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. His quotation was “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” Thoreau’s “wildness” is not only, or even primarily, about wild places. His “wildness” is also about a state of mind. Thoreau tells us again and again that we not only need wilderness retreats; we need to “wild” minds. We need to “wild” not only external places, but internal spaces. We need “wildness” as a verb, as in, “I hope I will be able to wild my mind during this ecocentric year of roosting.” There may be wildness in all wilderness, but wilderness is never a prerequisite for wildness. This lesson is even more important for our technocentric twenty-first century than it was for Thoreau’s industrializing nineteenth century.
We need to wild our minds, but we need to wild them carefully. We do not need to burn thousands of gallons of jet fuel to get to wilderness retreats in the sequoias of California or the mountains of Wyoming. There are powerful ironies in our current position. Many of us, as good environmentalists, leave our urban homes and expend thousands of dollars and billions of calories in an effort, as we say, to get back to nature. But how silly. Where are we going? What are we leaving behind? We need to keep out wild minds with us every minute of every day, whether we are walking through untrammeled wilderness or riding our four-wheel drive vehicles down crowded streets and concrete highways.
Do not get me wrong. I include myself in this critique, and while I am calling for wild minds, I also call loudly for the preservation of wild places. We still need to save wilderness spaces with an absolute sense of the distinction between human activity and nonhuman activity that has nothing to do with us. Just as important as our set-aside spaces, however, is the wild sense I want to call “roosting.” When birds roost they have a direct and powerful impact on the trees they choose for roosting. They build nests in branches, gather food from the leaves and stems around them, and leave their limey waste products to fertilize the ground beneath them. As much as we need hands-off, wheels-off wilderness, we need hybrid places and mixed-use spaces, human landscapes ecocentrically re-imagined and redefined. Humans are always in nature and nature pervades every last human space. A new sense of internal and external balance can now emerge out of our use of the prefix “eco”-ecocentric, ecomorphic, ecotecture-and our feeling for our widest echome: a unified dwelling place that includes human habitations and also the nonhuman habitations all around us.
We are never cut off from nature by our human world at all. This is a central aspect of all true ecology. We are always within and among natural processes which we did not create and which we cannot control, for good and for ill. The good part of this equation is easy: ocean sunsets, autumn hillsides, nesting swallows, fields of wild flowers. But the “ill” side of nature is no less natural: harsh climate, violent weather, wild animals, poisonous plants, disease-causing organisms, toxic chemicals. Illnesses, allergies, and injuries: all are fully natural, so is nature good for us, or bad? This is precisely the question and distinction we need to move beyond. Nothing we can do can take us out of nature. There is nowhere for us to go. From inorganic elements assembled in the watery world of the womb, we move out to grow and flourish until we die and return to the inorganic elements that shaped us. We are wild things. Just because we have tamed aspects of wild nature, it does not follow that we have lost the wild mind within.
Alexander Graham Bell, to extend Thoreau’s point about such “wildness,” invented the telephone because his mother and sister were deaf. Bell had no particular interest in voice communication per se; rather, he wanted to solve a precise problem in the natural world. His family members were born with ears that did not work. His vested interest was in helping those whose ears were naturally weak. He sought a human solution to a natural problem. His own brand of wildness was directed at one aspect of nature, at the anatomy of the human ear that had left his family deaf. Nature, as the Romantics always knew, is full of all sorts of just such wild terrors-deafness, disease, drought, hurricanes, volcanoes, bacteria, viruses-that affect us. Such “negative” nature has a direct and constant impact on every aspect of our lives, no matter how high the skyscraper we inhabit, no matter how wide the concrete jungle that encloses us. So work to wild your mind and find ways to roost lightly on the earth. Coleridge would approve.