The idea of the “wilderness” is often misunderstood, I think. When we think of the “wilderness” we often think of untouched, natural land, that is wild and exists and grows without human involvement. Wilderness is always “out there”. When we go into the “wilderness” or for us Canadians often “up north” we always at some point return home. So, I’ve been wondering what home is then? If the wilderness is “out there”, where are we now? Manufactured landscape, I wonder? The idea of the wilderness as “other” presents a lot of problems for the way we interact with and understand creation.
Judaism and Christianity, maybe more so than other religions, have given us the idea that humankind is to rule over nature, that in the cosmic of hierarchy of life, humans are at the very top, and it is our job to
dominate steward all other living things. Aboriginal spirituality presents a much more holistic and inclusive view of the role of humans in nature. Humans are simply a different, but equal part of creation. There is a reverence around creation and an acknowledgment of sacrifice and holiness when, say, an animal was killed for clothing or food.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has us believe that we are somehow separate from the rest of God’s creation. I think the idea of “wilderness” also implies that there is some sort of distinction. I was reading recently about the prairies and how environmental scientists have reason to believe that if the aboriginal ancestors hadn’t continuously set fire to the land, the prairies would have turned into forested areas. Similarly, in Chicago, there has been HUGE controversy over “restoring” a large area of forested land to it’s “natural” prairie. The controversy arose because in order to return to the “natural” state, hundreds and hundreds of trees would need to be cut down. The fact is- we, like it or not, are part of this “other” which we call wilderness. Think about it- in order to get outside, up north, into nature a few things need to happen. For instance, in Algonquin Park, there are portages and campsites that have been cleared for human use, wildlife is controlled, the roads were paved to get into the park.
Maybe we like the idea of the wilderness because it means that there is is little responsibility, it is a chance to disconnect, to reflect, to be quiet. Now, don’t get me wrong, because I think we need time to just be- especially in nature. But I think it needs to go deeper than that.
Writer Michael Pollan (made increasingly popular for his book “The Omnivore’s Dilema” writes:
I see myself as a kind of nature writer who likes writing about the messy places where the human world and the natural world intersect. I’m much less interested in wilderness, where most American writers interested in nature writing go to think about nature, than I am in gardens and houses and diets. All these places where we can’t just look at nature and admire it, or deplore what’s happening to it, but we really have to engage, we have to change.
My writing all starts in the garden. My experience was entering the garden with a head full of Thoreau and Emerson, and finding those ideas, as beautiful as they are, do not prepare you for when the woodchuck comes and mows down your little crop of seedlings. That approach to nature counsels passive spectatorship, and argues implicitly that the woodchuck has as much right to your broccoli as you do, because it’s wild. So I, perforce, had to learn how to think about nature in a way that was a little different.
We’ve had in this country what I call a wilderness ethic that’s been very good at telling us what to preserve. You know, eight percent of the American landmass we’ve kind of locked up and thrown away the key. That’s a wonderful achievement and has given us things like the wilderness park.
This is one of our great contributions to world culture, this idea of wilderness. On the other hand, it’s had nothing to say of any value for the ninety-two percent of the landscape that we cannot help but change because this is where we live. This is where we grow our food, this is where we work. Essentially the tendency of the wilderness ethic is to write that all off. Land is either virgin or raped. It’s an all or nothing ethic. It’s either in the realm of pristine, preserved wilderness, or it’s development — parking lot, lawn.
I find what he says about the 92% of our land that is not “locked up” and protected through conservation laws to be the most interesting- and the most useful to us. While taking time to breathe, and be and enjoy “untouched” creation is good and necessary, what about the other 92% of space? I find Pollen’s ideas of the garden to be inspiring, especially as a Christian. While I am a rookie at best, it seems to me that the garden can be a place that teaches us infinite lessons- about the interaction between humans and nature, what it means to be patient, what it means to be a good steward, how to literally cultivate life, how to manage our resources, that some things are beyond our control, and that ultimately that “wilderness” can be created anywhere. The thing about seeing one’s own space as “wilderness” is that we have the ability to get our hands messy. There is an action component as opposed to simply and enjoyment piece.
I have read about guerilla gardeners who make it there mission to plant seeds, flowers and plants in places that they don’t own, places that we previously barren. People like this are tangibly turning ugly spaces into beautiful wilderness, in our own cities, on our own streets.
I think this is why the idea of gardening, specifically community gardening, is so appealing to me. It’s a chance to make something beautiful, to bring life, to grow resources, to become conscious of the process of growing food and to create “wilderness” or what Michael Pollan calls a “second nature”.
I wonder if Jesus were kicking around today as a human- if he needed time to talk to his Father, if he would have gone out to the garden. If he would have carefully pulled the weeds out, gently as not to disturb his plants. I wonder if he would have cut tomatoes from the vine to make some salsa for his friends or collect sunflower seeds. Ironically, I wonder if in “getting away from it all” and being in nature we can “kill two birds with one stone” (for lack of a better saying). If we could spend time reconnecting with who we are and who we want to be, while simultaneously doing good- for the earth and for our friends. In this age where two for one seems like a pretty good deal- it’s important to remember that you can’t rush growing something- it simply won’t work, you will kill it.
I’ll end with some more wise words from Mr. Pollan:
So I think we’re undergoing a sea change. I think that environmentalists are recognizing that as important as wilderness is as a standard, as a baseline, sustainability is a very different baseline. I think our focus is moving from wilderness to sustainability. That’s not to say we have to destroy the wilderness to have sustainability. It’s just that, okay, we did that. That was the project that engaged us for 150 years. The project now is very much more the gardener’s project, or the farmer’s project, which is how to use nature without ruining it.