In studying the most talented nature writers, it becomes clear that there is a romantic or transcendental sense in the relationship man has with nature. Thankfully, in Uncommon Ground, Cronon debunks the work of these men by arguing that they only perpetuate an unrealistic perception of wilderness, as these places are not completely untouched. Nearly in alignment with Bill McKibben’s argument that there is nothing truly natural left, Cronon enters the debate proclaiming that this desire for solace in a “natural” place that is perhaps a national park is impossible because of the imprint Native Americans have left on the land, one that European descendents were taught to forget. While these native people sustained themselves off the land, elite colonialists pushed them away and insisted on designating areas of sanctuary for the white, rich men. Thoreau’s land is not as untouched as he may have thought and McKibben’s argument should not begin with the alteration of our planet through carbon, but rather through man’s development as a consumer of the land.
Globalization has warranted many incredible developments in human history, but it is not without its downfalls. When colonialism struck the Americas and Africa, it brought with it disease, violence, and dominance. Charles Mann speaks to this by discussing that more than half of the crops grown today originated in the Americas, meaning that their seeds were brought across borders. Not only did this improve agriculture and account for varied diets in singular ecosystems, but created the very unnatural process of transferring what was meant to be grown in a particular place. The further development of maize in the Americas caused an enormous population boom in Africa, which ultimately made the slave trade possible. This constant exchange of people and plants is utterly invasive. The Europeans were an invasive species in the Americas and used Native American techniques and seeds for farming to perpetuate their invasions in other areas of the world, such as in Africa.
Cronon writes, “The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living-urban folk whose food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field..” (80). This collection was written in 1996, closer to McKibben’s work than Thoreau’s and with the same dose of cynicism. Cronan brings many important topics to light, but this fails to address many present day phenomena. Ever more present on this campus is the need to make an association with the food we eat. We study it in academia, we practice it at the farm, and we embody it in our cafeteria. There is an amount of privilege associated with eating locally now, or at least being aware of the fact that you are. What used to be a fact of life for the Native Americans is now achieved through wealth and knowledge. We have therefore further removed ourselves from the “natural” world, as our attempt to revert back to these organic agricultural practices is only in response to the overwhelming productivity of factory farms.
As conversations persist on projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, it is imperative to remember that this is not the first time that the white man has dictated what should happen to sacred land. Yes, there are certain measurable dangers to water systems should the pipeline be implemented, but people have been altering our land for as long as they have been alive. We can call it a case of environmental racism or further disgrace of minorities in this country, but the overarching fact is that this is not new, and behavior is unlikely to change. If the earth is ruined anyway by carbon and consumerism, what does one more pipeline really do? Would Cronon chalk this up to one more incident of attempting to preserve a wilderness that is already gone, or a further violation of Native American rights?
Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature is a harsh cry for activism, although it feels like a futile attempt when checking the publishing date of 1989. While there is more data and climate science surrounding the true implications of man’s effects on the planet, little political progress and human behavior change has occurred, hurtling us towards the impending doom McKibben explores in the late 80’s. His argument that there is no inch on earth untouched by man’s pollution is extraordinarily valid, as he writes of the destruction man has caused due to a reliance on fossil fuels. Using Carson, Muir, Thoreau, and Abbey’s perspectives on both science and the feeling of being in nature, McKibben brings what is now common knowledge among environmental scholars into the conversation. With anecdotes scattered among snapshots of scientific discoveries and various political summits on the matter, McKibben paints a bleak future for mankind, with a sprinkle of hope in the last few pages. Almost 30 years later, it is painful to think of the carnage we have since caused and the few advances that we have made.
“…we’ve reconciled ourselves to the idea that we’ll not be the first up any hill…”, McKibben states, as he explores how the end of nature is rooted somewhat in the idea that there are few unchartered territories left on this earth (54). While there is some validity in this, what does it matter if Katahdin is full of eager hikers in the summer? If the end of nature is near, shouldn’t we be enjoying these spaces that do still have some sense of holding us far away from modernity? McKibben moves on to argue that man feels attached to that natural world because of its sense of permanence-that is, it came before us and it will outlive us. Using Muir as an example to evoke the religious perspective of the natural world, I wonder why McKibben is not using this opportunity to harp on the notion that nature is no longer permanent. While we can immerse ourselves in the woods for a day, we still must face the reality that mankind is outliving many of these spaces-forests, coral reefs, even entire islands.
McKibben himself had to be reminded by a friend who had one too many close encounters with a bear that sometimes man is not at the top of the foodchain. In the wildness the world may still possess, while there maybe effects of our selfishness that cannot be seen with the naked eye that are impacting that ecosystem, man can still be overtaken. By Gaia or God, nature still has power. In some cases, man gives nature that power. By altering our atmosphere, we are changing the weather patterns that wreak havoc on communities around the globe, overtaking man. By putting toxic chemicals and synthetic pesticides on our crops, we are giving nature the power to overtake man. But in a few trace amount of cases, nature can persist. It is to this string that I will cling until we have no chances left.
McKibben began to find some light at the end of The End of Nature. His small sacrifices of biking instead of driving, gardening instead of shopping, and canceling his plans for a hot tub may seem minor, but even to be aware of his impact is a huge step compared to most consumers. His brief discussion on genetic engineering is not only terrifying but again means that we must acknowledge the true end of nature as we know it. Even beyond this, it means that humans would have to put even less effort into living a more conservative lifestyle. Is that not more detrimental to the planet, if we solve the problem but don’t teach a lesson?
It is no question that when immersed in an environment of fresh flora and fauna, the common man can feel rejuvenated and at ease, perhaps his most comfortable self. Authors Thoreau, Abbey, and Muir elaborate on their experiences in the natural world through colorful descriptions and tales of adventure. Howard Zahniser’s piece, “The Need for Wilderness Area” provides almost a prescription for the former writers to work from. Thoreau is often held in high esteem as a man of the woods, but his work, “Where I Lived and What I Lived for” is sheltered in comparison to the exhilaration experienced by both Abbey and Muir. Ultimately, these two authors are characteristic of true immersion in nature, valuing both the positive and negative-most likely due to their encounters with fear.
Howard Zahniser argues that the wilderness man needs is in the depths of our national parks, where humanity is tested as man must fight for his own survival among the elements. Using nature as a way to “escape” does not at all align with the true reasons one should be alongside the earth’s most raw form, nor do these men reap the full benefits of the natural world. He argues that man is sustained “…by a wildness that must always be renewed from a living wilderness” and that immersing oneself in wilderness has historic, educational, and scientific value. John Muir and Edward Abbey both fully embrace the unpredictability and harness the fear that wildness offers, as described by Zahniser.
At Yosemite, John Muir acknowledges and accepts the danger associated with fully burying himself in nature. In his goal to “dwell with them [mountains]”, he encounters precarious cliffs and wildlife that made him vow “not to venture any further, but did nevertheless”. This drive to be exhilarated by the sights of nature and by one’s own accomplishments in achieving this state is perhaps filling the spiritual drive to be near nature. One cannot possibly not walk away from a quick hike in wilderness feeling fully content, for he lacks the instillation of fear of the natural world. He instead walks away from wildness with an enlightenment that only those vowing not to move forward and do, completely experience.
Edward Abbey’s account of life on the Colorado River was raw and without boundaries. As “cuts the bloody cord” and pushes off into the river, he truly has time to explore his own belief that “wilderness is a necessity of human spirit”. This is not due to his deep walks into Eden, enchantment of echoes, or the music of wilderness, but because of his more chaotic experiences that maintained his interest and pushed him further into the depths of wildness. Once he survived the first spasm of the river, the whitewater that would surely flip their “Made-In-Japan vessels”, there was no way he could revert back to floating without seeking a more fearful and adrenaline inducing experience. The jarring finale to Abbey’s experience of the sign warning him of the dam ahead reaffirms Zahniser’s argument that “the idea of wilderness as an area without man’s influence if man’s own concept”.
While Abbey and Muir face blood pumping interactions with nature’s true form-an unruly, unprocessed, and coarse reality, Thoreau sits in the woods, occasionally walking around Walden Pond. Thoreau’s experience with wilderness is not at all wild, but veiled by the most romantic notions of sunny skies and green grass. Man’s motivation to reap the benefits of an experience in nature is then not driven by one’s desire to take a hike, but in anticipation of life threatening realities that evoke a primal instinct for survival. Adventure then, is the process of seeking these brief moments of hazard with Gaia and emerging a stronger man.