Sermon: Rethinking Wild (text & audio)

Nigel Pitman, a field biologist who worked for a time in Amazonian Peru, tells the story of once receiving an unusual visitor to his research station. The man was Thomas Struth, a German fine art photographer.

Pittman had been through this drill before with dozens of visitors, from teachers and schoolchildren to philanthropists and filmmakers. Per usual, he showed Struth a map of the area and offered to take him on a tour of some of the most photogenic sites near the camp. Struth thanked him for the offer and said he would like to visit those locations, but wouldn’t bring his camera.

Differences in language made it hard for Pitman to understand Struth’s explanation, but he understood him to say that rather than striking settings in the rain forest he was looking for “complexity.” Hmm. OK, fine.

Pitman said he gave the photographer and his assistants a map and left them to their own devices. It was only later, when Struth volunteered to give a slide show of his work, that Pitman got a sense of what Struth’s work was about. The first images, gritty scenes of German cities, made the audience of scientists bored and restless. But they sat up when Struth moved on to a series on forests around the world that he was calling “Paradise.” But soon they began to slump again in their seat. While some of the scenes were striking in their beauty, others appeared to be mere tangles of vegetation.

They weren’t the kinds of scenes where observers could easily fix a gaze or that one could tell stories about. There was just too much. The lights came on, and the scientists applauded half-heartedly, happy to get back to their work.

Three months later Pitman received a note from Struth in his email inbox, and attached were six images that he had taken at the research station. Struth mentioned that when exhibited these images were enormous – the largest as big as two king-size beds pushed together.

Sometime later Pittman organized a slide show of some of the most interesting photos taken at the station, and he slipped Struth’s images in at the end. The scientists murmured with approval at the scene of a jaguar pacing a riverbank or of a woman giving birth in a canoe.

But when it came to Struth’s images they started muttering again. The most common remark on the photos he heard later was, “Are you kidding me? I could have taken those pictures.” Which was true. And yet, he reflected, of the thousands of people who had passed through the station only one did.

To botanists, after all, the scenes were uninteresting, since the forest they showed had clearly been disturbed by human activity and other disruptions: “trashed,” they might call it, something they’d hike through to get to a more pristine, undisturbed place.

In the months ahead, though, Pitman says he kept returning to the photos. Yes, to some they may look like a tangle of vines, but to him, they were the placed he lived. They were home.

Perhaps you’ve guessed by now that the images that have been cycling behind me are, in fact, from Thomas Struth’s exhibit, “Paradise.” They come from around the world: not just South America, but also China, Japan, Australia, Germany and California. In an interview, Struth said, “one can spend a lot of time in front of these pictures and remain helpless in terms of knowing how to deal with them.  They present a kind of empty space: emptied to elicit a moment of stillness and internal dialogue.”

“Nowadays,” he says, “the human being is reduced to a consumer and therefore to an instrument of a global economic mechanism. I, on the other hand, am interested in peculiarity, the individual ways of people and what goes on inside them when their historical bearings are disoriented.”

Growing disorientation is a pretty good word to describe how we think about wildness these days. This fall marks the 50th anniversary of passage of the Wilderness Act, legislation signed by Lyndon Johnson that set aside 9.1 million acres of federal land that was to be “left wild” to allow plant and animals communities to thrive essentially undisturbed. The amount of land set aside for wilderness has since grown to 110 million acres, and as development encroaches on other fragile landscapes advocates are pushing to expand the designation to at least a dozen more locations.

Amid all the anniversary celebrations, though, there is a worrying undercurrent. Agencies that are monitoring lands intended to be preserved pristine for generations are discovering an uncomfortable truth: land that we leave alone doesn’t remain static. It changes.

Debbie and I discovered this last summer on a vacation trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The scenery is still stunning, but invasive beetles are attacking the native pines, long-time meadows are drying out, threatening elk populations, and the numbers of tiny mouse-like creatures called picas that are prey for any number of animals are falling, and no one knows why.

Pick your favorite national park or wilderness area and you’ll find a similar story. Invasive species and the overall warming of the climate are a couple of the more obvious causes for these changes; in some cases the causes aren’t clear. The National Park Service and Forest Service are scrambling to respond, in some cases going so far as to spray pesticides to kill invasive pests, or considering relocating iconic trees from threatened landscapes.

There is, of course, great irony to all this. Once we start pampering wild places, are they still wild places? The answer is not as simple as that question makes it sound. Scientists in the Northwest, for example, are concerned that drying of climate is threatening giant Sequoia trees. We could just let them go, but isn’t it worth having these trees around, even if it means we have to see that they are watered?

Scientists manage populations of elk, bears and other animals with an eye to maintaining viable ecosystems. Is it worth sustaining those ecosystems? And if we do, does that mean we’ve taken on the role as the Earth’s gardeners? If so, how do we decide what to protect and what to let go?

There are no obvious answers, but one way to address all this is may be to reflect a little more on this notion of wild.

It was disorientation that Henry David Thoreau hoped to address in his essay, “Walking,” which you heard John read from earlier. Really, what he offers is a prescription. Are the obligations of society weighing too heavily? Get on your hiking shoes, and head out the door.

“The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is,” he says. “I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses.” And, to use his language, whither shall we walk? “I believe,” he says, “that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”

And for Thoreau the source of that magnetism was what he called “wildness.” For most of Thoreau’s contemporaries, wildness was not an especially attractive notion. Wildness suggested danger, savagery, something that civilized society existed to protect people from. Thoreau, for his part, argued that civilized society offered its own form of savagery, resulting in people who, he observed, “lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

with the song still in them…

In his essay, he locates the wild in “the West,” what at the time was unsettled land where travelers told of primitive forests and vast mountain ranges.

In a sense, we still do that. Out West is where we find those majestic parks and untamed wilderness. It is true in a sense and yet also a fantasy. In fact, there is very little in this country, no matter how far “out in the middle of nowhere” you go, that humans – including people who occupied the land long before Europeans arrived – did not have some role in altering. To describe a landscape as “pristine” is really to speak of how long it has been since it was last altered.

Thoreau only made one trip “out West” in his lifetime, and yet he found ample sources of “wildness” in the forests around Concord, land that was hardly pristine, having been clear cut only decades before. No, wildness was not a character of landscapes far distant from human cities. It was more like an essence, something that one could almost drink in, he says, like “hemlock-spruce, or arbor-vitae in our tea.”

“How near to good is what is wild,” he says. Why? Because, “life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest.” Wildness is that song in all things, that vital essence that makes each thing what it is. Little wonder that, in Thoreau’s words, we plough and sail for it, or seek to import it at any price. We seek to tame our landscapes, to make them less dangerous, more accommodating. But for Thoreau, “hope and future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”

At Thanksgiving a few years ago with our daughters out of town, Debbie and I decided to drive down to Savannah, Georgia for the long weekend. We saw all the standard tourist sites and enjoyed them, but I think that for both of us the most memorable part of our trip was a tour with a young biologist of local salt marshes.

Wearing high boots and coated with bug spray, we trudged through brackish water and watched fiddler crabs skitter about and egrets soar, then stand like statues. It was wonderful! It was wildness on parade, everywhere you looked, even if it was a couple hundred yards from the main highway.

Of course, I don’t need to tell you what that kind of experience is like. We are blessed to live here with such amazing wildness near at hand. And whatever our location this proximity invites us into the kind of relationship that John spoke of. We are invited to locate ourselves within it, to enter it, bringing our curiosity, compassion and wit. In a sense, the wildness of the world calls to the wildness within us and bids us to respond.

This is the place where we experience the power of our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle: respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. It is our way of saying that we are not just observers of the world around us: we belong, intimately in every possible way. We are part of it, and it of us.

It has been our way, we know, to imagine that somehow we humans rise above the great welter of things, that our plots and plans shape the larger scheme of things. We live still with the old biblical myth of dominion ringing in our ears and suppose that we far-seeing beings we can look ahead to some greater destiny.

It’s a habit we find hard to break, and yet the deeper we dive in our understanding of the natural world the clearer it becomes that we must. It is this insight that I think gives us a way to contribute to resolving the disorientation that haunts the debate around making space for the wild. Wild is not just an attribute of distant forests or rocky crags; it is a character of all things, of their deepest essence. As we struggle over preserving our wildest places, the issue is not how to save particular iconic creatures or plants. It is instead that we are called to uphold life where we can, and to do so with humility and with respect to the extraordinary complexity with which life abounds.

 

 

This, I believe, is the “complexity” that Thomas Struth told Niles Pitman he was seeking to photograph in the Amazon rainforest. It is a dimension of life that we can’t get at a quick glance, and yet that draws us in all the same. The more we attend to it, the more we see. I wonder if that’s happened to you as you’ve watched these photos cycle past. Is there something here that you find yourself drawn to, where somehow the tangle of leaves and vines in one or the quality of light filtered through branches in another speaks to you?

Perhaps the time will come for us when, like Niles Pitman, we will be able to look at any scene like this in its wildness and luxuriant complexity and see not some random arrangement of vegetation, but home.