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Thoreau and Urbanature: a Final Thought

"Wildness" much more than "wilderness" was the key concept sought by America's greatest Romantic "nature" writer. His goal was psychological as much as it was ecological. Seen in this light, the activity of the human mind always has powerful consequences in our treatment of the nonhuman world. Thoreau's life in nature, like yours or mine, is entirely a function of the actions and reactions of his mind. What he chooses to describe has more to do with his own thinking and the desires of his heart than with any objective state of affairs in the external world. He does not want us to go live in the wilderness so much as he wants each of us to wild our own minds, to turn away from society toward the wildness that is within us. The result of such wilding will be a closer link between the human and the nonhuman worlds.

Creationism in a New Key

Richard Keynes—the British physiologist and a direct descendant of Charles Darwin—has recently noted that it was actually mockingbirds rather than the finches that led to Darwin’s earliest intuitions about the mutability of species. Darwin's ornithological notes first point out that Spanish sailors can tell you the precise island that any tortoise comes from based entirely on the shape and size of its saddle-shaped carapace ("galápago" in Spanish).

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Romantic Ecomorphism

Global warming may be the first environmental crisis to affect all life on earth at the same time, in equally dramatic ways. The Romans apparently raised the level of airborne lead-and subsequently the lead level in soil and waterways-because of the amount of lead smelting they practiced. But before global warming, every earlier environmental crisis had an impact on relatively small groups of creatures or species in relatively small geographic areas. Think Love Canal or Three Mile Island.

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Ecomorphism and Ecoromanticism

Ecomorphism is the antithesis of anthropomorphism. Instead of seeing myself at the center of my world, I can now see my human activity—and yours—in terms of our connectedness to nonhuman life. For centuries the poets have said, “that mourning dove is singing a song as sad as I am sad” or “that cloud looks as happy the way I am happy as it skitters across the sky.” Now we need to reconsider both the tenor and the vehicle of such anthropomorphic metaphors. The vehicle is the subject—humans—from which the characteristic (sadness or happiness) is taken.

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Wilding and Roosting

Tim's reflections on Coleridge's mariner keep reminding me of Thoreau's willful essay "Walking": "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil-to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society." We need precisely such a model of "wildness," a sentiment Thoreau echoed often throughout his writings. The word he emphasized was not "wilderness." He never said, "In wilderness in the preservation of the world," as more than 600 mistaken web-pages claim he did.

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Romantic Natural History

As Tim Morton and I have noted in our early posts for the new Romantic Circles blog (and as Tim argues so persuasively in Ecology Without Nature), we now need to rethink our uses of the word “nature” and its cognates, perhaps to the point where the very concept vanishes, not because it has “ended” (as Bill McKibben proposed in 1989) but because it now provides only a vague idea that is neither accurate nor useful. Likewise, the replacement of anthropocentrism with ecocentrism in the world we now inhabit becomes a necessity one we accept the fact that Heideggerian “building,” “dwelling,” and “thinking” (Bauen Wohnen Denken, 1951) keep us firmly planted in the nonhuman world even when we speak and write as humans. I prefer to think of us as “roosting” rather than dwelling, an idea I will take up in a subsequent post. But in recent years, these reflections have led me to create a hypertext resource, Romantic Natural History: see

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Urbanature

We need a new concept, and we need a new word to describe that concept. The new word we need is “urbanature.” The concept this word describes is the idea that nature and urban life are not as distinct as we have long supposed. Here is why.

Hawks are roosting on skyscrapers near Central Park East and Central Park West. Peregrine falcons are feeding on the Flatiron Building, and owls are nesting throughout Manhattan. Meanwhile, thousands of environmentalists board carbon-gulping airplanes and fly thousands of miles (carrying tons of Gore-Tex) to get “back to nature” in Montana. At the same time, the World Wide Web tells us that Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Over 600 websites say so. But Thoreau did not say, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” He said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” This difference--"wildness," not "wilderness"--makes all the difference.

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