Monday, July 28, 2014

Wilderness book of the month #4 - July 2014

by Jack Turner, University of Arizona Press (1996)

From the back cover: "If anything is endangered in America it is our experience of wild nature--gross contact. There is knowledge only the wild can give us, knowledge specific to it, knowledge specific to the experience of it. These are its gifts to us. How wild is wilderness and how wild are our experiences in it, asks Jack Turner in the pages of The Abstract Wild. His answer: not very wild. National parks and even so-called wilderness areas fall far short of offering the primal, mystic connection possible in wild places. And this is so, Turner avows, because any managed land, never mind what it's called, ceases to be wild. Moreover, what little wildness we have left is fast being destroyed by the very systems designed to preserve it. Natural resource managers, conservation biologists, environmental economists, park rangers, zoo directors, and environmental activists: Turner's new book takes aim at these and all others who labor in the name of preservation. He argues for a new conservation ethic that focuses less on preserving things and more on preserving process and "leaving things be." He takes off after zoos and wilderness tourism with a vengeance, and he cautions us to resist language that calls a tree "a resource" and wilderness "a management unit." Eloquent and fast-paced, The Abstract Wild takes a long view to ask whether ecosystem management isn't "a bit of a sham" and the control of grizzlies and wolves "at best a travesty." Next, the author might bring his readers up-close for a look at pelicans, mountain lions, or Shamu the whale. From whatever angle, Turner stirs into his arguments the words of dozens of other American writers including Thoreau, Hemingway, Faulkner, and environmentalist Doug Peacock. We hunger for a kind of experience deep enough to change our selves, our form of life, writes Turner. Readers who take his words to heart will find, if not their selves, their perspectives on the natural world recast in ways that are hard to ignore and harder to forget."

Well, this is an easy one... I wanted, in fact, to preserve this title for a future post, when I would have maybe lacked of time or ideas, and not "burn" it so quickly... But after reading it for the third time, I couldn't wait any longer. I say this because if there is a truly good wilderness book out there, then it is surely this one, and the fact that it now comes in its fourth edition proves I am right. I will never be thankful enough to my friend A. Antonucci, who first introduced me to Turner's writings (besides many other great books...) and let me thus discover this gem of nature literature. 

But beware, this is not just a nice book and a pleasant reading. In his eight provocative essays, Jack Turner - philosopher turned mountain guide, confronts us with a crude reality. Wildness (a more complex term than wilderness), through management, definition and abstraction is almost ceasing to exist in our contemporary world. With a book that more than a series of essays, sounds like a manifesto, the writer casts a passionate invitation to reflect on the disappearance of first-hand experience (contact) between humans and the wild as the main weakness in the conservation movement. And he manages to argument this with a highly stimulating writing, which are extremely well articulated and always supported by a rich bibliography. The prose is never boring, as one might expect but, on the contrary, eloquent, passionate, gripping and sometimes even moving. Such kind of writing is rare nowadays.

"The easiest way to experience a bit of what the wild was like is to go into a great forest a night alone. Sit quietly for awhile. Something very old will return."

If you have never experienced "the wild", I am afraid this is a difficult book to understand. But if you have the heart for these things, these words will make you thirsty for some real nature experience and wanting to get out and walk immediately. Turner's words spoke to me with an eloquence I had rarely found before and, if, only here and there (Leopold, Abbey, Peacock, Bass, Snyder, Lopez, Meloy, Hainard) in the vast sea of wilderness literature. Never before I had found so much truth in just one title. There is material to reflect on anything. On conservation biology, on wilderness management, on language, even on nature photography! It made me reflect on my conservation fundamentalism; on my personal spiritualism; on my devotion to certain wildlife species or mountains; on my need for the unpredictable and ever-changing; on my political choices; on my vegetarianism...
Besides being so beautiful, this book is therefore somehow also disturbing, since it will stir all your beliefs. Now, more than ever, one sees the mistakes and short perspective the environmentalist movement has been until now partly guilty of. There is a need for a new language and deeper interaction, if we want to save the "Other". The answer might seem revolutionary, but it is already in our genes, since it is as old as we are.

"To construct a new conservation ethic, we need first to understand why we impose a human order on no human orders. We do so for gain, the gain being in prediction, efficiency and, hence, control. (...) So we fight to preserve ecosystems and species, and we accept their diminished wildness. This wins the fight but loses the war, and in the process we simply stop talking about wildness."

Turner's message is so true that I am very glad he wrote this book. Surely, it would be worth taking the time to translate it also in other languages. So, once again,  don't get discouraged by this American-centered book: you will find some universal food for thought in it!

*Linking to Amazon is only for practical purposes... you'd better look where to purchase these books elsewhere!;-)