There is a great bit in Don Delillo’s Underworld when the Jesuit priest Andrew Paulus introduces Nick Shay to the word “quotidian.” Father Paulus calls it “an extraordinary term that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.” In teaching Shay this word, the mentor encourages his pupil to grasp the descriptive power of language. He also wants the young student to understand that the mundane can be sacred. The Jesuit’s lesson is a profound one and it is a message that appears forcefully in Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer’s edited collection Wildness: Relations of People and Place. The purpose of Wildness is to establish a vision of how we as a species should live on this planet, or as the editors put it, to provide a “model for living with and becoming more” (p. 7). The book contains twenty-three essays and one poem. Each piece details the ways nature intersects with human culture and vice versa. Wildness, that “force that shapes life and the world, that shapes every line of our bodies,” appears in the most ordinary (and therefore astonishing) of places (p. 3). These surprising encounters with wild nature are worth pondering because they instruct us on how to live alongside our nonhuman kin. The most compelling theme in the anthology is the idea that wildness exists on a continuum. Wild processes are present in the broad sweeps of the Sierras and in the small urban gardens tucked away in the South Side of Chicago. They are discovered in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and in what Mistinguette Smith describes as the “ecotones” of the “wild black margins” (p. 144). Wildness is not limited to untrammeled landscapes; it can also be found in the quotidian—in the landscapes where people work, play, and worship. To say “wildness is relative” or to acknowledge that humans are part of a “wild continuum” should not discourage environmentalists. A number of examples in this book show how human and nonhuman systems flourish together. For example, in “No Word,” Enrique Salmon argues that the indigenous people of Chihuahua, Mexico, the Raramuri, are a “keystone” species (p. 24). Through their husbandry practices, the Raramuri contribute to the region’s biodiversity. Wildness thrives not in spite of but because of the activities of human beings. Wildness is something we can nurture. As Van Horn notes in the introduction, Homo sapiens have an integral role in “cultivating wildness” (p. 3). The argument that wildness is something we can restore, protect, and honor, that it is a way of being in which we as human beings embrace our role as ecological members of a larger biological community, deliberately recalls the work of the American conservationist Aldo Leopold. He contended that people had a moral responsibility to “preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” (Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” 1966, p. 262). Historians better acquainted with the conservationist’s work may find the book’s veneration of the conservationist too simple. There are, however, several instances in the anthology where Leopold’s ideas are expanded on, even exceeded. John Hausdoerffer’s essay, for instance, shows how the Anishinaabeg concept of Akiing surpasses Leopold’s notion of a land ethic. Akiing describes a holistic worldview in which “people belong to the land” and “the land requires the people” (p. 203). Debates about the concept of wilderness continue to rage within environmental history circles. Interestingly, Van Horn and Hausdoerffer make a distinction between wildness and wilderness. In Western culture, wilderness implies something that is set apart while wildness refers to a process of “becoming respectful co-inhabitants” (p. 4). By employing the term wildness, the essayists contribute to the discipline’s critique of Western society’s belief that nature exists apart from human culture. It also provides an important counter to the declensionist view that everything is humanized and degraded. As an analytical category, wildness provides an alternative way of thinking about ecological relationships and human culture. Although Wildness retreads themes and ideas that have already been discussed, the book is an excellent resource for scholars wanting to broaden their understanding of how human and nonhuman nature coevolve. For casual readers, the book can be understood as an interdisciplinary plea for humans to “pay attention.” We need to be more attentive to the environments in which we live, for when we discover wildness we ourselves become wilder. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 8, 2018
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