Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Abstract Wild

In 1964, plans were being discussed for the creation of the Canyonlands National Park, near Moab, Utah.  Some wanted to include the Maze in the park.  The Maze is a stunning network of desert canyons, and it was extremely inaccessible at that time.  Few living people had ever seen it.

Jack Turner and his buddy were young rock-climbing adventure hogs.  Their plan was to fly into the Maze, land the plane on a long-abandoned bulldozer scrape, take some cool photos, and sell them to National Geographic.  Both survived the botched landing.  While wandering around in the Maze, they found ancient pictographs of life-sized human images.  The paintings had a striking presence, and the lads were mesmerized.  They had walked into a different dimension, a place alive with a strong aura of spirit power.

Today, the aura has faded.  The Maze is mapped and tamed.  Visitors can drive in and hike around on happy trails.  The pictographs have become photo opportunities for intrepid ecotourists.  The sacred wildness of the place has become banal, like a museum exhibit.  For the wild painters, who lived several thousand years ago, this place “was their home in a sense we can no longer imagine,” said Turner.  “Whoever they were, they knew how to express and present something we have lost.”

Later, Turner worked as a philosophy professor in Chicago, a soul-killing bad trip.  One day, he read a deep ecology essay by Arne Naess, and had a great awakening.  He suddenly realized that he was on the wrong path.  He escaped from the nightmare, and spent many years travelling around the world climbing mountains.  This included at least 16 years as a guide at Grand Teton National Park.

Deep ecology helped him understand the crucial difference between ecocentric thinking (the entire ecosystem is sacred) and anthropocentric thinking (only human desires matter).  This echoes the huge gap between the wild Maze painters and the civilized ecotourists.  It’s essentially the difference between sustainable and unsustainable cultures.

Wandering around the world taught him another vital lesson.  He visited cultures that were similar to the Maze painters, cultures with a profound spiritual connection to the past, the future, their community, and their sacred home.  All of their needs were provided by the place they inhabited.  Consequently, they lived with great care, striving to remain in balance with the land.

Today, the ecosystem is being hammered.  Typically, the designated villains include capitalism, greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, the evil enemy-of-the-day, and so on.  Turner rejected this.  The planet is being pummeled by a culture that is infested with absurd abstract ideas — more is better, get rich quick, grow or die.  This culture has reduced the natural world to an abstraction, a machine that must be controlled — a jumbo cookie jar for the amusement of infantile organisms.

So, Turner’s enemies are not the designated villains.  His enemies are abstractions, like the hallucinations that perceive a sacred old growth forest to be a calculable quantity of board feet, worth a calculable quantity of dollars.  Abstractions are the foundation of the madness, and they are formidable opponents.  They can make clear thinking impossible, and inspire remarkable achievements in foolishness.

In his book, The Abstract Wild, Turner describes why he has become a “belligerent ecological fundamentalist,” and why he stands on the side of the grizzly bears and mountain lions.  “Abstraction” is a word meaning mental separation, not a concrete object.  Wildness is “the relation of free, self-willed, and self-determinate ‘things’ with the harmonious order of the cosmos.”

There are eight essays in the book.  One examines wilderness management, a hotbed of professional control freaks.  This work is done under the banner of Science, a way of knowing that can understand processes and predict their activities.  What a joke!  We don’t understand friends or lovers.  We don’t understand ourselves.  Ecosystems are vastly more complex and chaotic.

Wildlife biologists have a history of making wildly incorrect predictions, often leading to embarrassing disasters.  Their clumsy conjuring is no more “science” than is astrology.  Humans should always avoid fooling around with DNA, atoms, or wilderness management.  “We are not that wise, nor can we be.”  Instead of trying to control nature by using a strategy based on hope, wishes, incomplete data, and misunderstanding, Turner recommends that we should get out of the way and leave the job to Big Mama Nature, who has a billion years of experience.  (The experts howl!)

Another essay snaps, snarls, and spits with rage.  Civilization has been brutally molesting the planet for 10,000 years, at an ever-increasing rate.  Over the centuries, we have responded to these assaults on wildness by forgiving and forgetting.  We’re now moving into the end game.  Despite being blasted by a fire hose of depressing news, we remain pathetically timid, helpless victims.  We accept a wrecked planet as normal, and refuse to utter a peep of protest.

Turner screams.  Enough forgiving and forgetting!  It’s time for some healthy rage.  It’s time to raise hell against the senseless destruction.  This is spiritual business, so it takes precedence over society’s laws.  Nature is sacred, and must be defended.  Destroying the planet is evil and unacceptable, even if it’s perfectly legal and great for the economy.

There are thousands of eco-books, and most tend to focus their attention on symptoms — climate change, deforestation, mass extinction, overpopulation, and so on.  To control these symptoms, they suggest a variety of treatments, including new government policies, techno miracles, lifestyle changes, and rebellion.  Turner has lived much of his life out of doors, and he feels a profound reverence and respect for wildness.  His book is rare for presenting this perspective, which is getting dimmer with every decade.

This perspective can help us move toward healing.  “We only value what we know and love, and we no longer know and love the wild,” he says.  “What we need now is a culture that deeply loves the wild earth.”  But the inmates of modernity have little intimate experience with wild nature, and almost no comprehension of what has been lost.  Wildness is something seen on TV.

We must rejoin the natural world.  This is still possible.  Turner succeeded.  Cool books, nature documentaries, and ecotourism cannot provide us with all we need to recover our wildness.  What’s needed is direct experience with a place, over time, complete immersion — observing the bird migrations, animal mating, leafing of trees, climate patterns, and so on.  A week in the mountains is never enough.

In the end, Turner presents us with a tantalizing bittersweet enigma.  He reveals to us the one and only silver bullet solution that can actually heal us, and guide us back home to the family of life.  But this solution is impossible, as long as there are so many people, living so hard.  The shamans have much work to do, to redirect our hearts toward healthy paths.  It’s time for the clans of creative folks to seize their power, work to exorcise our culture’s terrible demons, and rekindle forgotten love.

Turner, Jack, The Abstract Wild, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1996.

The book’s first chapter, the Maze story, is online.  Click on “Read Excerpt” beneath the book cover HERE.

To view a 100-minute video of Turner, click HERE.

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