Friday, December 2, 2011

The Wild

A few weeks ago, I was in the car with my family on our way home from visiting friends in another part of Decatur. It was well after dark.  I was stopped at an intersection when I was surprised to see a large canine loping up the middle of the street, moving quickly away from us.

Something about its size and proportions, and about the way it moved, the way it owned the street, suggested it was not a domestic dog.

It's entirely possible it was a coyote. Reports of coyote in the Atlanta Metro Area have been on the rise recently and, a week or so after my own possible sighting, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an article about the demands of some Decatur residents that the city do something about the animals. According to the article, the city is urging people to learn to coexist with coyote.

On a related note, I have only three times in my life had direct, face-to-face encounters with free-flying owls; all three were barred owls. Once was at a state park in northeastern Indiana, when I was in my teens. The other two were both in Decatur, when I was either on my way to or waiting at a bus stop along a busy commuter road, early in the morning.

I've heard owls on any number of occasions. Over the eight years we lived in our first house in Decatur, we would hear owls out back. In that neighborhood, houses tend to have narrow but deep back yards, the back halves of which are often untended. This creates a strip of wild green down the interior of the block, where the trees and vines seem to make good owl habitat.

In fact, we would sometimes be awakened in the middle of the night by two barred owls raising their raucous voices in what we thought might be a territorial dispute, just outside our window.

I could also add my numerous sightings of red tailed hawks on the main campus of Georgia Tech, in midtown Atlanta. Just yesterday, I saw one riding the thermals over Freshman Hill.

I have been discussing the idea of wilderness with students in my environmental ethics class, and I was reminded of the problem of what Andrew Light has called the geographic dualism in environmental thought.

Regarding the wilderness advocacy of Holmes Rolston, in particular, Light has written:
For Rolston, non-anthropocentrism in environmental ethics entails either an explicit or implicit conceptual division between nature and culture as divided spheres of moral and political concern. Nature is the source of value, and culture must now be reconceived as first, lacking the kind of value we find in pristine nature, and second, deserving of reassessment itself in relation to whatever value we find in culture. . . . Those embracing this [nature-culture] dualism tend to either discount the value of urban areas or ignore them, and hence urban environmental problems, altogether. Again, at the best a blind spot and at worst an anti-urban bias (Light 2001, p.13).
Light goes on to identify another dualism
which is potentially more damning: a geographical dualism between wilderness and cities which represents a bifurcation of two realms of existence, one containing 'nature', however Rolston conceives of nature, and one not containing nature by definition (Ibid., p. 17).
What he finds most distressing in this dualism is the implication that
natural values do not exist in cities because cities do not contain nature. As a consequence, what many people would call 'environmental problems', or problems which concern the natural world, also do not exist in cities (Ibid., pp. 17-18)
In short, geographical dualism implies that, wherever you may live and carry out your merely human projects, wilderness is always elsewhere, out there, beyond the boundaries of the merely domestic realm . . . a realm that will always be impoverished by its ontological separation from wild nature.

For myself, I have long since abandoned geographic dualism. Wilderness may always be elsewhere, but wildness is everywhere, that is, natural dynamics not of our making and not under our control. We are pleased, sometimes, to think ourselves unquestioned masters of our domestic realm, but everything we do is supported, conditioned, and perhaps ultimately threatened by the wildness we can glimpse in the margins, in the cracks, even in our own bodies and brains.

This was a question I took up early on, in my first few years of graduate school: How do we encounter wild nature, the deeper, more ancient dynamics, not of our making, that underpin the places we call home?

(I'll have to look for it, but I presented a paper on wildness and the margins of the domestic realm at an Earth Day forum I organized with some of my fellow graduate students in the early '90s. If I find it, I'll post some excerpts here.)

As with many aspects of environmental ethics and policy, Aldo Leopold can be a touchstone for an effort to answer this question. Writing of the values to be secured by outdoor recreation, Leopold reserves some of his highest praise for the cultivation of perception, especially
the perception of the natural processes by which the land and the living things upon it have achieved their characteristic forms (evolution) and by which they maintain their existence (ecology). That thing called 'nature study' . . . constitutes the first embryonic groping of the mass-mind toward perception (Leopold 1949, p. 173).
One great advantage of the cultivation of perception is that it does not result in the overuse or exploitation of the few remnant landscapes still considered wilderness.
Like all real treasures of the mind, perception can be split into infinitely small fractions without losing its quality. The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods; the farmer may see in his cow pasture what may not be vouchsafed to the scientist adventuring in the South Seas (Ibid., p. 174).
The weeds in a city lot, two owls arguing in a semi-suburban back yard, a coyote loping up a quiet city street at night . . . the wild is here, if we know how to look for it.

Aldo Leopold. 1949. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Andrew Light. 2001. "The Urban Blind Spot in Environmental Ethics." Environmental Politics 10, pp. 7-35.

1 comment:

Matt' said...

Dr. Kirkman,
Excellent thoughts, as always.

Last month, I was waiting for a Metra Electric train in Hyde Park, Chicago (amongst high-rises near the Museum of Science and Industry) when I spotted a coyote walking along the tracks.

It kind of blew my mind to see a coyote in a very urban setting. The suburbs wouldn't have surprised me, but Hyde Park was a bit shocking.

Here's a photo:

And for context:

I'm a former student of yours. BSPP 2007. I took several of your very interesting courses.