives: that’s one of the things environmentalism has been teaching all along.

I’d contrast it with the illusion of a transcendent leap, that if we can just embrace the cosmic good, we can have a revolutionary moment in which all is transformed. But the older I get, the more I mistrust the notion of a revolutionary leap. It seems to me that daily practice — small choices, lives well lived, mindfully and attentively lived — is the only way a just society can sustain itself. We have to make daily choices. We can’t imagine one big apocalyptic change.

Michael: Wendell Berry has this great line about distrusting people who love humanity. You can’t love an abstraction, he says. You can’t love a statistic. You can love the person near you, and your community, and your neighbors.

Bill: Use abstractions as metaphors for humanity, but stay close to people.

Michael: I think that’s true. Another very important lesson I’ve learned from Wendell Berry is about the danger of specialization, the fact that we’re now good at producing one thing and consuming everything else. The sense of dependence that follows from the division of labor makes us despair of ever changing the way we live; it encourages us to feel that change can only come from outside — from government, from disaster — because we can no longer do very much for ourselves. That partly explains the power of gardening, which offers a reminder that, in a pinch, we can provide for ourselves. That’s not a trivial thing. It makes us more receptive to imagining change.

Bill: For me, the moral lesson of the garden — and I’m agreeing with you — is that being attentive to the work of the garden leads to greater appreciation for the work that makes life possible, which involves the work of others.

Michael: That’s right. It changes our relationship to farm work. It changes our relationship to all the people who work to provide for us. Part of our problem is that in this incredibly elaborate outsource economy we don’t see how things are made.

Bill: A lot of your work has been revealing that.

Michael: Yes, taking you beyond the image on the meat package with the cowboy and the ten-gallon hat, and showing you that its true origin is a feedlot. We should be doing this with everything in our lives. That’s part of the environmentalist’s job. Ecology is the science of connections. For example, why is there no Omnivore’s Dilemma of clothing? There could be. The elastic that’s holding up your underwear was produced by slave labor — how do you feel about that? It’s right up against your skin!

Bill: Right. Ecology, storytelling, history — they all render connections visible. We make that which is invisible visible through story, and thereby reveal people’s relationships to other living things.

Michael: Stories establish canons of beauty, too. There is a role for art in changing cultural norms about what’s worth valuing. One hundred fifty years ago, certain people looked at a farm and saw what you might see if you look today at a nuclear power plant or some other degraded landscape. Part of the reason we tell stories is to create fresh value for certain landscapes, certain relationships.

Bill: And stories make possible acts of moral recognition that we might not otherwise experience. They help us see our own complicity in things we don’t ordinarily see as connected to ourselves.

Michael: Yes, exactly. That recognition can help remove the condescension in so much environmental writing by showing us that, look, these things we abhor are done in our name, and we are complicit in them, and we need to take account of them. It was Wendell Berry’s idea that the environmental crisis is a crisis of character. The big problem is the result of all the little problems in our everyday lives. That can be a guilt trip, but it doesn’t have to be. You can tell that story in ways that empower people.

Storytelling can also help us find hopeful solutions. For example, when I was writing Omnivore’s Dilemma and I went to Joel Salatin’s farm in Virginia, I learned how his grazing worked — intensive rotational grazing — and he explained to me what happens under the surface, how every time the ruminants come through and shear that pasture and reduce that leaf mass, a roughly equivalent amount of root mass is broken down and turned into soil. I learned that he takes vast amounts of food off this pastureland, without subtracting anything. To the contrary, the sun is feeding the grass, and the grass is feeding the ruminants; the ruminants are feeding us, and they’re also feeding the soil.

I suddenly saw a whole other way of conceiving our relationship to nature, that there are systems that exist, and could exist, that are non zero sum. There is a free lunch in nature: it’s solar energy, which means it isn’t necessarily true that for us to feed ourselves we have to diminish the world.

When you tell an audience that story, it fills them with hope and a sense of possibility, and that’s a function of storytelling. But, of course, it isn’t always so neat. There are questions of scale, and if you eat meat, there are problems with cattle. But I’m always looking for stories that refresh this narrative about nature that we’re so stuck in.

Bill: Messy stories invite us into politics. They also invite us to laugh at ourselves. And those things together — the ability to laugh, to experience hope, to be inspired toward action at the personal and political levels — these strike me as the work of engaged storytelling in a world we’re trying to change for the better.

Michael: I do have a lot of faith in the power of stories to do things. My greatest thrill as a writer is when I see people changed by the work, when people tell me that they’ve changed their behavior in some way because of something they’ve read.

One of the things I’ve fought very hard to do with my editors is to talk about alternatives when I talk about problems. For example, if I’m writing an incredibly dark story about industrial meat production and following a cow through the feedlot and slaughterhouse, I really want three paragraphs on the alternative to this system, which is to say, grass-finished beef. Those three paragraphs have more impact than anything else in the piece. And I still hear from ranchers that it was on the day that an article on that topic came out that we began to see the stirrings of a new market for grass-finished beef. “We no longer send them to the auction barn right away,” they tell me. “We’re finishing on grass now.”

Bill: That’s a good story about storytelling.

Michael: You have to pass through the dark wilderness of the feedlot before you can get there, but I think that there’s an appetite for hope that journalists don’t often satisfy.

I’ve met people, in their twenties especially, who really hate the model of the investigative article that tells them how messed up things are and doesn’t point to some alternative. True, the alternative you’re proposing can seem tacked on, and it can be incommensurate with the scale of the evils — but I think people want hope, a course of action they can take. This is something many journalists are missing right now. I think if our writing doesn’t include that dimension in some way, we lose people.

Bill: It strikes me that you’re pointing to a great tradition in the environmental movement, which is the power of good storytelling, going back to Rachel Carson.

Michael: She was incredibly effective rhetorically. Silent Spring is a very sophisticated piece of work.

Bill: It’s stunningly done.

Michael: It’s stunningly done. And it speaks to the power of fictional ideas like wilderness. Carson understood that, even if you’re writing about science, narrative is important. The trick I learned from her is never to talk about “neurotoxins”; instead, you tell the story of the molecule in the cell. Because there’s a narrative everywhere, even at the level of molecules.

Bill: Maybe that’s a good note for us to end on, don’t you think? The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said that “the world is made of stories, not of atoms.” When we lose track of the narratives that human beings need to suffuse their lives and the world with meaning, we forget what makes the world worth saving. Telling stories is how we remember.

William Cronon studies American environmental history and the history of the American West. Cronon’s research seeks to understand the history of human interactions with the natural world: how we depend on the ecosystems around us to sustain our material lives, how we modify the landscapes in which we live and work, and how our ideas of nature shape our relationships with the world around us. His first book, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983), was a study of how the New England landscape changed as control of the region shifted from Indians to European colonists. Cronon is currently at work on a history of Portage, Wisconsin, from the end of the last Ice Age down to the present. He is also completing a book entitled Saving Nature in Time: The Environmental Past and the Human Future on the evolving relationship between environmental history and environmentalism, and what the two might learn from each other.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful and timely discussion. I’m wondering, though, if you take too narrow a view of the extent to which notions of justice need to be expanded? Thomas Berry has advocated for a legal system that governs the relationship between humans and the natural world as a totality. And Eduardo Gudynas, in writing about ‘buen vivir’, argues that the concept of citizenship needs to widened to include other actors than just human ones.

    Second thing: The closest thing to an Omnivore’s Dilemma of fashion is Kate Fletcher’s book, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles. http://www.treehugger.com/culture/the-th-interview-kate-fletcher-author-of-sustainable-fashion-textiles.html …

  2. I’m puzzled. Near the end of the conversation, Michael Pollan said “There is a free lunch in nature: solar energy, which means it isn’t necessarily true that for us to feed ourselves we have to diminish the world.” But wait, in order for the solar energy to be available to non-photosynthesizers like you and I, it must be translated into edible forms by other living organisms. So, doesn’t this mean that these other organisms are actually the ones who feed us, many by giving their very lives? And doesn’t this mean we are called to reciprocate with gratitude and humility for the gift of our nourishment? If so, doesn’t the imperative of reciprocity mean the lunch isn’t really free at all? Especially when it is derived from the victims of domesticity, who are, by definition, the exact opposite of free?
    The twin ideas that there is a free lunch and that we can feed ourselves both seem to me to overlook the vital intermediaries — no less than the whole community of Life — through whom sunlight is transformed into sustenance. Consequently, these ideas uphold the very relationship of separation and human exceptionalism that has led inexorably to the growing plethora of compounding ecological crises responsible for diminishing the world at an ever-accelerating rate for the last ten thousand years.
    Yes, living within the planetary solar budget will be an absolutely essential ingredient in the solution to these crises, but it won’t be enough. We must learn to live in ways that honor a relationship by which the lives on which we depend, and the lives on which those lives depend, and the lives on which those lives depend etc. — i.e. all the members of Life’s great round — are able to thrive, wild and free. No other relationship can do anything but further diminish the world.
    Once we understand this, the path to a viable future becomes much clearer. It passes not through cities, pastures and fields, but through forests, oceans and grasslands; not on eighteen wheels, iron rails and aluminum wings, but on five-toed feet; and not by mining, toil and tillage, but by hearts committed to giving attention, care, gratitude and reciprocity to the self-sustaining biosphere of which all of us are inseparable and utterly dependent parts. This, to me, is the “. . . whole other of way of conceiving our relationship with nature” that actually has a chance of fostering not just long-term human survival, but indefinite prosperity for all Earthly life. It’s a paradoxical relationship really: the degree to which we attend to the well-being of lives other than human (on their terms) is the degree to which optimal human well-being will be served.

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