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on wildness, part 1

June 18, 2011

Henry David Thoreau said, “in wildness is the preservation of world”, which sounds good until you think about it. Then it sounds strangely incomplete, or misleading, or just wrong. I might have said, “in wildness is the soul of the world”, but that has the same problems.

Recently we’ve passed a threshold where more than half of all human beings everywhere in the world now live in towns and cities. I’ve heard that’s not sustainable because we’ve passed peak oil; supposedly we should all “go back to the land” and farm small plots. But I don’t see how that’s going to happen either. Three of my grandparents were born on, or spent part of their childhood, on farms. But their adulthoods were all spent living in an urban environment (Chicago)[1], where my parents have spent their entire lives. I currently live in a quiet, rural-ish area in the Baltimore-Towson area, which means I am a resident of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area[2].

It seems to me that the more that human beings live in cities, the better “preserved” wildness is going to be. Although that’s not quite right either. Cities need farms to supply their food; other resources come from other (mostly unsettled?) lands. But lands being strip-mined or clear-cut are hardly “wild” in any meaningful way.

I love and need wilderness as much as any other deep ecologist, but I love cities too. My rural-raised in-laws call me “city girl”, which feels like it captures something essential about me. I’d like to raise some of our food – be one of the new urban homesteaders — but it’ll have to be potted plants on our balcony, as we are apartment dwellers (and not on the ground floor).


Ereshkigal is a deity of cities. She originated in ancient Sumer, which was settled beginning in the fourth millennium BCE. According to Wikipedia: “The cities of Sumer were the first civilization to practice intensive year-round agriculture, by perhaps c. 5000 [BCE] showing the use of core agricultural techniques, including large-scale intensive cultivation of land, monocropping, organized irrigation, and the use of a specialized labor force…. They were also the site of the development of writing.”

So isolated and individual farmers had no need of literacy; they presumably did just fine with an oral culture. Creating words as concepts that could be fixed in time and space by being recorded/written meant a sea change in how humans think and behave. With preliterate people (including those in modern times), certain kinds of categories that we take for granted are not meaningful: localized weather patterns are of interest only to locals (they are not thought of as part of “climate”); no folk taxonomy would have produced the taxonomy (classification) system developed by Linnaeus. According to James Gleick, in his book, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, “literate thought” produced history and (formal and mathematical) logic, as well as law, science, and economics (pp. 30, 147, 196).

Isolated groups of human beings seem to produce cultures that care only about their local area, which is often sacred; but they do not seem to see themselves as interconnected with the world outside their local area. The mythologies of Native American tribes contain stories of animals, plants, and mountains as ancestors, and as such are revered. But when they name themselves, the terms they use often mean, “the people”[3], as if their tribe was the only people of any importance anywhere in the world. How about their nonhuman ancestors and kin? I’m unclear if their peoplehood (“rock people”, “sea people”, etc.) means they were accorded the same rights as human beings in any sense. But surely not, as we don’t tend to use other human beings as resources that we exploit: for food, clothing, shelter; industry, technology, consumerism. … Well, capitalism does. The system of capitalism requires all the above, so those of us of European descent (me) are part of the problem too. Perhaps humans’ propensities for environmental degradation and destruction  were first made possible by “othering” anybody but our group.

If we truly began to think of other beings, human or not, as people, and our kin, we would have to rethink the whole world and everything we do. But literacy makes that possible, and the Internet means that literate people, thinking unprecedented thoughts, can share them with people anywhere in the world. And nobody can predict what might result from that.


[1] “Chicago-Naperville-Michigan City is the 3rd largest MSA* in the USA, including people in the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, with 9.6 million people” [from Wikipedia].

[2] “Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area is a combined statistical area* consisting of the overlapping labor market region of the cities of Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C.. The region includes Central Maryland, Northern Virginia, and two counties in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. It is the most educated, highest-income, and 4th largest ‘combined statistical area’* in the USA, with a population of 8.2 million people” [from Wikipedia].

*MSA/combined statistical area:

[3]“the people”:

Anishinabe – (singular) means human being, or a person who is Ojibwe.” Source:

“Traditionally the Navajos called themselves Dine’é or just Diné (which means ‘the people’).” Source:

“[Tlingit] is an English pronunciation of their native word Lingit, which means ‘people’.” Source:

“Cherokee Indians originally called themselves Aniyunwiya, ‘the principal people’…” Source: is the brainchild of Orrin Lewis, a Native American of Cherokee and Muskogee descent, whose website is a clearinghouse for his project, Native Languages of the Americas.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2011 19:15

    I definitely agree with you – a lot of discussions on rural-vs-urban issues seem to take for granted that one of the two social structures is inferior and unnecessary. While I have no doubt that some areas have resource distribution in such a way that rural uses or urban uses are far more preferable to others, I personally hope for a time when people try to more extensively integrate rural and urban systems. Admittedly, suburbia and the exurbs show that a lot of thought and work has to go into creating new land use systems, or else you don’t get the best of both worlds but the worst of both.

    The mythologies of Native American tribes contain stories of animals, plants, and mountains as ancestors, and as such are revered. But when they name themselves, the terms they use often mean, “the people”[3], as if their tribe was the only people of any importance anywhere in the world.

    This is common the world over actually. “Spoken Here” is a really great book that at least some one looks at the current shift away from that viewpoint into a “globalized” one in a lot of the world. It’s really depressing though – the main focus of the book is the global decline in linguistic diversity, which is being driven by that trend. It’s a really great example of how difficult the balancing act between “rural” and “urban” viewpoints really is – we need to be respectful of how each culture is unique and special and important, but we also need to celebrate the interconnectivity of various cultures and their various environments. If you only have the former, you get stuck in isolationist stagnation (punctuated by eliminationism). If you only have the latter, you get structural inequalities (with points of forced assimilation).

    • June 22, 2011 20:53

      Making further progress on these issues is going to be complicated, and require rethinking things on both sides. Should be interesting to see how it plays out though.

  2. June 20, 2011 19:39

    Henry David Thoreau said, “in wildness is the preservation of world”, which sounds good until you think about it.

    Actually, I liked the point one of my Natural Resources professors made, which is that Thoreau said, “wildness” not “wilderness.” Now, we look at it and think of untouched wilderness, which arguably exists nowhere on earth with climate change and global pollution. In contrast, I would argue that wildness can actually exist in both cities and rural areas – to me it means a place that has not been cultivated or domesticated. Even if it’s a place that has in the past been cultivated, if nature has taken it back over, it still has an element of wildness. On the other hand, some of our most “natural” places are not “wild” in that sense at all – Niagara Falls’ views were quite planned by famous architect Fredrick Law Olmstead (who also designed Central Park). I take the quote less than a condemnation of cities as a reminder that we cannot – and should not – control everything. We need to leave some things be, no matter where they are. I love the idea described in the permaculture book Gaia’s Garden that there should be a place on your land that you just let do its own thing. A lot of my thinking of this topic was shaped by an excellent course I took in undergrad, called People, Values, and Natural Resources. If you’re interested in this sort of subject, the syllabus has a lot of excellent reading on the topic:

    • June 22, 2011 20:52

      My quibble with Thoreau is not over the difference between wildness and wilderness, but with the concept of “preservation”. I probably need to write a post about that too.

      I tend to raise more questions than I answer, and then find myself chasing after ever more questions…

  3. June 20, 2011 19:41

    Also, thanks for linking to Ecolocity on your site – I just saw it as I hit post. We can always use more people checking out and contributing to our work. If you’re interested – and not too far away – we’re doing a cool meeting, sharing our success stories this Tuesday: I’ll be talking about my experience with the Climate Ride.

    • June 22, 2011 20:49

      I would’ve liked to go to your meeting, Shannon, but ending at 9 PM is a little tricky, as my commute back to northern Baltimore County from DC tends to be about two hours long.

      I am trying to find environmental groups in the Washington DC Baltimore area that can help me deepen my connection to my habitat/region. Ecolocity looks like a good one!

      • June 22, 2011 22:20

        I totally understand. Ending at 9 PM is hard for me, and I live right near the Metro. We’re part of the international Transition movement, which I describe as a movement committed to learning to rely on our neighbors and each other for energy rather than fossil fuels. I know a Transition Baltimore group was starting, but I’m not sure if it ever took off. I’ll try to contact the person who was starting it to see if anything’s going on there.

        There’s also a lot of great movement in urban agriculture going on in Baltimore itself. This looks like a really good resource for it:

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