Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Why We Need the Wild

Some lands should be kept truly untouched—protected even from those who want to restore them.

Wildness, that important but often vague word, is at the heart of Jason Mark’s “Satellites in the High Country.” As is this question: Have we been Googled and GPSed, Facebooked and fracked and generally over-computerized into such domesticated creatures—living in a minutely mapped world of diminished species, diminished biodiversity and diminished space—that experiencing wildness is no longer possible?

SnackA hoary marmot feeding on Indian paintbrush flowers. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Good question, Mr. Mark. Ten years ago I followed the osprey migration from Cape Cod to Cuba and marveled that, since I was carrying a cellphone for the first time, I could be tracked just like the radio-tagged birds I was chasing. As everyone knows, the changes in the decade since have been head-spinning, but what continues to amaze me, as a professor, is how technology and its uses change from year to year, as if a whole new species of Homo sapiens were coming back to school each fall.

One of the pleasures of “Satellites in the High Country” is that Mr. Mark does not follow the usual nature writer’s path and just throw the word “wild” out there, waving it like a flag, before carrying on with his own happy tramps into the wilderness. His approach to decoding the word is comprehensive, and he begins logically with etymology, laying out all the definitions but focusing on “self-willed” and “uncontrolled.”

“There’s simply something tougher about wild things,” he writes. Wilderness and wildness are not synonymous, but Mr. Mark argues that wilderness, especially big wilderness, is where wildness most often happens. The reasons we need to continue to protect large swaths of wilderness are many: because wilderness is where evolution occurs; because it is where we can find an alternative to, and solace from, our cluttered virtual lives; because it is simply moral to allow other creatures their rights on this planet instead of carrying on like anthropocentric bullies.

These arguments will sound familiar, but as Mr. Mark notes, the very concept of wilderness has recently been under intellectual assault: We are told by contemporary environmental thinkers that we have entered the Anthropocene, the age of man. And since there really are no pristine, untouched lands, we should move on and treat the Earth like the human garden it is, embracing our role as gardeners and benevolently guiding the fate of wild things.

Mr. Mark, who was the co-founder of San Francisco’s largest urban farm, knows a thing or two about gardening, and he gives it its due. He acknowledges that to be a gardener is a noble ambition. But he argues that in the United States our wilderness areas, which constitute less than 5% of our land, should be kept truly wild—that is, “free from our intentions,” including the intentions of those mostly benign control freaks known as conservation biologists.

This is a hard argument to make as many conservationists wrestle with climate change, and most environmentalists prefer what Mr. Mark rightly calls “the Pottery Barn rule”—that is, “you broke it, you fix it.” We need to right our environmental wrongs, the argument goes, moving marmots north, for instance, as their habitats warm. Mr. Mark is hardly anti-marmot, but he makes a strong case that we need at least some places that we keep our meddling hands off of.

You will notice that so far I have focused on the ideas in “Satellites in the High Country,” and to my mind the ideas are the best part of the book. I am slightly less thrilled with the more conventional, journalistic presentation of these ideas, braided as they are into trips to wild places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Black Hills, Yosemite and the Olympic Wilderness in the Pacific Northwest. These trips are well-described and linked clearly to the book’s intellectual lessons, but the book’s genre conventions leave it feeling a bit, well, tame. “Satellites in the High Country” never achieves the electric heights ofJack Turner’s “The Abstract Wild” (1996), a work full of revolutionary verve that, in its thorny intractability, was as self-willed and uncontrolled as its subject.

What Mr. Mark’s book does that earlier books did not is to intelligently place the cry for wildness inside a time when the end of nature and the rise of the virtual have been almost universally declared. He never fails to acknowledge just what a predicament we are in, both environmentally and intellectually. The planet is tamed and all is known, we are told, so why not accept our fates, take our numbers and do our best as we trudge through this unwild world?

Mr. Mark argues the opposite: that we have never needed the wild more than we do now. “Big Data in the backcountry? No thanks. Wifi in the woods? I think I’ll pass.” Someone could write these sentences blithely, but he does not. He knows that it will be a nearly impossible thing to respect the rights of other species and continue to place lands beyond human hands, and that it will require what many would consider the opposite of wildness: discipline. But if difficult, it is also necessary and, Mr. Marks believes, both morally and practically imperative. Because if we do not we will sever a lifeline to the place we came from and to any lives beyond our own.

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