Finding Wildness at Home

Jun 20, 2013

Could it be that the simple act of planting a native snowberry shrub or quaking aspen in your back yard is more than an expression of decorative taste?  I’m willing to say that it’s actually a simple but highly significant act of conservation that fosters a way of relating to nature that we, and the natural world, could sorely use.  The ecological problems we face now require solutions on a mammoth scale—a paralyzing thought for those who care.  But perhaps before we can achieve the elusive political will to take on these problems, a more personal, psychological change must be nurtured.

The roots of the current crisis are deeply entwined in our Western psyche and ways of life.  The dominant interpretations of the biblical narratives depict humanity as ultimately separate from a broken natural world, with God-given dominion over nature taking the form of domination.  The biblical tradition then wedded nicely with the Enlightenment worldview that obligated us to master nature.  And the supposed benefits of unfettered capitalism justify profit-maximization over other values.  The result of this toxic mix of influences on our modern mindset was a failure of our Western tradition to cultivate the essential truth that humanity is ultimately in a reciprocal relationship with all other living things.  Detachment from this wild world became the basis of our abuse of it.

With the sheer weight of this tradition behind us, how can we, then, come to realize, as Aldo Leopold did, that we are a part of a land community, with a real, consequential, and reciprocal relationship to it?  The approach of many people with conservation interests has been to get people into the wild, helping them to find some connection to and ultimately a love for wild places.  Such experiences awaken our souls to the values found with time spent in places not subject to human control.

As important as such escapes are for connecting people to the places they visit, the traveler abruptly returns to a world in which people are beholden to electronic devices, checking Smartphones once every six minutes, on average.  Mindfulness of connections to the natural world is difficult to sustain amid such daily practices.

It’s easy to conclude when it comes to the bigger ecological crises that we don’t stand a chance.  We might, then, be tempted to take ecologist Paul Kingsnorth’s advice to withdraw and seek refuge in our own domains; to give up trying to save this world.  His advice evokes despair, but it actually may be better than he intended.

Perhaps a more effective way to reconceive our connection with the natural world is to start with the domains we interact with everyday.  What if our homes and local environments called on us to have a relationship with the wild, even in the middle of town?

It is ironic that as much as Montanans pride themselves on having a strong sense of place and quick access to truly wild areas, most residences look like houses most anywhere in America.  The yards are dominated by millions of acres of non-native grasses that are not adapted our climate, which require ongoing heavy irrigation and application of chemicals, and countless hours of maintenance in the form of mowing and weed whacking.  These latter forms of effort are accomplished with machines requiring expensive fossil fuels and creating excessive air and noise pollution.  The American yard is also based on an imported taste, originally designed to showcase wealth and aristocratic values.  And we spend billions of dollars to indulge this ecological practice that promotes no sense of the places or local ecosystems within which our houses were first built.  There is very little of the wild world here to relate to on a day-to-day basis.  In fact, like the rest of our world, our domiciles are highly artificial and controlled.

So maybe one way to turn our psychology around, just a little bit, doesn’t require a trip to a wilderness area at all.  Perhaps change can begin out our windows, among native grasses, trees, and flowers.  The energy we would have spent mowing, fertilizing, and watering would be devoted to planting and learning the names of the wild flora that populated our yards long before the house builders arrived.  It would be spent observing how quaking aspens attract long-horn beetles, which lure wood peckers eager to feed on them.  We could see how yard work cultivates the perspective of giving to the natural world, being actively involved in conserving even one small corner of it, rather than controlling and poisoning it.  “To plant a pine tree,” Leopold said, “one need be neither god nor poet; one need only a shovel.”

And this refuge of wildness, on one small plot of ground given back to wild nature, may yet facilitate our reflection on the relationship with the world we should be having, if we and future generations wish to have a natural, wild world at all.

This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.