Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Is wilderness a place or a feeling?

Some people define conservation as saving the wildness in places. I want to save the wildness in people. I know who's winning this debate these days, and it isn't me. But I'm right and you'll all agree eventually.

To enter this deep subject, consider what motivates conservation. Often it can be feelings of reverence for special places or animals, usually because of memories of special experiences in the past. These feelings often get attributed to "sacred places" and people want to protect such places so others can have a chance for the same transcendant experiences.

This wilderness protection effort goes astray when we focus our protection on only the most special and pristine places, forgetting that special feelings for nature often arise from youthful experiences in barely-wild places.

It's the special feelings for nature that we all need to foster, nurture and protect. If we protect pristine places and forget to nurture special feelings, then we're failing to build a constituency for pristine places.

Justin Van Kleeck is posting on Sensory Flashbacks, Sacred Places, and Environmentalism over at sustainablog, and you ought to read what he has to say, not least because of his reference to Proust and sensory flashbacks. He talks about sacred feelings, and I found his words in a series of posts to be moving and insightful. Especially his personal testament on the healing power that he found in barely-wild nature.

These ideas aren't new, William Cronon has talked about "The Trouble with Wilderness" and argued that wildness lives in US, in the hearts of people, more than in special places.

Does any of this matter in practical conservation work? Yes, I think it matters a lot.

I've sat in debates over "Ocean Wilderness" protection, and argued for a program that emphasizes people's special feelings for oceans, often derived from exposure to nearby oceans, not special pristine locations.

I've mostly lost those debates, and watched programs get designed to focus on protecting the most pristine places remaining in our oceans. Such programs often undermine their own objectives by failing to honor the people we hope to recruit to our cause.

The root cause of this mistake? Failing to notice that it's the wilderness experience we need to protect, and that feeling most often occurs outside of perfectly pristine ocean places.

How can we fix this wilderness mistake? We need to get people exposed to our oceans, get them to experience the wonder and majesty, and then celebrate those feelings. Even if they happen when a person is holding a fishing rod or driving a motorboat.


Anonymous said...

Amen and hallelujah!

Mark, this is really great and entirely true. People should focus just as much, if not more, on those sacred places that are not prominent, pristine, or necessarily imperilled, those places that have sensitized them to the wonders of wildness and wilderness.

I think that the "nature experience" is even more crucial than your "wilderness experience": nature is everywhere, from a lone tree in a highway median to a flowerpot in your windowsill. So these sacred wild/natural places can be found, enjoyed, and revered without going to the top of a mountain or the bottom of the sea or the shadowy heart of a forest.

Keep up the thoughtful work, Mark, and may we make all of nature truly sacred...forever!

Max said...

I hate to disagree with such a beautiful sentiment, but I think your whole argument (which is a variation on an incredibly common theme) is based on the assumption that everyone is essentially like you. I don't say this as a personal criticism, because quite frankly I think (based on reading this blog for a while) that we both share very similar personal feelings about nature and wilderness, but I think it's a mistake to assume that simply exposing people to something that you like in a proper way will make them like it as well. In the end, we all have things we like, and things we don't like, and they frequently clash, but that's a great thing. The danger comes in when you attempt to push a specific conservation message based on the feeling you talk about in this post, because it ultimately is not important to save wilderness because of how we feel about it, but rather it is important to save it because the places themselves are important. I definitely don't want create the impression that I think we should be saving only those things that provide us with a measurable benefit, I don't. I don't think that we don't know even remotely enough about what to measure in order to make that assessment anyway. I think rather that we need to save wilderness simply because if we don't, we won't ever have the opportunity to save it again, whether we decide later that we should have or not.

Mark Powell said...

Thanks for the comments. I hope we can unify some of these views, and build a wilderness protection movement that saves natural places and natural processes, with support from a large and powerful constituency. I think we'll get there by encouraging and supporting people in their feelings of nature love and wilderness love. Unfortunately, I find too much of the wilderness movement is about excluding people and undermining potential support.


Q: Is wilderness a place or a feeling?

A; Both, as is often the case.

Q: Can we figure out how to not argue over false dichotomies and artificial choices and work on solving important problems when the answer is truly a "yes, and, both" response? (A: Yes)

Anonymous said...

Mark (and Justin), you are on to something really key to conservation and, more generally, to a happy and balanced life on this planet (not to get too melodramatic on you).

What are the chances the current generation of kids will fight to protect the remaining scraps of Nature when they are my (somewhat advanced) age if they have never spent any appreciable time outside? It doesn't have to be on Mount Everest or Hawaii. Most of us developed the (dare I say it) spiritual bond with Nature in a backyard or a vacant lot or a city beach. But kids -- and everyone else -- have to develop a wilderness, or at least a place in Nature, within if they are going to care about what desperately needs caring about.

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