Around the Campfire, #80
Wild Things for Their Own Sake
If we look far and deep and wide, the key question that looms for Man is “How do we fit in and live with all the other Earthlings for the long haul?” Now, I know it is unlike Man to look or think long and wide and deep. We seem hemmed in by short, narrow, shallow sight. By thinking with such blinders, we see ourselves as the only thing that has meaning and our few years as all time.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Darwin lengthened, widened, and deepened our ken. His “Theory” of Evolution, though, is truly a handful of deep insights or “theories” that overthrew most philosophy before his time. Darwin’s bedrock insight is that all life comes from one forebear—the Last Common Ancestor or LCA as biologists call it today. Thus, we are all kin, from microscopic wrigglers to cloud-catching Coastal Redwoods and burly Great Blue Whales. Such a kinship, where we can call any other Earthly being “cousin,” should broaden our view of life.
Moreover, Darwin took the tale of life back far, far longer than the six-thousand-some years given by Genesis. The oldest fossils we have unearthed peg life as being at least three-and-a-half billion years old. Were we truly “sapiens” or even half as wise as we think we are, we would have greatly lengthened our view of life by now.
Further deepening life’s flow, Darwin saw that evolution has not worked with goals in mind nor has it been overseen or led in any way. Paleontologists, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, chide our high and mighty gall with the sharp understanding that, therefore, Man is not the unerring outcome or endpoint of hundreds of millions of years of “life’s descent with modification,” but is, rather, a happy or unhappy (hinging on what kind of Earthling you are) happenstance. Belying Gandalf and other wizards and sages, we were not “meant to be.” Nor is anything Man has done in its flicker of time been meant to be. We happened to become, just as did deep-sea fish with gleaming flesh-lanterns hanging in front of their nightmare mouths.
We only happened to be.
This may be the hardest and most frightening teaching from evolutionary biology and paleontology. It might well be some of why most H. sapiens do not believe biology has much to do with us. That we were not meant to be, but only happened to be is likely the most revolutionary idea in Man’s tale, putting Jefferson and Marx in the shade. The worrisome upshot of happenstance for many is that if we are not thoughtfully made by God—and given stern commandments that carry dreadful punishment for not following them—what is there to spur good behavior, what grounds for weighing anything as good or bad? Forsooth, though, of the many folks I’ve known in my three score and thirteen years on both sides of the believer/freethinker cleavage, it has been the freethinkers on the whole who have been more likely to hew to the “golden rule,” to “treat your neighbor as you would be treated” and to be righteous and upstanding. Nonetheless, this fear (of how the happenstance of Man’s becoming undercuts any spur to be good) gives me one of my key jobs: to see if I can crack this hard-shelled nut and find the sweet nutmeat of goodness within. In truth, others have already done so. Aldo Leopold, a great conservationist, ecologist, and philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century, did away with any worry about whether the nut held something good when he wrote, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’”
Building on the kinship-of-all-Earthlings bedrock, ecologists see living beings along with geological doings and weather as living and working in ecosystems or “communities.” Leopold wrote the word “land” to mean the community of “soils, waters, plants, and animals.” He further wrote under the heading “The Community Concept,” “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.” From that, he brings us the upshot:
In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.
So. Maybe Aldo Leopold, writing in 1948 or 1949, got us somewhere near to answering the question with which I began: “How do we fit in and live with all the other Earthlings for the long haul?’ In all of Earth’s communities—or neighborhoods as I rather call them, for the cozier feeling—we need to be a plain member and citizen; in other words, a good neighbor, one who does not lord over the others. Perhaps being a good neighbor—whether we are a special creation or an only-happened-to-be, fleeting outcome of evolution—is the root for behaving in a good way (ethically). Leopold and others have thought that the grounds for ethics are about living together in a community or neighborhood. Indeed, how are quarrelsome, nasty ground-apes such as we to get along with each other? Archaeologists and anthropologists have lately shown how warlike (with other bands) and murderous (within our own bands) we have been for many long years. Love-your-neighbor guidelines make our living together more workable. I underline the thought of all life living in neighborhoods since we Homo sapiens most of all need a lodestar of behavior to live in neighborhoods. Not seeing other Earthlings as our neighbors lets us deal with them as being without worth. This is why Leopold beseeched us to be plain members and citizens of the land community—so that we could live as friendly neighbors with all life.
Now, given the bedrock and the flooring on it we have built, where do we begin?
Life is good.
Many-fold, tangled life is better.
Many-fold, tangled life not hobbled by Man’s will is best. What do I mean? And how can I look upon life and call it good if it all comes from happenstance?
By “life is good,” I am not writing a television commercial about sitting with your buddies in front of a widescreen TV for a Superbowl party with Budweiser while wives and girlfriends in tight, low-cut tops bring in nachos and other goodies. No, I am laying down bedrock that the coming out of life or living things—chemical molecules that could replicate and do things—was good. As is its further evolution. Both life—this way of being—and living things—the lone packages into which life fleetingly puts itself—are good.
The first step in ethics is to ask what is good. My 1959 Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on “Ethics” says, “By ‘the good’ here is meant what is intrinsically good (or good-in-itself), not what is good only as a means to something else.” This is what I mean by “life is good.” It is good-in-itself. If there is good-in-itself at all, I would think “life is good” would be self-evident or unmistakable.
Whether the knowing creation of an Almighty or the outcome of a wandering, blind, goalless bubbling-over of chemistry and electricity in the right setting by happenstance, life and living things are good. Life comes together as neighborhoods in which we as dwellers or as wayfarers need to behave as good neighbors to the neighborhood and to each neighbor. Being a good neighbor is being good to life, which is good-in-itself. The sign at the National Forest trailhead a quarter-mile from my front door welcomes hikers but warns that we are coming into the home of many kinds of wildlife and that we are “guests in their home.” (Italics on the sign.)
By “many-fold” and “tangled” life, I mean biological diversity or biodiversity. This is the Tree of Life: many, many kinds of life living in a wealth of jumbled, messy, always-shifting neighborhoods.
By “not hobbled by Man’s will,” I mean wild—wild things, which are Earthlings that are as yet self-willed and not thralls to Man.
These other Earthlings are good because they are and because they are free by being wild. Wild things are good-in-themselves.
“Wild” is a many-fold and tangled word and thought. To understand such a word, we need to go back to its beginning in language—at least as far as we can. It means going back to the Anglo-Saxons coming into Britain as Roman civilization was withering and leaving. Early Gothonic or Deutsch speakers—warlords (“kings” and “lords” in their high and mighty gall), churls, and bards such as those who wrote down Beowulf and other sagas and poems—struggled with will. They lived next to wilderness—land not yet settled or plowed—and knew wildlife such as bear, wolf, lynx, wolverine, moose, wisent, eagle owl, snowy owl, golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, and other mighty beings that were untamable. They saw such lands and beings as wild, that is as having their own will, or as being self-willed, in marked odds with land, crops, livestock, and men under the will of Man or of a master. Such lands and waters—wild neighborhoods—called for being “wellthoughten” owing to their freedom and self-worth.
The Anglo-Saxon word for animal is deor, which came to mean one kind of animal—deer—after the Normans gave English beast and Latin gave it animal. Deutsch (German) still has tier to mean animal, and Swedish has djur.) The Anglo-Saxon word for untamable deors was wildeor or wildedeor—self-willed animal or being. Our word for wilderness comes from here as wildeorness—home of wildeors, says Roderick Nash, the world’s leading wilderness scholar.
In a 1983 talk at the Third World Wilderness Conference in Scotland, philosopher Jay Hansford Vest, another thoughtful and careful scholar, also sought the meaning of wilderness in Old English and further back in Old Gothonic tongues. He believed that wilderness means “‘self-willed land’…with an emphasis on its own intrinsic volition.” He interpreted der as of the, not as coming from deor. “Hence, in wil-der-ness, there is a ‘will-of-the-land’; and in wildeor, there is ‘will of the animal.’ A wild animal is a ‘self-willed animal’—an undomesticated animal—similarly, wildland is ‘self-willed land.’” Vest shows that this willfulness is up against the “controlled and ordered environment which is characteristic of the notion of civilization.” These early northern Europeans were not driven to wholly lord over wild things; thus, wilderness “demonstrates a recognition of land in and for itself.”
It took English some nine hundred years to come up with another Anglo-Saxon word for deor instead of beast or animal. That word is wildlife and began as wild life, then wild-life, only about one hundred and fifty years ago. The need for the word wildlife shows, I think, that wild animal and beast were not fully up to the job. Smithing the word wildlife came at the beginning of the conservation uprising in the United States and may have been a beacon for the shift in how some folks were coming to think about other Earthlings.
If wildeors or wildlife are good-in-themselves, then to knowingly or carelessly make another life-kind go extinct is evil. Today we are not making only one or two wildeors go extinct, we are bringing on a mass extinction unlike any other happening for sixty-five million years. That last mass extinction was when a comet smacked Earth, and dinosaurs and many other kinds of life were wiped out. Indeed, in the more than five hundred million years since the rise of complex animals, there have been only five extinctions so great as to be called mass extinctions. It is this Man-driven Sixth Great Extinction that is the upshot of a being so mighty and many as Man not being a good neighbor.
For wilderness and wildeors today, then, Man must show restraint—braking our self-willed might—by leaving some lands and wildlife alone, by not stamping our will on them. To be a good neighbor is to hold high the self-will and inborn goodness of one’s neighbors, which means sometimes braking one’s own will if one is mightier or luckier. This is behavior. Martin Heidegger called on us to “let beings be.” Leave other beings alone to themselves, to be their own being, to follow their own path as cobbled out by evolution, ecology, and happenstance. When we let other beings be, we are good neighbors.
Letting being be and letting beings be is not what Man has done in our more or less 100,000-year lifespan so far. Our tale can best be told as not letting beings be, but rather as enslaving, remaking, and killing other beings. Our chosen job as Homo sapiens has been to spread our will through our unstoppable might and swelling population over other beings and their neighborhoods, to take away their self-will. This has been the core work of hunter and gatherer, tiller and king, priest and philosopher, mother and father, warrior and builder. Not letting beings be is what Man does. Might makes right. Not very neighborly. By not letting beings be, not seeing other Earthlings as good-in-themselves, we are plundering Earth and all its life, tearing off great limbs from the Tree of Life and poisoning its roots.
Here, then, is the heart of conservation. Keeping wilderness and wildlife free, hale, and hearty is about letting beings be, about growing the goodness of self-braking that lets land and living beings have their own will. Learning self-braking is key to growing up. Law and ethics call for us to have self-restraint when dealing with others of our kind. Wilderness Areas and many kinds of wildlife can be thanks only to our willingness to brake ourselves and our body of selves.
The nineteenth century in North America was an unfettered binge of soil-, sap-, and blood-letting as we scalped land and other beings from the Alleghenies to the Pacific, as we cut down the great tall trees, slaughtered the bison and passenger pigeon, and plowed up the Tallgrass Prairie—and did our best to kill off the other men, women, and children already living here in widely scattered bands, tribes, and chiefdoms. When conservation stood up in the late 1800s, it was all about braking, holding back, not doing that which we had the might to do.
When Aldo Leopold wrote, “There are those who can live without wild things, and those who cannot,” he named who conservationists were. We are Cannots—women and men and children who cannot live without wild things. This is bedrock. But what are wild things? We’ve already learned that something wild has its own will or is free of the will of another. So, what does the word thing mean?
Thing is a Swiss-Army-knife kind of word in Anglo-Saxon and in today’s English. A wild thing can be a living being—animal, plant, fungus…. It can be a neighborhood of wild beings—on land or sea. A wild thing can also be a geological feature—a river or mountain. It can be weather—a blizzard or flood—and other natural happenings, a sunset, say. Wild things are also ecological and evolutionary processes, such as predation and pollination.
We are now getting to the pith of wildness. Leopold saw wilderness as the theater for “the pageant of evolution.” Biologist Michael Soulé, founder of the Society for Conservation Biology and The Wildlands Project, has written much the same thing. Evolution embodies wild things being for their own sakes. Evolution is good-in-itself. In the early 1950s, National Park Service biologists Lowell Sumner and George Collins called for setting aside what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska as wilderness where evolution could go on without meddling from Man. Historian, bush pilot, and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge wilderness manager Roger Kaye writes:
Collins brought to northeast Alaska the belief that the highest experiential values of wild areas derived from understanding that natural processes “are ongoing, they are evolving, they are beyond good and bad. They are ‘right’ because they are right unto themselves and can evolve naturally without the medium of man.
Kaye also writes:
Sumner expressed the hope that this place might always have the “freedom to continue, unhindered and forever if we are willing, the particular story of Planet Earth unfolding here…where its native creatures can still have the freedom to pursue their future, so distant, so mysterious.”
Evolution is wild. It is wild in the deepest meaning of the word, and thus is the hallmark and the highest good of wilderness.
If we are to be good neighbors, if we are to let beings be, if we are to fit in with other Earthlings for the long haul, then we must step back somewhere (many somewheres) so evolution is free to unfold for wild things in its own unhobbled, eerie way.
The most needed and holy work of conservation is to keep whole the building blocks of evolution along with the sweeping landscapes such as Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where that unforeseeable, unfathomable wonderwork can play out unhindered. We need to bring evolution back to the fore as the highest good to be shielded by conservation; sadly, it has faded from sight since its heyday in the 1950s.
Such is the true work of conservation, the goal of those who cannot live without wild things.
This Campfire is adapted from my chapter “Five Feathers for the Cannot Club” in Peter H. Kahn, Jr., and Patricia H. Hasbach, eds., The Rediscovery of the Wild (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013).
- I use Man or Men capitalized for the species Homo sapiens, woman for the female of the species, and man uncapitalized for the male. This is more in keeping with earlier English, which had another word for male Homo sapiens: wer, which lives on today as werewolf. Today’s English is odd for a modern tongue not to have a straightforward word for our kind that is also not the gendered word for the male. To have to call ourselves by a Latin word, human, is cumbersome and abstract. I do not write Man in a sexist way but for the goodness of the English tongue.
- A man without a master was free, or a freeman. Likewise, we may think, lands and waters that were not domesticated or tamed were also free—or wild.
- Honored or respected in Old English.
- Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is (Basic Books, New York, 2001). 2 Stephen J. Gould, “Preface: Reconstructing (and Deconstructing) the Past,” in Stephen J. Gould, ed., The Book of Life (W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1991), 6-21.
- Aldo Leopold, “Conservation,” in Luna B. Leopold, ed., Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold (Oxford University Press, New York, 1953), 145-157.
- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (Oxford University Press, New York, 1949), 203-204.
- Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford University Press, New York, 1996); Stephen A. LeBlanc and Katherine Register, Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001); Craig B. Stanford, The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1999).
- Roderick F. Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1967), 1-2. 7 Jay Hansford Vest, “Will of the Land,” Environmental Review Winter 1985, 321-329.
- Dave Foreman, Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century (Island Press, Washington, DC, 2004); Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind (Doubleday, New York, 1996); E. O. Wilson, The Future of Life (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002).
- Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology (Peregrine Smith, Layton, UT, 1985).
- Leopold, Sand County, vii. 11 Leopold, Sand County, 199.
- Roger Kaye, Last Great Wilderness: The Campaign To Establish The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 2006), 17.
- Kaye, Last Great Wilderness, 21.
Dave Foreman is the founder of The Rewilding Institute, co-founder of The Wildlands Project and Earth First!, and author of several acclaimed books on wildlands conservation. Books: Rewilding North America | Man Swarm: How Overpopulation Is Killing The WIld World | Take Back Conservation …among several other Rewilding books you can find here.