Sunday, October 5, 2008

Alone in a great forest

Taking a break from politics, I've finally gotten around to reading Jack Turner's The Abstract Wild. It's extraordinary. I cannot begin to explain the connections I find between this kind of writing and my off-beat notions of religious experience and the place we humans should find ourselves in the universe, if we only we would get out of our concrete jungles and become "alert, careful, literally 'full of care.'" So for now, I'll just share a few excerpts from this powerful book.

In light of the current financial crisis, it may be good to step back and consider the following from Turner's Introduction:
I believe a saner relation to the natural world must end our servitude to modernity by creating new practices that later out daily routines. I also believe that no resolution to the crises facing the wild earth will achieve more than a modicum of success without an integration of spiritual practice into our lives. Any spiritual tradition worthy of the name teaches the diminishment of desire and it is desire in all its forms -- simple greed, avarice, hoarding, the will to power, the will to truth, the rush of population growth, the craving for control -- that fuels the destruction of our once-fair planet. I believe that virtually all problems are problems of scale, and I know, to the degree I know anything, that desire usually drives us to adopt scales that are inappropriate to their subjects. This is true for emotion and forestry as it is for hunting and global economics.
from Introduction, p. xvi, The Abstract Wild (Tucson: Ariz. U. Press 1996).

And this can only speak for itself:
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 the experience of it. These are its gifts to us. In this, wilderness is no different from music, painting, poetry, or love; you concede the abundance and try to respond with grace.

The problem is that we no longer know what these gifts are. In our effort to go beyond anthropocentric defenses of nature, to emphasize its intrinsic value and right to exist independently of us, we forget the reciprocity between the wild in nature and the wild in us, between knowledge of the wild and knowledge of the self that was central to all primitive cultures. Once the meaning of the wild is forgotten, because the relevant experience is lost, we abuse the world, literally mis-use it. The savagery and brutality of gang rape is now called "wilding," and in New Age retreats me search for a "wild man within" by sitting in the mud beating drums.

Why do we associate the savage, the brutal, with the wild? The savagery of nature fades to nothing compared to the savagery of human agency. The most civilized nations on the planet killed sixty to seventy million of each other's citizens in the thirty-year span from the beginning of World War I to the end of World War II. Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Kant, Rousseau, Dōgen, Mill, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Manet, Basho, Van Gogh, and Hokusai didn't make any difference. The rule of law, human rights, democracy, the sovereignty of nations, liberal education, scientific method, and the presence of an Emperor God didn't make any difference. Protestantism, Catholicism, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Shintoism, and Islam didn't make any difference. How can we, at this time in history, think of a grizzly or a wolf as . . . savage? Why laugh at the idea of the noble savage when we have discovered no savage more savage than civilized man?

The easiest way to experience a bit of what the wild was like is to go into a great forest at night alone. Sit quietly for awhile. Something very old will return. It is well described by Ortega y Gasset in Meditations on Hunting: "The hunter . . . needs to prepare an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed by consists precisely in not assuming anything and in avoiding inattentiveness. It is a 'universal' attention, which does not incscribe itself on any point and tires to be on all points."
Ibid., "The Abstract Wild: A Rant" at p. 27.

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