Saturday, March 01, 2008

Accommodating the Heart of the Land

Heart of the Land (1994, Vintage Books) collects 30 essays by some of the greatest living writers. The essays document their responses as they travel to The Nature Conservancy's "Last Great Places" in the U.S. and Mexico. This essay documents my response.

Barry Lopez
foreshadows many of the 30 answers as he attempts to understand the question:

"We are in a time of wakefulness about our relations with the land, reacting to an inattentive and sometimes abusive human past; each one of us, awakening, understands this shift of consciousness and the dilemmas it presents somewhat differently. And, whatever our efforts, they are all shot through...with enduring paradox and moral complexity....

"...if we are incapable of addressing these conundrums, which call on the courage inherent in abiding love, and upon social justice, then land conservation in our era will prove to have been only a fashion...

"...if our endeavor--the protection of natures other than our own--is to succeed, it will require more than mind and hand can bear....It will require that we reimagine our lives."
Terry Tempest Williams probes Lopez's "courage in acknowledging imperialized landscapes of the past for the battered remnants they are" by examining the psychological rift that opens in ourselves when we acknowledge the one we have created in Nature; "we are a tribe of fractured individuals who can now only celebrate remnants of wilderness". She argues that we must heal our souls in order to heal nature, but she quotes D.H. Lawrence to argue that, ironically, we must first embrace nature in order to heal our souls.

"What a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the magical connection of the solstice and equinox...We are bleeding at the roots"

From Moab Utah, on Winter solstice Williams is transported by the Nature Conservancy's preserve toward a new era of warmth and light. However,in contraposition, many of the authors reach back to their childhood traditions in mourning for what has already been lost. Rick Bass eulogizes the Texas hill country he knew as a youth and the holism of wilderness there that even, especially, children understood. He asks, "Must we break everything that is special to us, or sacred--unknown, and holy...What happens to us when all the sacred, all the whole is gone..." and wonders whether the only real, lasting ownership is through love: "it was ours because we loved it." Carl Hiaasen ponders why we still love degraded landscapes, or, love them even more; "why, after all, does one sit with a dying relative?"
Many of these writers find strength and courage in the slivers of preserved land, almost as if the Nature Conservancy had miraculously managed to save slivers of their own childhood memories. Others ponder the cause of the commonplace destruction of nature outside of select wilderness preserves. Joel Achenback asks whether our relation to land is really as stewards (as we tend to believe), or "perhaps the ultimate problem with the steward or farmer paradigms is that they imply that humans are apart from nature, superior to it, above it....Maybe that's why I sort of like the cancer model--because it is internal, part of the host. Because it destroys in a way that seems so senseless."
James Welch criticizes the attitude of farmers who still "feel it is their God-given right to dominate their particular landscapes." Thomas McGuane quotes Mike Lawson, fly-shop operator and outfitter at Last Chance on the Henry's Fork, ID, "If [the ranchers] don't learn to negotiate and compromise they're going to lose it all." William Kittredge, a former rancher himself, advises, "the people in my old homeland...[need to] work out some accommodation..." Teresa Jordan quotes Harvey Payne, the Nature Conservancy director of Tallgrass Prarie Preserve, OK, "On this preserve" he says with sadness rather than hubris "we play God." Jordan concludes that we believed "that the earth should bend to our will. Science made us arrogant; now, as we begin to understand the ways in which we have damaged the systems that sustain us, it is making us humble."
Gary Paul Nabhan points out that it is precisely the unpredictability and hence unmanageability of wilderness that marks it as wilderness. It can never be controlled; instead, it is the history of raw force, defiant of our will, that teaches us. But, for practical reasons, (if for no other reason) many farmers and ranchers will never come around to this conception of our place in the land. Indeed, as Payne admits, management, whether for cows, corn, or wildlife, forces us to attempt control.Philip Caputo also sees pedagogy in wilderness, but he suggests we look at microcosms such as Martha's Vineyard for proof if "we and our works can reach an accommodation with those of God." That accommodation, he finds, embodies basic contradictions within ourselves both as "romantics awed and enchanted" and "conquerors roused to possess and exploit". On Martha's Vineyard he finds wilderness, but "it is a tight little place on a tight little island" with, ironically, little room for either exploitation or enchantment. Bill McKibben celebrates the fractured landscape and the accommodation of people in the Adirondacks wilderness in upstate New York, "a wilderness with room for people." He thinks we should look to the Adirondacks as an experiment in managing sustainability. McKibben says of the Adirondacks wilderness, "this is what the world used to look like", but Caputo fears that all wilderness will someday tend toward "a tight little place" like Martha's Vineyard.
Heart of the Land is by far the best travel writing I've read and adds at least 30 places to my ever-growing list of places to visit. To paraphrase Barry Lopez, "the mere existence of such [places]...pulls us beyond ourselves."

This essay practically wrote itself thanks to Barry Lopez's ingenious ordering of the authors by common musings. I knew this was one of the 'Last Great Books' when I saw the list of writers, which includes many not mentioned above, such as Barbara Kingsolver, Peter Matthiessen, and Paul Theroux. But it is much bigger even than its pieces. It is a whole landscape, to quote Wallace Stegner from the frontispiece, a "geography of hope" .

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