There is some kind of betrayal I feel when deconstructing the term ‘wilderness’ and coming after transcendentalists for their role in reinforcing the human-nature divide. Wilderness was idea I’ve been chasing since forever. I love learning about the natural world. I spent my entire childhood in trees. When I went to college, I majored in biology. I’ve spent years since then working in remote field camps. I recently moved to New Zealand and poured all my savings into a master’s program in Conservation Biology. When I first started working on remote islands, I loved reading transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. I carried Walden around with me for years. I really resonated with the poetry these authors evoked from the non-human natural world.
Before a field season, I also tended to pick up books of stories/history/myth from the indigenous cultures that have developed in whatever region I was working in (Tlingit, Inupiaq, Aleut, Hawaiian). I loved that too, in a different way. Both perspectives connected me with my natural surroundings. I identified with the transcendentalists because my mindset was also largely westernized. But I loved the way indigenous narratives wove culture deeply with ecosystems, and the way they challenged and upended my western mindset. The tension I felt by holding the two simultaneously within me always felt very fertile. In many ways, I’ve been poking around in those soils ever since.
One idea I’ve encountered is that the way western society glorifies and idealizes “nature” as a monolith is a direct product of a monotheistic society. Indigenous communities didn’t recognize this kind of worship because they didn’t see “nature” as one entity, not to mention a separate entity. What even is “nature?” Like, we CAME from it. More like, we are it. Where is the line? When do things stop being “nature?” I don’t even like writing the word because it’s just too big. Nature is infinitely complex and dynamic and deeply intertwined with our history and culture and ourselves. EVERYTHING IN THIS WOLD IS NATURE, even if it seems disconnected or abstracted.
Obviously, I am passionate about conserving and protecting the natural world, in part because I find so much personal value in it. But the modern environmental movement can feel very alienating. It operates from the nature/human divide. Often people are framed as the scourge of the earth, like a cancer or a virus, consuming everything in their path. These narratives can make you feel like humankind is the enemy. Like simply existing as a person is a betrayal to non-human nature. The idealization of a mythical “wilderness” reinforces this. Nature is only pure and beautiful in the complete absence of people. These frameworks imply that the best thing to do for the planet’s ecosystems is just not exist.
So many environmentalists feel real vitriol towards humankind. Like “people” in general are wantonly destroying everything they love and value. “People suck,” they say. I can understand that. I have felt it before. It makes me feel AWFUL, and defeated. There’s nowhere to go from that conclusion. But centering western civilization as “humankind” only happens under white supremacy. And that’s not going to help us. The enemies are white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism. These are frameworks through which western society exploits and destroys non-human nature.
Learning about indigenous technology, history, and culture challenges those problematic ideologies. It turns out humankind isn’t the enemy. Our very nature as humans is not the problem. It never was. Actually, MOST societies that have developed found ingenious ways of living from the natural world, and actually enhanced it (richer soil fertility, higher biodiversity, etc). Framing ideologies as the cause of our problems provides a sense of direction. This is something I can help unravel. This is something we can all work on. we don’t have to not exist to protect non-human nature. Dismantling white supremacy demands that we exist to do the work.
Honestly, I still go back to Emerson. I still enjoy and resonate with his writing. there’s something about the state of existing outside of something (even if it’s constructed) that allows you to see it’s (i.e. “nature’s”) beauty differently: “Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought.” What is that?? I LOVE that. I’ve thought about it for years. But I also understand that Emerson lived and wrote in a historical context largely determined by colonization. And I don’t believe anymore that transcendentalism should underpin the environmental movement (as it largely does) specifically because of that history. We need better, more relevant, more useful frameworks.
I always end up circling back to Agroecology. It just doesn’t make sense to me for us to protect and glorify these small pockets of “wilderness” and then turn around and get our food from the agro-industrial complex. It’s just another abstraction. Food is the basis of all life, right? Agriculture occupies almost half of the world’s arable land. How can we practice conservation biology in our food system? how can we restore THOSE degraded ecosystems for both ”nature” AND human communities? How can we repair this rift between our society and the ”natural world?” How can we decolonize conservation and environmentalism?