Thursday, January 29, 2009

Where is the wilderness and have I ever been there?

This is the question I kept returning to while reading the introductory chapter to Gary Snyder's book The Practice of the Wild. Prior to this reading, I defined wilderness in narrow terms as a place comprised of natural systems that flourish outside of human intervention and contain only native inhabitants. I have never experienced a wilderness of this definition and it is impossible for most people living in civilized society to ever encounter such a place.

But wilderness can be defined in other ways, a fact that was reinforced over my Christmas break when my family visited Crested Butte, Colorado for a skiing vacation. As we stood at the mouth of a canyon that overlooked the condo we were staying at, my mom remarked "This is truly God's country." My mom's romantic vision of this "elite playground" by my definition (don't get me wrong, it was awesome) has had my mind negotiating what it means to experience the wild. Can modern humans access wilderness? Can it be partially experienced? Can something be both wild and cultivated?

Of course, as Snyder made clear, there is no simple answer to these questions. Uncultivated, impermanent, abundant, pristine, unstable, independent, free, self-propagating and self-maintaining are just a few ways Snyder described wilderness which he asserts can exist both in federal and state parks set aside for preservation and in the spider who builds a web on an urban window sill. In other words, wilderness is not exclusive to uninhabited or uncultured environments but is present everywhere on a shifting scale.

Perhaps the most familiar of these places, Snyder points out, is our own bodies. Am I truly a capsule of wilderness? Eyes, teeth, hands and nipples - every part of our physical make up is shaped through evolution and our biological functions are almost entirely self-regulating. Yet if we are to agree that everything is not wild, that there are objects, places or behaviors that are synthetic or unnatural, humans, more than any other creature, must house impulses that drive the reshaping of the world under our directed synthesis. We are the axis that divides urban from wild, civilized from instinctive.

The collective behaviors and resulting environments that make up the civilized portion of this divide can be thought of as culture, a phenomena that shifts and evolves with a ferocity on par with natural world. Snyder defines culture in two ways: 1)a deliberately maintained social and intellectual life and 2)the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns. We are born into many of these behavior patterns, including the building of houses, roads and cities and the harvesting of resources for energy and sustenance. Snyder goes on to state that culture is "never far from its biological root meaning as in "yogurt culture" - a nourishing habitat." We construct artificial systems and behaviors to provide a more nourishing habitat for our biological needs.

In this instance, I think of the word habitat as a bubble that surrounds a boundary for potential life; a palm tree has a given climate that defines where it can grow. Humanity's collective reshaping of the world has dynamically restructured our habitat bubble on an individual and global scale. If tomorrow the grocery store, apartment, heat and transportation that I rely on disappeared, I would no longer be able to survive in the habitat of Rogers Park, Chicago. The systems that we have constructed to meet our biological needs rely on a global network that enables habitats to be disconnected from the resources that nourish them.

This has become a defining fact for my generation. We are altering ecology on a global scale in unintended and irreversible ways. We need to redefine our behaviors and habits so that we can harness wilderness and still be in harmony with it. If the spider on my window sill is truly wild, it is a wild harnesser. It builds near the light which attracts its food and in a window well that shelters its web. This behavior is not so different from our own. I don't know if modern humans can experience pristine wilderness, but it seems we must define our lifestyle around the ecosystems that we are biologically tied to. We must become more attuned to the wild within us.

Edward Burtynsky
Shipbreaking No. 11,
Chittagong, Bangladesh 2000

Edward Burtynsky photographs global networks that produce, distribute and dispose of goods and resources we use and rely on. Above is a photograph of an oil tanker that is being disassembled by hand in Chittagong, Bangladesh. These photographs allow us to glimpse at the human and environmental destruction our lifestyles cause and show how disconnected from the wild we truly are.