A Conversation on Wildness

5,850 total words    

23 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Seminary Co-op Bookstore

The following conversation took place at the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Hyde Park, Chicago, on June 23, 2017.

Gavin Van Horn (GVH): I’ll start. At least for me, the reason I was interested in this concept of wildness is because I’m interested in how people connect to place—to where they are. To me, wildness represents a mutual flourishing between ourselves and the landscapes we find ourselves a part of. That’s not the only thing wildness is, but that’s certainly one of the reasons it’s important to me.

We get bombarded daily by examples of human disinterest in or degradation or destruction of the natural world, but I think both John and I were interested in telling stories that we knew about other people whose communities were intertwined with the landscape—their cultures were informed by the land. And that kind of encapsulates wildness to me: that we can live with the land and respond to its agency, not just act upon the land. And I know you, John, had your own interests coming into this.

John Hausdoerffer (JH): Yeah, and I want to thank Gavin and the Center for Humans and Nature for approaching me with this project. At some point he’ll talk about how the original title was going to be Relative Wild,and what he means by “relative” is something very powerful. When he approached me, it really spoke to me to bring culturally diverse voices to the idea of wildness because I have for years been frustrated with how wilderness—and we’ll talk about the difference between wilderness and wildness—had become a divisive idea within the environmental movement.

One essay in Wildness, written by Laura Watt, is about the Pt. Reyes Drake’s Bay Oyster Company, and how even though for generations they had a sustainable food practice that San Francisco foodies were just in love with, the Drake family was removed from the land in order to create a wilderness area. This tension—what’s going on there? While Rome burns, there’s tension between wilderness activists and sustainable food activists. Why that division? We’ve seen tension between environmental justice activists and wilderness activists going back to Edward Abbey and Murray Bookchin, arguing over what is the true source of environmental problems—is it deep ecology or is it social ecology? We saw that division lead to a big fight in the Sierra Club in the 2000s. A group of anti-immigration activists were trying to dominate the board of the Sierra Club, to make it an organization dedicated to protecting open lands through keeping immigrants out [of the country]. Why these divisions? I found that the wilderness idea was causing them, and I had hope that the wildness idea—which I am going to argue tonight is bigger than wilderness—is a unifying rather than divisive concept.

I just want to share with you briefly from one of our authors. His name is Enrique Salmón. He’s Rarámuri Tarahumaran Indian from Mexico, as well as a professor at California State University, East Bay. He talks about his language and the concept of wildness in his language, and I think it’s a pretty compelling way to challenge us with a cultural viewpoint other than my own:

There is no word for the concept wild in my native language of Rarámuri. The Rarámuri are a large population of people indigenous to the Sierra Madre mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico. The region is also known as the Sierra Tarahumara. There are roughly seventy thousand Rarámuri who continue to speak our language and live a subsistence lifestyle in this extremely remote, rugged, and biologically diverse landscape. . . . For the longest time, the conservation and environmental movement assumed that the human-environment interface always resulted in negative outcomes for the land. The last two hundred years of exponential human population growth coupled with mass expansions of industry and globalization has certainly done little to balance out the equation. As a result, until recently, researchers had not considered the possibility that humans could actually enhance their landscapes, that human communities might actually play a role in increasing diversity, or that humans are as essential to the ecological functioning of a landscape as saguaro cacti are to the Sonoran Desert. Therefore I suggest that human communities could be a keystone species in some ecological systems.

JH: For me that was an important starting point in terms of the difference between wilderness and wildness, and why I saw wilderness as divisive and wildness as unifying. Wilderness is a concept that Rarámuri don’t have a word in their language for but was imposed upon them by colonists. Wilderness was a tool of colonialism. Colonists, looking at a landscape whose biodiversity was produced by the people who called it their homeland, could call that “wilderness” and erase all that Native American knowledge, all that Native American shaping of the land. Once it’s seen as wilderness, it’s available for theft, without having to call it theft because it’s “wilderness”—a problematic, divisive term that really has Native peoples feeling left out and colonized.

Wildness, however, is the idea that humans can be a keystone species. Through producing our livelihood, we could produce biodiversity, which you [Gavin] called agency. Through human agency, we create more agency for the land. That’s wildness—where humans are embedded in that agency—rather than wilderness, where humans are removed. So I really wanted to be involved in Wildness. For me, it comes down to finding this wildness in the agency of the land, in the people, finding it everywhere—finding it on the South Side of Chicago, finding it on a working landscape in Kansas or in India, finding it in the wilderness areas around my house in Colorado. If we can learn to find and fight for wildness everywhere, then I’ll be pretty happy. Right?

GVH: Right. So something that you made me think about by reading Enrique’s piece is not just the concept of the human species as a keystone species, as a dramatic shaper, potentially, of the land, but Enrique also uses this term, “kincentric”landscape. Enrique’s an ethnobotanist, so his people have special relationships with particular plants. They treat them as people, and they have a shared mythos in the culture. That kincentric idea, coming back to that idea of the “relative wild” . . .

JH: The original title for the book.

GVH: The original title for the book. There were two reasons for that, and there are two concepts to hold on to here. One was the idea that there is a continuum on the landscape. There is relative wildness where we are right now, in our bodies, from our gut microbes—we are composed of more bacterial cells than human cells—all the way to the atmosphere. So from the gut to the sky, there is wildness. Across landscapes, from urban areas to the most remote wilderness areas, there is wildness that can be found. So it’s a “relative condition,” in Aldo Leopold’s words. So wildness is a continuum.

The other thing is kinship. We are actually related to other species. This is easy to forget sometimes, I know. We share relationships with other species. Some of those are particular, some are more special than others; nevertheless, at a genetic level we are related, we are wild to our core. Every breath we take is within the cycle of wildness. So that was the idea behind the relative wild.

JH: You know, the great poet, Gary Snyder, speaks to what you were just talking about in terms of the wildness within us. He talks about our breathing. And he looks at where that word wild comes from, and it comes from will. A self-willed being is a wild being. A self-willed community is a wild community. Think about what functions in you in a self-willed way. Snyder, as a Buddhist who thinks about breathing, says that’s wildness. It starts with your breath. You’re not thinking through your breathing. Our breathing is where our wildness begins.

 GVH: Snyder was a touchstone for us in some ways for this book. One of the distinctions he makes between wilderness and wildness is wilderness is a place. It can be a sacred place. It can be a beautiful place that’s considered aesthetically pleasing. It can be an awe-inspiring place. It can be an ecologically functional and healthy place that we preserve for that reason. Wildness, in contrast, is a process. So it flows through the places. But it’s also a much broader, umbrella, relational concept. There’s a depth in place associated with it.

So, I want to ask you, John—because it’s always great when we have to explain things to our kids since it helps us explain things to ourselves—in your essay, you talk about being on top of Mt. Crested Butte, and your daughter asks you what wildness is.

JH: [chuckles] Like in the middle of editing all of these essays, she asks me.

GVH: So what did you go through in your mind, and where did you finally land with her?

JH: Well, I won’t read that whole section, because it’s quite a stream of consciousness—I think it’s two pages long. And, Gavin, you didn’t edit it out, when we were editing each other. Very kind of you. Anyway, I go through a whole series of scenarios. She, at the time, was six or seven years old; she’s now nine going on sixty. In the end, I tell her:

Respecting Atalaya’s emerging understanding of a complex world, I almost tell her that wilderness is more about human potential than about pristine land. Smelling the dampening air until the cold freezes my nostrils, I almost explain that these wilderness areas depict the story of people deciding to slow themselves down before taking everything, to engage the world with humility rather than just desire. Instead, I simply tell her that these areas that surround her home come from our hope to share the land with all the other species with which we evolved. Atalaya blinks at me through her goggles and simply says, “I am glad animals have places like that to live.”

I started with the simple, the ecocentric idea that value is not only measured by what’s good for humans, and that we need to share not only land but our concept of why this land had value.

I like your distinction between wilderness and wildness. You’re talking about place versus process. Wilderness is a place; wildness is a process. I would add to that distinction and say, for me, wilderness is a vital form of zoning on public land. You want your neighborhoods zoned so you don’t have a big MacDonald’s in the middle. You want your public lands zoned so you have acreage dedicated to biodiversity and acreage dedicated to human spiritual transcendence: areas zoned to keep industrial extraction out to make us slow down and think about what we really need to ask from the world to live a good life, so we are pushed to experience our connection with the earth in a different way from our mechanized lives that we live out every day in our towns. The 110 million acres of wilderness we have—not counting national monuments, not counting Clinton roadless areas or Obama roadless areas—I just want to be clear, are a completely vital form of zoning.

But wildness is bigger than wilderness. Wilderness participates in wildness. Wilderness is an example of self-willed land. Aldo Leopold measured the health of land by measuring the “capacity for self-renewal.” Wildness is about renewal. Does the land renew through wolves being on the land to manage deer populations and keep soil erosion from happening? But renewal is also about a multi-generational farmer or rancher on a piece of land struggling in an economy that makes it hard to compete, encouraging him or her to exploit that land—how does that person renew so that the land is still renewable? Or Michael Howard here in Chicago—how does he work with people in the Fuller Park neighborhood who have been historically traumatized to help them through renewing the land at Eden Place? To me, that is zoning versus renewal, and wilderness is part of that renewal, but I think we make the mistake of seeing wilderness as the goal, instead of one of many means to that end of wildness.

GVH: This makes me think. I just want to ask one or two questions about your talk with Rod Nash.


Roderick F. Nash

JH: Roderick Frazier Nash wrote a book called Wilderness and the American Mind back in the 1960s about the history of the wilderness idea in which he argues that the wilderness idea is our American revolution.

GVH: He’s kind of this iconic figure in wilderness philosophy, and John sought him out, knowing that we were doing this book and wanting to know what he thought about wildness and the way John looks at it. So people will have an idea of what Rod might be interested in, could you explain his idea of “Island Civilization,” his future vision of the human relationship to . . . ?

 JH: Yeah. Roderick Frazier Nash argues that the great American revolution is that we went from a society that saw wilderness as the place of temptation and Satan to wilderness as our playground and sacred space. He says that’s a tremendous shift in mindset for one society over just a couple of centuries. He says that’s our great revolution. So he envisions what it might look like a thousand years from now. That millennial vision is “Island Civilization.” He says, “Look, my dad grew up in horse-and-buggy America, and I fly around the world in a jet, so what are we going to have in a thousand years, you know?” Food systems, energy systems, water systems are going to be no problem for us and our impact on the earth. We are going to be able to live in these islands—one hundred-square-mile areas with high population density where people can live well and have low impact on the land and the rest of the planet. He argues that up to 80 percent of the planet can be wilderness. That’s easy for us.

Rod and I had a friendly, healthy debate, and I challenged him. I said, “Look, it’s a beautiful vision, but I’m not convinced that humans are at our best when we keep ourselves out.” And a thousand years from now I believe we’ll have evolved—not biologically, but intellectually and culturally—to the point where we can actually be a keystone species in the way Enrique talks about. Then we will be able to produce our own livelihood in ways that will also produce biodiversity and finally have a human partnership.

And he said, well, you can’t trust humans, and he quotes E.O. Wilson, who says, “Darwin’s dice rolled badly for the planet,” meaning that evolution led to opposable thumbs, rational thinking, and consciousness of species that can blow it all up. My argument is, no, we’re actually quite capable of building a home on this earth. The essays in Wildness testify to that. Look at Wes Jackson, who is restoring the function of the prairie by developing perennial, polycultural food systems; and Devon Peña, who works in acequia communities, where snowmelt on the mountains above is channeled through a water ditch system that is democratically managed and feeds the society while also expanding the riparian ecosystem. A thousand years from now we’re going to have more and more of those examples.

So that’s our debate. When Rod spoke to my class after this book came out, he said, “I think we’re just above being devils, and John thinks we’re just below being angels.” There we are.

GVH: Absolutely. That’s one of the things we wanted to do with this book: to identify those cases where people’s lives and livelihoods are integrated into the landscape in a very beautiful way. Your essay about the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota was a great example of this. You visited Winona LaDuke, a well-known native activist, and you hit upon a question pretty quickly that encapsulates some of the practice of wildness.

JH: It’s her spiritual elder’s question, which she saw on his sister’s Facebook page.

 GVH: Nice. So what is that question?

JH: The question is actually the title of our next book—for the Center for Humans and Nature, with Kate Cummings and Brooke Hecht and Melissa Nelson and me—What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be? And that question really struck me. I think a lot about our ethics in a globalized society in terms of space—spatial ethics. The average food item travels three thousand miles to get your plate. Do you have any relationship to the land and labor that goes into that? Do you have any sense of the consequences of your comfort; therefore, are you really making moral and ethical choices? Are we beings with agency, or not, in a globalized society? Well, this “what kind of ancestor do you want to be?” question now made ethics about time—temporal ethics. Do I have any sense of my grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren and what’s going to be left for them?

So I was talking to this man, Michael Dahl, about it, and I asked him how he measured his ancestry. Because he’s not saying, what kind of ancestor do you want to become? He’s not saying, how will you be remembered? He’s saying, what kind of ancestor do you want to be—because you’re always already an ancestor.

He talked about wild rice in Minnesota. The Anishinaabe people followed a prophecy that they were to migrate west until they found the food that grew on the water. And they found that; it was in the form of wild rice. For him, if that wild rice is there—if it’s healthy—it means he’s been a good ancestor. It means he would have taken on climate change; taken on acid rain; taken on the commodification of rice elsewhere—all the things that are threatening their rice stocks, so that he could pass on that practice of place. So I ended up asking myself: What’s my rice? That’s the question.

 GVH: Not being a Minnesotan. Not being on the White Earth reservation. Not being Anishinaabe.

JH: Exactly. And being decidedly white, I come from privilege. I am a transient descendent of transient people. You know, I don’t want to misappropriate or co-opt an indigenous connection with place that Michael has. So, given that reality, what is my rice? What is the basis of my livelihood that connects me to generations on both sides of me and is the basis of my ecological identity? Winona LaDuke says, “I am not Anishinaabe without wild rice in my stomach during the Wild Ricing Moon in September.” I don’t think I have that.

But I’ve done a lot of thinking about the snowpack around me. That’s the economic basis of where I live—whether that’s the tourist industry or ranching or what happens downstream between the Rockies and Mexico. My grandparents were ski bums, my daughters are ski bums—so it connects me generationally. It’s not an indigenous connection, but it pushes me to take climate change very seriously, because that snowpack is threatened. It gives me a cultural basis for my ecological identity that motivates me in my place to fight for what’s wild there.

For you, Gavin, you also looked at a level of human alienation from wildness. You visited a Greencorps crew in the forest preserves here in Chicago. You want to talk about why you choose that landscape and that group of people?

GVH: Sure. We’ve talked about wilderness areas, and oftentimes, these are zoned or preserved areas. Sometimes that encourages thinking that what is truly wild is out in a remote area—that it’s not where I am. Ecological restoration is a practice of removing species that are invasive in order to encourage the flourishing of plants and animals indigenous to an area, setting a system back on its evolutionary trajectory where that is possible. It involves a lot of labor, a lot of care, so ecological restoration seems like an accessible and hopeful practice to me. So that was the practice.

Around Chicago, a lot of ecological restoration occurs in the forest preserves, led by dedicated volunteer groups that have been at it since the mid-1970s—sometimes even as far back as the 1960s. I was curious about whether this kind of restoration work goes on in other parts of the city, and whether it occurs among people for whom it isn’t just a hobby or a passion project.

By way of background, Greencorps Chicago is a program run by the city that does landscaping, ecological restoration, and other types of work along those lines. I think 90 percent of the people who participate in the Greencorps Chicago program were once incarcerated, so it’s also a job-skills training program, a way to get people back into the workforce. I was curious how this ecological restoration work affected people who completely bought into the Greencorps program. What I found was that, for those people with whom I spoke, this became a way of opening up the potential of what the city was to them. It put places in the forest preserves—that were considered off limits, or dangerous places—it transformed them into places of solace, places of peace, places where they went to get their minds clear. Through this physical work on the land, this participation in landscape healing, they themselves experienced a measure of personal and psychological healing.

JH: It’s renewal.

GVH: And it’s relationship.

JH: That’s wildness.

GVH: On some level, the pickle that we get ourselves into is that when we abstract nature as something “out there,” as something other, it disconnects us. This physical work of landscape healing is a process in which our bodies are involved every step of the way. Just like with other people—we don’t get to know other people in the abstract or come to care about them in the abstract. We get to care about them by being with them. The same thing is true about other species, in a different way.

JH: One of the men working in Greencorps—Henri, a brilliant guy—talks about the process of life as a “process of becoming.” He talks about everything as filled with life. He’s a very powerful thinker, and for him he talks about wildness not being the forest preserves. Wildness was the chaos of his neighborhood. You want to talk about that difference?

GVH: Yeah. That was really good. For those of us who think about conservation issues a lot, we kind of take for granted that wildness is a positive term, or wilderness. It represents wholeness to us, I think. But of course there are other meanings for wildness. If you look at music—“Walk on the Wild Side,” “Born to Be Wild”—

JH: Gavin once sang “Born to Be Wild” at my conference in Gunnison when we were starting this project. I don’t know if you want to . . .

GVH: No. Not tonight.

JH: He has this kind of guttural vibrato. It’s really beautiful.

GVH: Sure, sure. But obviously something being wild can also mean out of control, it can mean disorder, it can mean chaos. It can mean the Wild West. And then, of course, when people talk about wild parts of the city, they are talking about places that are probably unsafe. Some of the people I talked to from Greencorps would say, “I can’t get behind this term wildness, because when I think of wildness I think of the chaos of the neighborhood that I grew up in.” That was a good thing for me to learn and think about more deeply, about what wildness means.

JH: And what I’m learning from this is that we need to be really careful. We want wildness to be compelling to all cultures. You look at demographic studies, by 2050, we’re a majority minority nation. It’s really important to engage all cultural backgrounds with a connection with wildness. I can’t assume as a white person that it’s going to be a transcendent experience entering into what I call wild for a person from another cultural background.

Michael Howard
Michael Howard

African-American authors talk in Wildness about the historical trauma that goes with wildness. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share briefly the ideas of two of them. One is Michael Howard. How many of you have been to Eden Place? Gotta go to Eden Place. It’s an incredible place. It was the third most lead-contaminated acreage in the country—it’s in the Fuller Park neighborhood of Chicago—and Michael Howard decided to start cleaning that up. He’s from that neighborhood, and gangs would threaten him as he was trying to clean up because they needed that land to make their economy work. There were bodies there. He eventually cleaned it up, healed the soil, restored a prairie, put in a forest, a farm. But he says he still confronts—in trying to connect African American youth to the land—a historical trauma. He talks about that in his chapter for us. Mike Bryson, a professor at Roosevelt University, comments on Howard:

Such a sense of the wild, though, is not necessarily shared by African Americans—particularly those who experienced, as Michael notes, “the disconnect from the land that took place because of the Great Migration”—who grew up in cities and left behind their rural Southern roots. The Howards fully recognize and are sensitive to this perspective, which at times serves as a conversational stumbling block in their interactions with some African American children, teens, and adults who have no interest in, no connection with, but plenty of ingrained fear of wild nature or who understandably associate working the soil with, as Michael says, “the horror stories of slavery, about people escaping through swamps and forests,” and the subsequent disenfranchisement of Jim Crow society.

And here’s Michael Howard in his own words:

All these people were running from the farm. . . . So for a lot of African Americans back then, the wild, the forest, the woods—that’s the boogeyland. We don’t want to go there, we’ve had negative experiences there. Our forefathers died in that swamp; our forefathers were tracked down and hanged from the trees in those woods. There was a long period in which African Americans in America didn’t get any joy in the wild in the same way that everyone else did that came to America.

JH: So how can Gavin and I talk about the renewal of wildness when in fact the wild is a trigger of trauma for many?

GVH: Before we move on, one more word about Michael Howard—one of things he does now is connecting people to place at Eden Place, they then do field trips up to the Boundary Waters, up to different camping spots. So he’s really found a way to start people with the small, urban wildness and then expose them to other landscapes that they never would have gone to on their own.

JH: It’s really important, what he’s doing there. By restoring urban wildness, by bringing renewal to that piece of land, he’s created a launch pad for renewal by transcending that cultural trauma. When people return, they have some local wildness to stay connected with. For him, it’s not just about health of land. It’s about healing people and communities. He’s now trying to start a huge urban farm, and he said one of the challenges is finding workers because people say, “No, no, no. We worked the land for four hundred years. Not gonna happen.” Whether it’s urban sustainable food or connection to wilderness far away, there’s a true cultural component that white environmentalists need to confront and take really seriously and empathize with and learn from in imagining this new wild.

The second African American author we’d like to mention is Mistinguette Smith. She’s the director of a really powerful organization called the Black/Land Project. She has interviewed thousands of African Americans about their connection with land, and she’s found some similar things:

The relationship of blackness to land we think of as wild is always informed (but not wholly defined) by wilderness as an unsafe place. It remains inhabited by the specter of flight from patrollers enforcing ownership of black bodies and black labor. Every tree offers memories of fruits both sweet and strange. Still, through listening to black land narratives and through living my own, I know the wild is a place in which we belong and that belongs to us; it is also a physical space and an interior condition of which we have been perpetually robbed. At the base of a mountain or the edge of a city, the black wild is a state of mourning and awe.

JH: I think she’s trying to negotiate the trauma with the power of wildness.

GVH: And that sense of personal independence, expression, and sovereignty—that wildness from within that can’t be tamed no matter how much it’s suppressed.

JH: We’re in Chicago, which seems like a site of innovation around wildness, so let’s begin here. I’m curious: How do you see Chicago’s wildness as informing the potential of wildness everywhere? Could Chicago be a beacon, in some ways, of a new wildness?

GVH: Well, I think that more important than just Chicago is rethinking our cities—anywhere—as places where we can be in dialogue—not just a monologue—with the landscape. We can think about our cities and the way they’re constructed as either welcoming or not welcoming other creatures.

 JH: I mean, you’ve got coyotes stopping at stoplights.

GVH: We’ve got coyotes stopping at stoplights.

JH: I mean, for real, in this city.

GVH: Right. Important to me is that cities aren’t dismissed as something less than worthy of our attention, care, and concern in terms of our relationship to the natural world. That’s why we included these examples in the book to challenge that kind of thinking—no, wildness is here, it’s right outside our doors, it’s within us, and we can participate and cultivate that wildness. To me, that means becoming attuned to the place where you are. Not just telling stories about the place, but becoming part of the larger story of the place.

 JH: I think, for me, the future of wildness has more to do with humans than with the land, in terms of sparking our own wildness or reclaiming our own wildness. I should explain that I do take very seriously the notion that climate change is threatening the existence of a third of the world’s species by end of century, and I care deeply for the intrinsic value and the ecological value and the beauty of these species we evolved with. I take that very seriously. But, for me, this capacity to produce wildness through producing our livelihood, that potential I see in places like where Enrique Salmón is from, or Devon Peña’s acequia farm, or Wes Jackson’s land in the prairie, or what Michael Howard has done here in Chicago. It suggests a new story for what it means to be human.

Over the last ten thousand years, we have been living out a story that says, “God made the world for humans and humans were made to rule it.” And how has that story turned out—for other species, for the poor, for all of us in terms of our alienation from the land that produced us, right? So what’s the new story? To me, it’s the story of co-creation. I think that finding this new wild, and fighting for it everywhere, and co-creating it, we can find a story of humans as co-creators of natural wealth with the natural world.

GVH: Something you call “wild partnership” in other places.

 JH: The person who captures this idea—the story of humans as co-creators, that’s our wildness—is Vandana Shiva’s chapter in Wildness. And I’ll just share a brief section of that. And then I want to hear Gavin’s vision for the future of wildness. The future of wildness for me is the future of what it means to be human. Here’s what Shiva says:

When I talk about the infinite creative energy of the universe, I am talking about Gaia’s self-organizing energy, the creative human energy to work and to produce, to organize, and to transform. In India and around the world, this human energy has helped cultivate the self-organizing energy (whether a culture calls it Shakti or wildness) of the world. In particular, the creativity, innovation, and decision-making power of women (who still produce 80 percent of the world’s food) has significantly driven the world’s biodiversity. The majority of the eighty thousand plant species that humans have cultivated have emerged from the self-organizing, living energies of women. In other words, if we are going to redefine wildness, we have to simultaneously redefine humans as cocreators of wealth with nature.

JH: What a vision. You know, that’s not “reduce your carbon footprint.” That’s not “leave no trace.” I mean all this environmental rhetoric is about making ourselves smaller. We are not a species that wants to be small. This is huge. Co-creators. That’s epic. Shiva continues:

We both rely on and cocreate wildness when our living energies work with those of the earth. Fourteen miles beyond Gangotri is Gaumukh, a glacier formed like the snout of a cow that gives rise to the Ganges. The Gaumukh glacier, which is twenty-four kilometers in length and six to eight kilometers in width, is receding at a rate of five meters per year. The receding glacier of the Ganges, the lifeline for millions of people in the Gangetic plain, has serious consequences for the future of India. We need to generate and multiply the renewable energy of ecology and sharing, of solidarity and compassion, to counter the destructive energy of greed that is creating scarcity at every level—scarcity of work, scarcity of happiness, scarcity of security, scarcity of freedom, and even scarcity of the future. Either we can let the process of destruction, disintegration, and extermination continue unchallenged, or we can unleash our creative and wild energies to make systemic change and reclaim our future as a species, as part of the earth family.

JH: Kinship. Back to your idea.

GVH: Right, and building on that idea of kinship, one of the phrases that Gary Snyder used that stuck with me is “an assembly of beings.” You get this vision of all these different creatures gathered together, and he says, “To become part of this assembly again is in no way regressive.” To reenact our membership in this assembly of beings—you talked about the story of alienation, of separation—I think that’s the task, really, to bring our lives and livelihoods into alignment with the lives of other creatures. That will require a culture that is listening. That change of story about who we are and what we are to do is part and parcel of the stories that are told in this book.

Photo Credits:

Roderick F. Nash, Department of Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

Michael Howard, Chicago Tonight, WTTW

  • Gavin Van Horn

    Gavin Van Horn is Executive Editor for the Center for Humans and Nature Press. He is the author of The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and co-editor of Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (Center for Humans and Nature Press, 2021), Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017), and City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  • John Hausdoerffer

    John Hausdoerffer is Professor of Environment, Sustainability, and Philosophy at Western State Colorado University, where he also serves as Executive Director of the Center for Environment & Sustainability and as the Director of the Master in Environmental Management program.

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