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Thoreau’s Great Insight for the Anthropocene: Wildness Is an Attitude, Not a Place
By Robert M. Thorson
When Americans quote writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, they often reach for his assertion that "In Wildness is the preservation of the world." This phrase elicited little response when Thoreau first read it during a lecture in 1851. A century later, however, it had become a guiding mantra for the American environmental movement, adopted by the Sierra Club as its motto and launched into the cultural stratosphere via bumper stickers, T-shirts and posters.
Unfortunately, the line was cherry-picked from its original context, conflates wildness with wilderness and predates Thoreau's later, more nuanced insights about wildness. His mature views, which I stumbled onto when researching my book The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau's River Years, can more effectively help us cope with a world so changed by people that geologists have proposed a new epoch, the Anthropocene.
To the mature Thoreau, wildness was an entanglement of different realities and more of an attitude than an attribute. A pervasive condition lurking beneath the surface – especially in the midst of civilization. A creative force, willed not by intent but by impulse, accident and contingency. As a card-carrying geologist who has written two books on Thoreau as a natural scientist and lifelong "river rat,"and the first "Guide to Walden Pond," I believe the mature Thoreau lurking beneath distorted cultural motifs has much to tell us.
Romanticizing the Wild
Shortly after sunset on April 23, 1851, members of the Concord Lyceum gathered at First Parish Unitarian Church. One of their most loyal members, "H. D. Thoreau," stepped up to the podium to read his newest lecture "The Wild." His late-spring timing was perfect, this being the wildest time of year for the romantics and naturalists of his 19th-century agroecosystem.
People often assume Thoreau lived in solitude at Walden for decades, but he actually spent most of his life on Concord's Main Street.Ticknor & Fields / Wikimedia
"I wish to speak a word for Nature," he opened boldly, "for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil." Humans, he claimed, were "part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society." These prophetic, inclusive statements constitute America's declaration of interdependence.
This lecture was published in The Atlantic as an essay titled "Walking" after Thoreau's death in 1862. In it Thoreau recast the "howling wilderness" of the Puritan divines who settled Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-1630s as an ideal spiritual landscape for neo-pagans of the early 1850s.
But we know from Thoreau's voluminous writings that the insight for his "In Wildness" mantra came not from some high mountain temple, deep forest or dismal bog, but a from pair of panoramic art exhibits that Thoreau saw in late 1850 – likely in urban Boston, likely via the rattling railroad.
In September 1853, having recently returned from a moose hunt in interior Maine, Thoreau came up with the idea of setting aside wild landscapes for posterity:
"Why should not we … have our national preserves … in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be 'civilized off the face of the earth' – our forests … not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own true recreation."
By then Thoreau was a middle-class, stay-at-home resident of the bustling market town of Concord, and the surrounding area was being rapidly clear-cut for farms and fuel and industrialized with mines, turnpikes, railroads, bridges, dams and canals. "I cannot but feel," he wrote despondently on March 23, 1856, "as if I lived in a tamed, and, as it were, emasculated country … Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with? I am reminded that this my life in nature … is lamentably incomplete."
Concord Center, Massachusetts, in 1865, shortly after Thoreau's death. HistoryofMassachusetts.org
No Wildness Distant From Humans
Finally Thoreau resolved the tension between his yearning for primitive nature and his role in helping to civilize it as a surveyor for land development. While searching for native cranberries in late August 1856, he found himself in the far corner of a small bog so worthless that it had been apparently untouched by human hands. There, he realized,
"It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess in Concord."
His explanation is clear. Wildness is an attitude, a perception. "A howling wilderness does not howl," he wrote, "it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling." Using his imagination, he could even find wildness in a patch of weedy ferns: "Yet how essentially wild they are! As wild, really, as those strange fossil plants whose impressions I see on my coal." By this stage, Thoreau was finding wildness in lumps of fossil fuel.
One of Thoreau's final conceptions of wildness is most relevant to the Anthropocene world. The scene was a sparkling morning on Aug. 11, 1859. He was boating the lower Assabet River, making measurements for a scientific consulting project. Drifting toward him on the smooth current came a parade of iridescent freshwater mussel shells, "floating down in mid-stream — nicely poised on the water," each left "with its concave side uppermost," each a "pearly skiff set afloat by the industrious millers."
In that moment, Thoreau realized that each of his delicately balanced "skiffs" was a consequence of at least a dozen commingled cultural actions, from muskrats eating the mussels to farmers inadvertently improving mussel habitat with sediment pollution and industrialists storing and releasing hydropower to create factory goods.
After this insight, Thoreau began to see his entire watershed world as a meta-consequence of three centuries' worth of human perturbations, literally rippling through his local system along every conceivable energy gradient. For example, when monitoring stream stage to the precision of 1/64th of an inch, he realized that seemingly wild rivers mirrored the work schedules of upstream factories, and that "even the fishes" kept the Christian Sabbath. His whole local universe was ubiquitously, unpredictably, impetuously and wildly reacting to what today we call global change.
As with a coin, our modern Anthropocene condition flips Thoreau's declaration of interdependence. On its 1851 side, humans are "part and parcel" of nature as organic beings embedded within it. On its 1859 side side, nature is "part and parcel" of us, hopelessly entangled and embedded in our works and residues.
Fast forward to 2019. Earth's planetary system, provoked by our overreach, is now doing its own thing in places, at scales and on schedules beyond our control. Wildness is bubbling up everywhere: Wilder fires, wilder stock markets, wilder weather, higher floods, drowning seas, collapsing ice sheets, accelerating extinctions and demographic unrest.
Thoreau's realistic, late-in-life insights can help us comprehend these ongoing Anthropocene impacts, accept responsibility for the changes coming our way, reframe them in more positive terms and reaffirm that Nature is ultimately in charge.
He teaches us that wildness is much, much more than raw nature. It's a perception emanating from our minds. A base instinct, uncluttered by rational thought. The creative genius of artistic, scientific and technological creativity. The spontaneous emergence of order from disorder, as with drifts on dry snow or the origin of life. Finally, wildness is the meta-wildness of complex, nonlinear systems, the sum total of forward-propagating, somewhat unpredictable cascades of matter and energy.
The mantra "In Wildness is the preservation of the world" can remain true, provided we ask ourselves what we mean by wildness and what we're trying to preserve.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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Global Banks, Led by JPMorgan Chase, Invested $1.9 Trillion in Fossil Fuels Since Paris Climate Pact
By Sharon Kelly
A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.
By Patti Lynn
2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."
England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.
By Jessica Corbett
A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.
By Madison Dapcevich
Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.
The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.
The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.