The Wilderness Condition: Essays on Environment and Civilization
Edited by Max Oelschlaeger
Sierra Club Books, 1992.
345 pp. $30.00 (hardcover).
Like many recent collections of essays, The Wilderness Condition originated in an “interdisciplinary conference” held in August, 1991. The essayists reflect diverse interests—history, philosophy, poetry, mountaineering, anthropology, and biography—but share a common concern for conservation and the preservation of “wilderness.” The special contribution that this book attempts is to add historical depth to the more general environmental discourse, which is shaped by the quickly shifting attention of the media. But as the essays weave the idea of wilderness into different historical, cultural, and intellectual contexts, one wonders just how “deep” deep ecology is.
Without being particularly profound, some of the essays are informative, useful, and even entertaining. Michael Peter Cohen’s essay, “A Brittle Thesis: A Ghost Dance: A Flower Opening,” takes a fresh look at John Muir. Now questioning the canonized Sierra Club version of Muir, which Cohen admittedly helped to promote, the author asks whether the young Muir was indeed transformed by his experience of “wilderness,” or whether Muir’s experience of the Central Valley in California was not already a part of a romanticized, nostalgic, and decidedly European worldview. Muir’s lament over the threat to various plant species in 1870 was no doubt sincere, but nevertheless wrongheaded.
Cohen concludes that John Muir was a “Neo-European weed” who never really did discover or expose himself to the world of wilderness, but created (unconsciously no doubt) his own Muirland in much the same way that tourists, say, imagine India before traveling and find just the India they had imagined.
Another of the more successful essays is “The Disembodied Parasite and Other Tragedies; or: Modern Western Philosophy and How to Get Out of It,” by Pete Gunter. A philosopher and historian of ideas, Gunter focuses on Descartes’ philosophical inversion of the concept of what it means to be “rational.” As one might suspect, attention is also given to the importance of the role of mind-body dualism in Descartes’ philosophy.
However, on a less cheerful note, Paul Shepard’s article, “A Post-Historic Primitivism,” is representative of the inconsistent depth and quality of the essays. Shepard reintroduces the basic themes of his earlier work, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, suggesting that the roots of our environmental crisis can be found in the “agricultural revolution.” The posthistoric primitivism of his title is a return to the economics of culture, different but similar, of the hunting and gathering lifestyle which existed prior to the so-called agricultural revolution. But in the course of restating his thesis, Shepard adds new “research” that seems to trivialize the discussion as a whole and at the same time seems to turn his article into a sophomoric apology for hunters and meateaters, even going so far as to volunteer that “meat is always the ‘relish’ that makes the meal worthwhile.” Vegetarianism, like creationism, simply reinvents human biology to suit an ideology.
While Shepard’s discussion of meateating seems silly and biased, his treatment of religious traditions reveals a willingness to play loose and fast with ideas and “facts.” According to Shepard:
…The Hindus disdained Buddhism when they discovered how abstract and imageless it was, how shorn of group ceremony…. The Hindus at least saw personal existence as a good many slices of dharma in a variety of species before the individual finally escaped into the absolute, while Buddhists argued that all you needed was the right discipline and you could exit pronto.
I suppose this would surprise—and offend—not only many Buddhists (including Gary Snyder, whose own essay “The Etiquette of Freedom,” appears in The Wilderness Condition) but Hindus as well.
The historical context for the evolution of religious thought in South Asia completely escapes Shepard, although he tries:
Historically, it would appear that both Buddhists and Jains got something from the Aryans, who brought their high-flying earth-escaping gods from Middle East [sic] pastoralism. In the face of these invasions, the Hindus and their unzippered polytheism survived best in the far south of India where the Western monotheists penetrated least.
Which “invasions”? I think Shepard must be referring to the Aryan migration into India around 1700-1500 B.C.E., but who can say for sure? In any case, “Hinduism” evolved primarily from the Vedic tradition of the Aryans, and Buddhism arose within a general Hindu culture. Just who the “Western monotheists” are, and where and when they threatened Hinduism, remains a mystery.
For uninitiated readers who would like to rub shoulders with “eco-philosophers,” The Wilderness Condition is an opportunity to discover some of the strengths and weaknesses of the discipline. But what detracts generally from the book is the club-like atmosphere that pervades it and leaves one with the feeling that objectivity has in some sense been compromised. The writers quote each other frequently, enthusiastically, and uncritically, reminding one of the less attractive, political sense of “logrolling.” One needs also to consider whether the collection does not in fact represent a decidedly male bias. With one exception (Dolores LaChapelle) the contributors are all men, but more important is the feeling that “wilderness” is a male domain, and that diminished eco-system is an “emasculated country,” as Thoreau put it.
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