Book Review: The Abstract Wild

The Abstract Wild

by Jack Turner

I borrowed this book from my friend John months ago. Now that there is snow on the ground and evenings are dark, I gravitate toward the light by the couch and fall contentedly into reading. This is a quick read, but not an easy one.

Turner has collected eight essays that wander far and wide. Trained as an academic philosopher, he gave up teaching to be a climbing guide. Home base is the Tetons of Wyoming. The disparate threads of his life twine together to create a multi-plied perspective.

The underlying theme of all the essays is a sense of outrage at the human relationship with wild nature. I admire the intelligent ranting here. No tiptoeing around the issues. Turner draws his line in the sand, knows exactly where he stands. He is insistent and persistent, and cognizant of the contradictions that go along with living in the modern world. Mea culpa, he says. It’s something we can all say.

The diminishing of the wild has disturbed me for years, as I bear witness here in the central Cascades. It’s not so much the egregiousness of clearcutting and development, but the less obvious acceptance of the loss. Turner believes the ecological crisis is not new, only the scale and breadth is news. He explores possible reasons for this—-our modern culture, the tendency to homogenize the world, the abstraction of the wild. We think we can know it when we study and measure it. Does following a radio-collared wolf really help us know anything about its personal wild nature? Does a GIS database really reveal the complexity of the macro landscape? Turner thinks not.

He takes aim at terms like “wilderness management”, and accuses abstract language of aiding and abetting the continued destruction of wild places. This set me back a bit, but I find I agree. Wilderness doesn’t need managing. It just is. The Alpine Lakes wilderness, where I work, is a pseudo-wilderness. It’s been collected and set aside for recreation and entertainment. Would “real” wilderness have trails and bridges? Of course not. This makes me question the work I do, and it comes down to the lesser of two evils. Having a trail keeps people confined to a single travel way, therefore protecting soil and vegetation. Since it’s a fake wilderness, maybe it’s OK? I am not immune to relativism.

Also in Turner’s line of fire is our collective acceptance of living in a world compromised by toxic waste, food laced with pesticides, consumption and greed, social ills like rape and drug abuse. This is ongoing, but for most of us it’s not even on our conscious radar screens. We are habituated by bad news, and it’s easier to give up and feel helpless. If we allow ourselves to feel anger and sadness, we might just have to take action.

It’s fine to rant about problems, but Turner also explores solutions. He maintains that people need gross contact with nature—the physical experience that leads to spiritual practice. Get rid of the abstract language, the entertainment value. Only people who deeply love the wild earth will know it and demand a halt to the destruction. This does mean making conscious choices, and embracing radical change. This means feeling the rage and anguish, and finding the path somewhere in between.

It’s always enjoyable to find writing that vindicates my own point of view. Ha, see? I’m not the only one who thinks like this! However, in this case, I’m going to return the book to John and obtain a copy for my personal library. I’ll read it again, probing deeper into the ideas that make me uncomfortable. This book was published in 1996, and problems are magnified fifteen years later. More complex and heartbreaking.

I know as sure as I’m sitting here that there are pockets of wildness in the local “wilderness”. I breathed the smoke and heard the roar when the wildfire blew up and became fractal. I tried sneaking up on frogs and failed. I dropped to my knees to cup the hot pink wonder of a calypso orchid in my hand. I leaned back against a pine tree and felt the wind in the branches flexing the wood behind my spine. I have felt my own heart beating. Wildness climbs down out of the head to reside in the feet and gut. I will go out there again and again, skipping between the mangled man-made and the nature that refuses to give up.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Abstract Wild

  1. To be in wilderness is not in The Wilderness. Walk up South Scatter Creek Trail to Fish Eagle Pass. After the second creek crossing you are on your own . Wilderness returning.

  2. I live in a wild place… though it’s been logged and re-logged, once colonized and farmed, now over taken by woods… who knows how many eras and civilizations, both human and ‘natural’ have gone before, stacked atop each other & stretching back into eons.. I find it hard to wrap my thoughts around what is ‘natural’… logically, mankind, having been born to earth, spread allll over the planet, like a spilled can of paint… is a ‘natural’ thing, possibly even intended in the great scheme: but I dislike what we’ve done / are doing.. a whole lot! I don’t dislike the human animal, exactly, I dislike their sheer numbers and their short sighted view… I’ve thought for a long time, a calamitous event or unstoppable epidemic is needed for the planet to buck off it’s tormenting human rider… but I don’t wish for it. I just watch, wait… & try not to leave a mar or a track where I, personally, go.

  3. We are wild too, somewhere inside ourselves. How we treat that wildness is reflected in how we treat the wildness of others and the world around us. I think we shut down to the damage we do out there because it is so painful to see, to feel it. Apathy is a protective veil we draw over the proofs to conserve the energy needed to get through the day. Most people are depressed, cut off from their inner wildness, not knowing why, not knowing how to reconnect. A brief experience of standing in the outer wildness can stir an echo, but provides no obvious solution to the challenge of being alive and how to stay in contact with inner life and so treat outer life with reverence. As a race we are still waking up to our powers like small children discovering with surprize that what we do has effect far beyond expectation. I don’t think outrage really works in the end, although I appreciate the passion and desperation that fuels it, but it is accusation – and accusations cause defensiveness, and divisiveness. Only deep understanding can liberate and enable the search for real solutions.

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