Friday, July 12, 2013


Let's Spoil the Wilderness

Robert Wernick, "Let's Spoil the Wilderness," Saturday Evening Post 138 (November 6, 1965) 12, 16 (at 12):
The trumpeting voice of the wilderness lover is heard at great distances these days. He is apt to be a perfectly decent person, if hysterical. And the causes which excite him so are generally worthy. Who can really find a harsh word for him as he tries to save Lake Erie from the sewers of Cleveland, save the redwoods from the California highway engineers, save the giant rhinoceros from the Somali tribesmen who kill those noble beasts in order to powder their horns into what they fondly imagine is a wonder-working aphrodisiac?

Worthy causes, indeed, but why do those who espouse them have to be so shrill and intolerant and sanctimonious? What right have they to insinuate that anyone who does not share their passion for the whooping crane is a Philistine and a slob? From the gibberish they talk, you would think that the only way to save the bald eagle is to dethrone human reason.

I would like to ask them what seems to me an eminently reasonable question: Why shouldn't we spoil the wilderness?

Have these people ever stopped to think what the wilderness is? It is precisely what man has been fighting against since he began his painful, awkward climb to civilization. It is the dark, the formless, the terrible, the old chaos which our fathers pushed back, which surrounds us yet, which will engulf us all in the end. It is held at bay by constant vigilance, and when the vigilance slackens it swoops down for a melodramatic revenge, as when the jungle took over Chichen Itza in Yucatán or lizards took over Jamshid's courtyard in Persia. It lurks in our own hearts, where it breeds wars and oppressions and crimes. Spoil it! Don't you wish we could?

Of course, when the propagandists talk about unspoiled wilderness, they don't mean anything of that sort. What they mean by wilderness is a kind of grandiose picnic ground, in the Temperate Zone, where the going is rough enough to be challenging but not literally murderous, where hearty folk like Supreme Court Justice Douglas and Interior Secretary Udall can hike and hobble through spectacular scenery, with a helicopter hovering in the dirty old civilized background in case a real emergency comes up.

Well, the judge and the Secretary and their compeers are all estimable people, and there is no reason why they should not be able to satisfy their urge for primitive living. We ought to recognize, however, that other people have equally strong and often equally legitimate urges to build roads, plow up virgin land, erect cities. Such people used to be called pioneers; now they are apt to be called louts.


As for the balance of nature, this is simply an arty phrase to denote the status quo, whatever exists in a certain place at a certain time. In truth, the status quo is always changing. On the Great Plains, for example, the balance of nature consisted for centuries of immense herds of bison browsing thunderously on buffalo grass. In the late 18th century the balance consisted of Indians, who had acquired Spanish horses, slaughtering bison. Nowadays, it consists of strip-farming, beauty shops, filling stations, beer cans, etc.
There is a revised version of Wernick's essay on his web site. Sadly, this is neither a parody nor the eccentric opinion of one man. These views are all too widespread. See, e.g., Eric Hoffer, "The Return of Nature," Saturday Review (February 1, 1966), rpt. in The Temper of Our Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), pp. 79-96 (at 94):
My feeling is that the humanization of billions of adolescents would be greatly facilitated by a concerted undertaking to master and domesticate the whole of the globe. One would like to see mankind spend the balance of the century in a total effort to clean up and groom the surface of the globe—wipe out the jungles, turn deserts and swamps into arable land, terrace barren mountains, regulate rivers, eradicate all pests, control the weather, and make the whole land mass a fit habitation for man. The globe should be our and not nature's home, and we no longer nature's guests.
A fictional treatment of this attitude, by C.S. Lewis, in That Hideous Strength:
At dinner he sat next to Filostrato. There were no other members of the inner circle within earshot. The Italian was in good spirits and talkative. He had just given orders for the cutting down of some fine beech trees in the grounds.

"Why have you done that, Professor?" said a Mr. Winter who sat opposite. "I shouldn't have thought they did much harm at that distance from the house. I'm rather fond of trees myself."

"Oh yes, yes," replied Filostrato. “The pretty trees, the garden trees. But not the savages. I put the rose in my garden, but not the brier. The forest tree is a weed. But I tell you I have seen the civilised tree in Persia. It was a French attaché who had it made because he was in a place where trees do not grow. It was made of metal. A poor, crude thing. But how if it were perfected? Light, made of aluminium. So natural it would even deceive."

"It would hardly be the same as a real tree," said Winter.

"But consider the advantages! You get tired of him in one place: two workmen carry him somewhere else: wherever you please. It never dies. No leaves to fall, no twigs, no birds building nests, no muck and mess."

"I suppose one or two, as curiosities, might be rather amusing."

"Why one or two? At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet."

"Do you mean," put in a man called Gould, "that we are to have no vegetation at all?"

"Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet."

"I wonder what the birds will make of it?"

"I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt."

"It sounds," said Mark, "like abolishing pretty well all organic life."

"And why not? It is simple hygiene. Listen, my friends. If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, `Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,' and then drop it?"

"Go on," said Winter.

"And you, especially you English, are you not hostile to any organic life except your own on your own body? Rather than permit it you have invented the daily bath."

"That's true."

"And what do you call dirty dirt? Is it not precisely the organic? Minerals are clean dirt. But the real filth is what comes from organisms—sweat, spittles, excretions. Is not your whole idea of purity one huge example? The impure and the organic are interchangeable conceptions."

"What are you driving at, Professor?” said Gould. "After all we are organisms ourselves."

"I grant it. That is the point. In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it. We do not want the world any longer furred over with organic life, like what you call the blue mould—all sprouting and budding and breeding and decaying. We must get rid of it. By little and little, of course. Slowly we learn how. Learn to make our brains live with less and less body: learn to build our bodies directly with chemicals, no longer have to stuff them full of dead brutes and weeds. Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation."

"I don't think that would be much fun," said Winter.

"My friend, you have already separated the Fun, as you call it, from the fertility. The Fun itself begins to pass away. Bah! I know that is not what you think. But look at your English women. Six out of ten are frigid, are they not? You see? Nature herself begins to throw away the anachronism. When she has quite thrown it away, then real civilisation becomes possible. You would understand if you were peasants. Who would try to work with stallions and bulls? No, no; we want geldings and oxen. There will never be peace and order and discipline so long as there is sex. When man has thrown it away, then he will become finally governable."

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?