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.

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Read this book. It’s a well-written account of a brave and stubborn man who lost his way in the Karakorum mountains in 1993. People in an impoverished Pakistani village helped him. When he saw the children studying outdoors without a full-time teacher, he returned to build a school. Greg Mortenson had to learn how to raise money and how to get things done in a different language and culture. He found his life’s work.

I was so impressed by this story that I could hardly put the book down. A visit to Central Asia Institute’s (CAI) website told me that 131 schools have been built in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are dedicated to education and literacy, especially for girls, as well as health and small businesses. The idea is that empowering women raises the quality of life for all the people, and promotes peace and understanding.

Peace and understanding are things the world can use a lot more of. Join with me in supporting this work. Read Three Cups of Tea and donate to CAI at