Considering Wilderness

An old friend of mine has just started posting to a blog entitled El Fanoos. Jon and I were neighbors in Cairo, travel companions on an exhausting circuit through the Egyptian desert, and confidants during that rare semester I passed in Egypt. We haven't seen each other much since then, but I got an email from him the other day about his new efforts. He's long taken beautiful photographs, and he notes that El Fanoos is an effort to narrate some of his favorite images, to think through them and perhaps arrive at something illuminated.

He's also currently living in Seoul, and he recently published a piece talking about nature in the city. He quotes at length from a Wallace Stegner piece about the importance of wilderness, ending by noting that:
Stegner recognized the true relationship between humans and the natural environment, arguing that the natural environment’s most pristine form, wilderness, must be protected simply as an idea to ensure human sanity. Wilderness can offer much needed reprieve from societal pressures, feed primitive desires, and provide endless healthy recreational opportunities.
My response, however, is to suggest that wilderness is never simply natural. Our very designation of - our social and socialized response to - wilderness suggests that we are always already implicated in the wilderness. And while I haven't read Stegner in full, I wonder and worry about this distinction of the natural and the cultural. I think it's something that Jon is full cognizant of, as he notes that, "People buy plants to warm up a home, build parks to offer reprieve, [and] design structures or objects to mimic natural frameworks". The distinction I'm trying to suggest, then, is between that sense of nature - as something that can be incorporated into the home, into the city, into a kind of cultural life or space - and this sense of nature as wilderness. I don't have the book near at hand, but Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory plays with a similar distinction. In particular, Schama looked at representations of the German forest, noting how they were viewed as both something untrammeled (and therefore dangerous) and as a source of strength and vitality.

The issue could, of course, come back to landscape. I returned recently from a backpacking trip with my dad in the Sierra Nevada. Starting at North Lake on the east slope of the range, we wound our way up through the John Muir Wilderness (again, a particular kind of wilderness, wilderness as official designation) before passing into Kings Canyon National Park. I was struck - as I always am - by the amount of work that goes into the backcountry. As tempting as it is to be pulled into the wilderness - its cirques, scalloped peaks, open meadows - there's a very real human presence in the landscape, especially in the trails. In a very real way, the trails we were walking had been made by human hands; and as a consequence, the wilderness we were taking in was as much a product of human effort as it was of natural processes. This is not to say that all wildernesses are created equally; rather, it's only to suggest that the concept of the wilderness is one freighted with its own assumptions about the relationship between nature and culture.

Returning to Jon's piece, he wonders, "Whether or not our mind has the ability to completely adapt to this new environment is a question of the age." In a glancing response, I might suggest that the lines between the Korean cityscape and nature may not be so sharp. Of course, I'm sitting in the air conditioned Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles. Beyond the building's front porch tower the glass-walled skyscrapers of Bunker Hill. Nature does, at moments, seem very far away.


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