Category Archives: Wilderness

Not Depressing

Oh man these last few posts make me seem depressed. Here’s a colored scanning electron micrograph of the head of a soldier turtle ant to mix things up.

The whole article is pretty neat.  Bugs are way more interesting up close close close.


Contextualizing Walden: Thoreau’s Introspective Isolation

One of the most important literary works of American environmentalism is Henry David Thoreau’s, Walden.  In 1845, Thoreau builds a small cabin on a plot of land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, located on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.  He spends nearly three years living primarily in this cabin, contemplating experiencing nature in a raw, unadulterated way.

Thoreau’s use of the wilderness as a refuge, and his criticism of capitalist, dogmatic society have served as rallying points for later environmental movements in the United States and elsewhere.  But Thoreau has also been criticized, particularly by members of the same movements that so revere his work.  While the ideas apparent behind the Walden experiment are reflective of the post-Enlightenment Romantic thought that guided early environmentalism, for many, the self-absorbed manner in which Thoreau relates his experiences undercuts his authority as a disciple of the wilderness.  Furthermore, closer inspection reveals that he was not nearly so cut off from modern society as it first seems, prompting criticism that his attempt to live naturally and apart was only a feeble one.

The problem is that Thoreau’s work has been ideologically appropriated and ultimately misunderstood by environmentalists and casual readers alike.  While Thoreau would almost certainly have agreed with the values of conservationists, nature was not the focus, nor the goal of his Walden project.  Thoreau was at the forefront of the Transcendentalist movement, under the guidance of his patron, Emerson, and embraced nature more as a renunciation of modern society than as an entity unto itself.

In order to truly understand Thoreau’s work, we must contextualize him within the philosophical belief structure in which he operated.  Transcendentalism is the philosophy of a spiritual, internal interpretation of the world, as opposed to an empirical, sensory interpretation.  It is rooted in the philosophies of John Lock and Immanuel Kant.  Locke believed that humans are born tabula rasa, and that all knowledge is a derivative of sensory experience.  He is one of the primary figures in empiricism, as contrasted with rationalism, which operates largely in response to Cartesian skepticism, and holds that only reason can provide us with pure knowledge.  Kant sought to bridge the gap between empiricism and rationalism by propounding that sensory information streams into us already structured by our intuition.

Frederic Henry Hedge, a German Transcendentalist, summarizes Kant by saying, “Since the supposition that our intuitions depend on the world without, will not answer, assume that the world without depends on the nature of our intuitions.”  This allows for a priori knowledge, and validates a far more personal, inquisitive relationship to the external world. This notion that it is our essential humanness that forms our view of the world strongly influences the later Transcendentalist movement.

The transcendentalists were critical of the blind acceptance of any doctrine or institution, be it religious, political, or academic.  This is what Thoreau spends most of Economy expressing.  By buying into the conventional way of life, striving ever for more and better material things, people become trapped in their own lives: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Thoreau, then, goes to the woods not to escape humanity as a whole, but to escape human institution and to live individually and introspectively.  He wants to act out the Transcendentalist ideals of isolation and personal interpretation of the world.  He goes to Walden “to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

One of the sentences in Walden most indicative of Thoreau’s philosophy and motivation comes when he casually applaudes himself for “not having many communicable or scholar-like thoughts.”  This is important for Thoreau, because these are the kinds of thoughts that seem intelligent, but don’t require internal inspection on the part of the listener.  The thoughts that he values having are those that are deeply personal and instinctual.

Through this kind of contextual analysis, we can understand where the ideas of contemporary environmentalism diverge from Thoreau’s own philosophy and intent.  He is self-absorbed, but not out of a kind of weakness or inability to focus solely on the natural world.  Instead, his self-absorption is essential to the inherent subjectivity of transcendentalist philosophy.  He believes that we can only understand the world through our own, deeply personal interpretations of our sensory experience.  To attempt to generalize or objectify his experiences would be to strip them of all meaning and value.

Similarly, our realization that Thoreau maintained frequent contact with the village of Concord and many of his friends and family shouldn’t significantly detract from his Transcendentalist project.  Living alone for the time that he does gives Thoreau time to contemplate the world and form his own unique thoughts and opinions, and it gives him an outsider perspective on the social and societal conventions of Concord and the United States.  In this way he is able to succeed in forming a more Transcendental world view, despite not severing contact with the outside world entirely.

I’d like to conclude by confessing that I was one of those people who have been snared and subsequently disillusioned by this common misreading of Thoreau.  As a staunch environmental advocate and lover of wilderness, I was taken by the idea of renouncing the human environment in favor of a more primal, healthy, and pure, natural lifestyle.  As I eagerly read through Walden, however, I began to feel as though Thoreau was too weak and too normal to really go into the woods.

However, this unfortunate analysis of a brilliant work is not any fault of Thoreau’s, but rather the fault of those who would claim Walden as an environmental work.  If Walden can be considered such, it is only secondarily; it is first and foremost a work of Transcendentalist thought and experimentation.

Thoreau has great things to tell us about both ourselves and about the natural world, but we do him and future generations of readers a disservice by ascribing false motivations and ideologies to his work.  To truly understand Walden, we must evaluate it as Thoreau meant it to be understood: as a work of introspective, personal experience.

The Trouble With Wilderness

I wrote a (fucking) long article on William Cronon’s essay, The Trouble With Wilderness, over at the JA Blog, but I didn’t really want to go into the way it affected me personally there.  His line about how, “By imagining that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves the homes we actually inhabit,” really struck home.  I realized it when I first read the piece, but it hit me even more the following day when we were given an intro to the rare books section of the library.

I was flipping through old guidebooks to Yosemite, and I realized that I have always felt a profound connection to the place.  I haven’t even been there, that’s the really bad part.  I was looking through these pamphlets, thinking about how I’d like to go, and I remembered that all of the campgrounds would be booked for the spring at this point.  That annoys me, because I have always assumed that I have a “deeper” connection to to the wilderness than these “other” people.

What Cronon has forced me to realize is that I don’t.  All of us are deluded in imagining our deep connection to the wilderness.  Sure, there’s a primal, visceral reaction you get, and I still love wild places and beautiful views, but I had fallen prey to that sense of being at home in the wild that Cronon describes.  That isn’t a healthy or a productive perspective to have.  I very much live in a modern, commercial, paved world, and to deny that reality is to abdicate responsibility for both my actions and the actions of those around me.

That’s a big responsibility.  There’s no running into the wild.  I guess McCandless should have read Cronon.

It’s a really painful realization, honestly.  But it’s also good, because it means that we have to do everything we can to reconcile the way we live with nature, and that’s where architecture comes in.  I was telling Char, I’m so glad I decided to switch from Environmental Policy (I wanted to save wilderness) to architecture.  Good move.

It’s going to take me a while to come to terms with this, though.

Visualizing our Sins: The Work of Chris Jordan

If you’ve been following environmental news at all over the last several years, you’ve heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the enormous floating garbage dump that has amassed in the North Pacific.  This isn’t some minor problem that can be expected to take care of itself either – the dense floating island of trash is currently twice the size of Texas and growing by the day.

Something of this magnitude obviously has profound impacts on the ecology of the ocean.  Fish are found with plastic bits in their stomachs, and photographer Chris Jordan has documented the carcasses of albatross starved to death by the copious plastic objects they swallow.  He traveled to Midway Atoll, a tiny strip of land in the middle of the Pacific, that at 2000 miles distant from the nearest continent should be a wild sanctuary, free from human influence and destruction.  Unfortunately, in this globalized economy, our impacts have truly become global as well.  Jordan has dozens of photos of dead and decaying albatross, filled up with plastic refuse.

I don’t want to proselytize regarding this issue (though it is important), I mainly just wanted to share Jordan’s image of the albatross.  It’s an incredible image to me, because on one hand I find it really quite beautiful, but of course it is emblematic of a tragic, devastating global problem.  I think we have to be careful not to dismiss Jordan’s work as merely documentary or activist photography.  It is, but it’s also more than that.

Great art doesn’t always have a message, but often, by achieving a synthesis of aesthetics and more profound meaning, art can become great.  That’s what Jordan strives for with his photographs.  Above is one of his installations at the Von Lintel Gallery in New York.  It’s pleasing and modernist visually, but it takes on an entirely different meaning and significance when you view it from up close…

…and realize that it’s an image of stacked, folded prison uniforms.  There are 2.3 million of them, equivalent to the number of people incarcerated in American prisons in 2005.  Another piece depicts a hail of 166,000 packing peanuts, “equal to the number of overnight packages shipped by air in the U.S. every hour.”

Jordan’s other projects include graphic representations of the usually unimaginable number of batteries, paper bags, cans, plastic cups, etc. that are consumed or produced every year.  He tries to draw our attention to the scope and impact of our actions by quantifying them in graphic ways that are often visually appealing.  He is in one sense a photographer/artist, but he is also a statistician and a social commentator.

The primary way we’re going to achieve real change in our environmentally and socially destructive societal behavior is through effective dissemination of information.  Our political system has shown itself to be too beaurocratic and ideologically fragmented for us to rely on substantive top-down restructuring.  Instead, we’re going to need to develop support for changes in state, local, and federal government policy through more grassroots awareness campaigns.

Chris Jordan is at the forefront of a movement aimed at people, to simply and powerfully drag our most shameful actions into the light.

Sources: The Vigorous North, The Sierra Club, SEED.

The Snow Fox

Man, last night I made the excellent decision/mistake to spend some time on StumbleUpon Video.  StumbleUpon is a neat app that takes you to random web pages that have been rated well by other users.  Stumble Video is the same thing, just with internet videos.  Surprisingly, the content quality of the videos they have on there is remarkably good.  I probably favorited six or seven on YouTube after half an hour of stumbling.  It’s a phenomenal time waster, and a great way to accumulate far too many videos to tastefully show someone.  I’ll try to break them up.

A fox, snow, acrobatics, and a British narrator; does the internet get any better?  Beyond that though, what an extraordinary ability.  Nature is incredible.

Labor Camp Music

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros fall into the “psychedelic” category of music, at least according to itunes.  To me, psychedelic is more or less synonymous with “noise” or “unappealing.”  But that isn’t the case with Mr. Sharpe.  The song “Janglin'” is a playful song that lives up to its name.  But what really sets these guys apart is their ambition and the scope of their art.  The video below is the second in what will be a 12 part music video called SALVO! that will resolve into a feature length film.  It’s good too.

Janglin’ – Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes:

Leopard Seals

It’s tough to walk the line between apathy or fear and routine with respect to nature.  What I mean is that there are the people who just don’t care about nature (want to drill in ANWAR) and there are people who are afraid of nature (shoot wolves from helicopters), but then there are people who care very much (like me) but who’s attitude has become rote.  It’s easy to turn out the lights, bike, vote for environmental policies and politicians, but sometimes the goal can be lost in the activity.  And then something comes along that shakes you out of your beneficent stupor.

It’s refreshing and invigorating to see something like this, some raw expression of natural world, especially interacting with humanity in such a loving way.  It’s heart-wrenching, awesome, and more than a little sad – the vicious predator is terribly worried that the human is going to starve.  It’s harder to ignore the destruction we’re causing when animals and environments cease to be inert.  It’s a wasteful, arrogant, short-sighted thing we do, to bring the natural world to its knees.  Instead, let’s protect it.