Wilderness Walking: The Theory (Part 1)
ABSTRACT: We must protect at least half the Earth as wild for the sake of biodiversity and the sake of human fulfillment. With the help of Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory, I offer a philosophical anthropology that does justice to the ontological nature of human existence: the human being is the passage between two worlds, wilderness and civilization, which means that we must live on the Edge between these two qualitatively different worlds and spend part of every day in the wilderness on the one side and spend part of every day (or every few days or every few weeks) in civilization on the other side in order to be healthy and happy and to truly progress toward a utopian society, or at least a significant approximation to one.
Wilderness has intrinsic values such as truth, goodness, and beauty that are not bestowed by humans. It is “true” because it exists independently of us, possessing objective qualities and properties that define and determine it. It is “good” because it is better that there be wilderness than that there not be wilderness, especially given its accomplishments in the realms of life and intelligence; and it is “beautiful” because it is a self-woven harmonious whole. However, not exactly unimportant is that 8 billion people on this planet are collectively self-destructing by participating in a global economy of unlimited material expansion, and we are very likely in the not-too-distant future to exterminate much of life on Earth, if not all of it. I contend that we must walk in the wilderness to reverse our descent into madness, ecocide, or World War 3. Before giving my argument for this claim I need to define two terms: wilderness and walking.
One, by wilderness I mean areas of land and water that are large enough, diverse enough, and connected enough to sustain all, or almost all, biodiversity (genes, species, and ecosystems). Today, we know from the science of conservation biology, pioneered by folks such as Reed Noss, Michael Soulé, E.O. Wilson, and others, this requires at least Half Wild Earth. Anything less than Half Wild has unknown and risky outcomes because wilderness is the only proven way to sustain biodiversity. Of course, all forms of protecting Mother Earth are important, but we need to be clear about the goal: 50% wild or greater and the remainder of the Earth also protected (but not necessarily as wilderness). We need a Wild Earth, which does not mean that all of the Earth needs to be wild, but it does mean that half of the Earth needs to be wild to sustain biodiversity, ecological processes, including speciation, and autonomous non-human directed evolution. In this essay, I use the terms wilderness, wild nature, real wilderness, half-wild, and wild Earth interchangeably.
Two, when I say we need to walk in the wilderness I mean “aesthetically” walk in the wilderness. An aesthetic experience is “disinterested,” which means that it does not seek to control or manipulate wild nature in any way, but instead, an aesthetic walk contemplates and enjoys wilderness for its own sake, primarily for its beauty. If you walk in the wilderness looking for trees to harvest, land to graze, rivers to dam, mountains to mine, and on which to place cell-towers, then obviously you are not aesthetically walking, but neither is aesthetic walking about recreation, physical exercise, hunting, fishing, climbing, biking, or any particular activity that may or may not be compatible with wilderness. Rather, aesthetic walking in the wild is self-transformation through sensuous-receptivity and reflection on what is already there (prior to human determination and alteration). A genuine wilderness experience is an aesthetic experience (although that is not all it is—more on this later).
I now turn to my argument that human beings must (aesthetically) walk in (real) wilderness for the sake of satisfaction and sanity so that we do not eventually extinguish life on Earth, including ourselves. Let us begin by reviewing what we know about how the healthy/normal human mind works. We know that the wild Earth self-organizes and self-develops toward higher and higher levels of complexity and intelligence: subatomic particles become atoms, then molecules, cells, organs, organisms, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, primates… This accumulating intelligence extends itself into us as the basis of behavior (including moral behavior).
This intelligence is in our genes, instincts, gut-feelings, memories, images, intuitions—in short, in our largely unconscious primal mind-body, which is in constant communication with the rational-cognitive dimension or structure of the human mind, often called the Ego, and the inner-dialogue between these two parts or aspects of the human self is responsible for wisdom, which is knowledge informed by wild evolution. Deep thinking, which is the capacity to discern and determine what is of true value in life is a (somewhat mysterious) process of two-dimensional thinking, dialectical thinking, that is not only more complex than we know, but it is also more complex than we can know. Pathology sets in when the rational-egoic mind denies or dominates the primitive mind-body, shutting down or disrupting inner dialogue or deep thinking. We also know, at least since Freud, that repression of the primal self, or primitive side of human nature, causes neurosis and psychosis.
There is no serious doubt that the wild self, or primitive side of the human being, still exists within us, because the body is nothing but the fossilized descendent of what we have learned and become over millions of years of living and working in the wilderness. Our instincts are but the time-tested and time-proven decisions we have made while living in the wilderness (that have become semi-automatic or unconscious) and our intuitions, embodied emotions, and unconscious ideas are derived from, spring from, long contact and communication with wild nature. The human brain contains centers of unconscious processes, in addition to rational thought, that make independent decisions without awareness. To suppose that we can deny or dismiss the evolutionary wisdom contained in our bodies, instincts, and unconsciousness is absurd.
More than 99% of human development took place in the wilderness, and to think that a dictatorial ego, from atop the tree of evolutionary knowledge, could discern and determine what is of true value in life, without the constant assistance of our primal past (prehistory), flies in the face of evolutionary biology, neurobiology, paleontology, anthropology, and just about every intellectual tradition that is relevant today, not to mention the innumerable experiences of everyday life that depend on older structures of consciousness.
What is not so well known, hardly at all, is that the wild self or the primitive side of human beings needs direct and regular participation in wilderness to be satisfied and sane. Most of the literature on accessing bio-intelligence and the wisdom of the body rarely explains that wilderness is the source of the body and the wild self. How long can our embodied self remain a vital force if it is torn from its roots in wilderness? How can wildness sustain without wilderness? We are living off the residue of wilderness within us. Our wild self is a reservoir of wilderness stored in our bodies and unconsciousness, but it needs to be sustained, stimulated, and strengthened through direct participation in the wilderness or it will, at the very least, become weak, ineffective, irrelevant, and evermore forgotten. You cannot repress or ignore this pre-civilized self without pathological results, and you cannot sublimate it entirely. It must be directly nourished and nurtured in the wild. Thoreau recommends 4 hours per day.
The wisdom of the body is originally the wisdom of our larger body, which is wilderness. The body is an interpretive (mediating) organ between wilderness and rationality. It is wilderness enfolded within us. It connects us to wilderness in millions of ways, and when we engage the body by walking in wilderness, we awaken distant unconscious memories, bring forth innate ideas and self-evident truths, and recollect material about the inherent structure of original reality, which is wilderness. To tap and channel the healing powers and energy of the body through Transcendental Meditation, tantra, yoga, bioenergetics, logo-therapies, and psychotherapies is futile in the long run unless we sustain the larger reality of wilderness that created and empowers the body.
We are forced to admit that there has been a major structural rupture and dysfunction of the rational mind that explains the shallow and egoic-thinking among the masses and the ruling class. The origin of this one-dimensionality, this hardening of the ego against its own larger Self, is the development of methods of production, since the Neolithic Age, that increasingly destroy wilderness upon which deep reasoning depends. Much that would be self-evident to the normal/healthy human mind has lost its power of influence in the modern world and is no longer intuitively understood by us because we are now so far removed from the fundamental reality of wilderness, and isolated in an ego fortress mentality, that we are going mad. The more invested this isolated ego is in the destruction of wilderness, the more insane it behaves, so we have millionaires and billionaires, Whitehouse and Wall Street, leading us into oblivion, with the vast majority of people going along due to an inability to think dialectically.
Awareness of basic truth about good and bad, true and false, beautiful and ugly, is fading and crumbling because we have lost the wider-wilder context within which it emerged. We cannot reach agreement on anything because we have no frame of reference, no wilderness, no independent objective reality within which to ground our ideas and ideals. For example, the fact that there are billionaires in a society in which others do not have enough to survive (food and medicine) cannot be entirely explained by propaganda because underneath propaganda there has always existed an awareness of basic truth, but now this deeper level of thinking and feeling, primitive awareness, that has been perfected and passed down from one generation to the next over millennia of living and working in the wilderness, is weak and wilted as the soil that sustains it is more and more eroded.
Fortunately, we still need wilderness. A “need” can be satisfied so that there is no longing or craving for it, or a “need” can be unsatisfied and unconscious, and express itself as misery and unhappiness. A wild lion needs wilderness to live and flourish, but it does not long for wilderness because it already has it. Put this lion in a cage and its need for wilderness is activated and expresses itself as torment and suffering. Similarly, primitive hunter-gatherers do not long for or crave wilderness because they are “in” the wilderness, not identical with wilderness as is the lion, but their way of life is woven through the wilderness. Their lifestyle satisfies their need for wilderness. Once humans are removed from wilderness by the inventions of agriculture and urbanization, then we begin to long for wilderness, unless this longing is repressed, which is the actual course of history since the Neolithic Revolution, and it has only grown worse with industrialization and super-advanced technologies under the organization and direction of the few (rich and powerful) over the many.
Why not return to the wilderness as hunter-gatherers again? I am afraid that going back to living in the wilderness, as our primitive ancestors did, will not work because somewhere between several million and several hundred thousand years ago (no one really knows) we (humans) became self-conscious animals, who are not only aware of reality but also aware of our awareness of reality. From the historical moment in which we became self-conscious creatures, we also became divided creatures in the sense that we are not only wild nature but also other than wild nature. In virtue of our reflective awareness alone (which knows that it knows) we are both part of the wilderness and other than the wilderness. We are, ontologically, a two-dimensional species. On the one hand, we need to return to the wilderness, to be One with the wilderness, and on the other hand, we need high civilization to realize our uniquely human capacities and potentialities.
By civilization I mean all the ways in which human life differs from non-human life, and by high civilization I mean a form of human association whose telos is friendship, love, community, art, music, philosophy, leisure, comfort, the satisfaction of vital needs for all, and the development of science and technology that serve human freedom and happiness. Herbert Marcuse defined high civilization as “Society as a work of Art.”
I contend that wilderness and high civilization are the twin poles of human existence between which we are stretched. We cannot go back and live and work in the wilderness, as our ancestors did, without denying or dismissing our need for high civilization, and we cannot achieve high civilization if we deny or dismiss our need for wilderness. This is the ontological-anthropological human condition that requires a solution. Only a proper understanding of the ontology of human nature can lead to an ideal relationship between wilderness and civilization, a utopian society (or at least a significant approximation of it) that satisfies all of life on Earth, humans and non-humans. Before I offer a Vision of such a society, a utopia, based on a new ontological understanding of human nature—which I arrived at by intuitive and philosophical methods, only to discover afterward that it converges with the most advanced findings of the science of conservation biology calling for a Half Wild Earth—I need to distinguish my vision from all attempts to “go back” to an earlier historical stage of human reality that does not and cannot do justice to the emergent duality of human existence.
Primitive hunter-gatherers were “in” the wilderness and also made significant progress in civilization. This historical period may be regarded as a Golden Age in the sense that there existed a temporary unity between wilderness and civilization because Stone Age economies are woven through the wilderness, that is to say, primitive hunting and gathering economies share common ground with wilderness. Their way of life does not terminate wilderness, making it possible for them to live in the wilderness and to progress in civilization at the same time in the same place. However, indigenous societies that have developed greater power over wild nature than primitive hunters and gatherers are not “in” the wilderness, not able to share common ground with wilderness, and there is no way of weaving an agricultural, industrial, or modern technological economy into wilderness. (I suppose we can debate about early horticultural societies?)
Indigenous societies that have developed power over wild nature beyond primitive hunting-gathering economies hold the potential and promise for a new and better path to high civilization than that taken by the modern world over the last 12 thousand years, but they cannot avoid dualism between wilderness and civilization if they are to achieve this goal. Harvey Locke has noted that about half of all traditional-tribal lands are wild, which is good to learn, so long as these wild lands are large, diverse, and eventually connected to a world-wild wilderness preservation system that amounts to Half Wild.
So here is the dilemma or riddle of human nature that I want to answer: how can a creature that is both wild nature and other than wild nature, who needs to be part of wilderness and also part of high civilization, who is pulled in two opposite directions, be complete and content? I submit that the only way in which modern humans can participate in both wilderness and civilization is to go back and forth between them, which makes living on the Edge the proper dwelling place of humans on Earth. Technically, the Edge is part of civilization, but it is that place where civilization ends and wilderness begins in the sense that there is wilderness out the front door and civilization out the back door, or vice versa. The Edge is between wilderness and civilization, and by living on the Edge we can walk in civilization and also take a walk on the wild side on a regular basis. The Edge is not a Frontier, but an immovable limit on human monopolization of the geographical surface of the Earth, which benefits all of life on Earth. It is an uncompromising limit on all civilization, including indigenous societies that have developed beyond Stone Age economies.
This human journey is not a mere going back and forth between wilderness and civilization, but a dialectical journey (on foot) in which the human experience of the contrast and (peaceful) contradiction between these two qualitatively different worlds or realities is the driving force of true progress that tends toward utopian society. This journey is not to be understood only psychologically (inwardly), but rather, as a new lifestyle, a new Way of Life, because dialectical thinking ultimately depends on dialectical living. It is by dwelling on the Edge between wilderness and civilization that the human being returns to the wilderness through an aesthetic experience of wisdom and self-transformation, then back to civilization for qualitative social change and progress. We progress in civilization by returning to the wilderness, again and again, not as hunter-gatherers or in an economic sense, but we return to the wilderness in an aesthetic sense to balance and harmonize ourselves, to liberate our senses, animal sensibility, and contemplative powers of thought. There is no final end to human evolution, but we can reach a stage of civilization, high civilization, that does justice to the duality of human existence through a dialectical participation in both worlds, as well as secure all (or almost all) biodiversity on Earth.
Of course, there is only one world, one planet, but since the emergence of Homo sapiens, this planet consists of two very different kinds of things or beings. Neither monism that reduces everything to wild nature, nor (Cartesian) dualism that separates reality into two independent substances is correct. We are simultaneously identical with and different from wild nature. The twin poles of our existence, wilderness and high civilization, cannot be reduced to a monistic principle or a (con)fused ideal, yet their duality too must be understood as a product. Dynamic dualism, in which we journey between the two worlds of wilderness and civilization on a regular and easily available manner, is the ontological precondition for human self-realization, and the only human path to utopia (or at least a significant approximation to it).
I contend that the human being is the (dynamic or dialectical) passage between two worlds, wilderness and civilization. The transformation we undergo through an aesthetic wilderness experience provides a critical and creative perspective on actually existing civilization that we cannot get in any other way. It was modern civilization that took us out of the wilderness, and it is only wilderness that can take us out of civilization so as to permit a complete rupture with the oppressively familiar world of everyday life, thereby allowing awareness from the other pole of our psyche to reveal the inherent logic and order of the evolution of life on Earth from the very beginning (around 4 billion years ago). All of this deep and distant knowledge is available to us as an inner-guiding light for human affairs, but it is growing dim because it is not being charged by our participation in wilderness, and sooner rather than later it will be “lights out.” If we make full use of our mental powers: “Then the entire implicit order back to the beginning of life can become inwardly present to us.” Utopia is well within our reach—in fact, it is past due for about 75 years, soon after the end of World War 2, when the historical threshold was reached for a new civilization due to the rapid development of science and technology that created the potential and power to satisfy vital needs for all without eliminating a Wild Earth.
We understand very little (for now or forever?) about how the primitive self and the modern egoic-self communicate with one another in the inner-depths of a healthy and creative human mind, just as we understand little about how we acquire and use language, but the normal human being learns to think (dialectically) as a matter of fact, developmentally—unless major trauma stops or impedes the process. This is unfortunately what has happened to us through the rise of modern civilization to the status of Empire gone mad.
As we conveniently and comfortably float toward the waterfall there are opportunities to get out of the main current. The total disaster up ahead is not inevitable, any more the entire historical course of civilization over the last 12 thousand years was “necessary.” Much of it could have been avoided, if the consciousness of the values of wilderness was not confined to a few visionaries, and if the economic struggle for existence was not organized and exploited by the few over the many. What is now very clear is that the intellectual and material resources exist for the satisfaction of vital needs for all people. How many people? Probably around 2 billion, provided that we are compatible with Half Wild and humans living on the Edge. Indigenous societies have the opportunity to incorporate some of the achievements of modern society without following the trail of blood that produced these achievements, but only if they remain committed to Half Wild.
We are propelled by our own inherent nature as Homo sapiens to come out of the wilderness on a path to high civilization, and in coming out of the wilderness we began (since the Neolithic Age) to destroy the wilderness, and we have continued to do so until the present biodiversity-wilderness crisis, which is also a crisis of civilization. We could have stopped terminating wilderness at a much earlier point, if we had embraced a different kind of progress, based on qualitative growth instead of endless material growth, but in the absence of this awareness we became addicted to pleasurable suffering (until death?) from more and more goods and services that satisfy us less and less, and now it is unknown if we will break this addiction.
From the time when we emerged as Homo sapiens (several hundred thousand years ago or longer?), giving birth to our twofold nature, as wild nature and as the reflection on wild nature, there was a hidden dilemma growing within us. The unity and harmony of our life in the wild as Stone Age hunter-gatherers could not last because the path to high civilization removes us from the wilderness. The degree to which this removal from the wilderness, beginning with the Neolithic Age, required the termination of wilderness is difficult to say, but we are clearly not on the path to high civilization through this kind of progress, and we still cannot return to the wilderness as aboriginal hunter-gatherers, for the dynamic duality of human nature is a permanent ontological feature of the human condition. We can, however, co-exist with wilderness so as to satisfy all of life on Earth, humans and non-humans, by adopting the ideal of Half Wild/Half High Civilization, but the realization of this utopian goal depends, as it always has, on the awareness that we know ourselves into the deepest dimensions of our bodies and minds, then to act according to dialectical Reason.
The 1964 Wilderness Act—and Ideal—is America’s greatest contribution to the world, theoretically and practically. This idea has spread all over the world, with thousands and thousands of scientists, artists, philosophers, activists, earth-defenders, and people from all walks of life working to improve and implement it. Today’s challenge is to keep it going, coordinating plans and programs into a global network of wilderness areas that cover half the planet. Variations of this Wilderness Idea exist, especially in other countries, but the law and spirit (motive and meaning) of the idea needs to survive in whatever takes place on the ground anywhere and everywhere, or all our good intentions and hard work will come to nothing because humans and non-humans need real wilderness to live and flourish.
Air, water, songbirds, waterfowl, butterflies, and migrating animals cannot and should not be confined to either wilderness or civilization (so wildlife crossings are needed), but it is both necessary and possible to sustain the unique identity of each place. Permeability is one thing, but integration or fusion is another. The ideal of mixing wilderness and civilization is a false ideal. A future, free civilization has many options, from countryside to complex city, to be decided by free people who walk in the wilderness. The men responsible for the 1964 Wilderness Act gave us the correct conceptual ideal for sustaining wildlife, including large carnivores, and for satisfying human beings who need to re-experience a world similar to the one in which we evolved over millions of years.
When Bob Marshall described wilderness as a place too big to walk across in a single day, and Aldo Leopold described it as big enough to absorb a two-week pack trip, they were thinking about the needs of free-roaming apex predators, and about the human need to freely wander and wonder in the wild. They “hunted beauty,” as Leopold put it, because they understood that it is by connecting to the Big Harmony of wilderness that we regain Oneness with wild nature, and they understood that Big Harmony is fragile, easily broken by a road, mine, dam, clear-cut, etc. They never thought of wilderness as pristine (entirely without human artifacts and activities), but rather they defined it as a large place where the imprint of human beings is “substantially unnoticeable,” where the land retains its “primeval appearance,” and is “untrammeled” by humans, and this conceptual idea of wilderness remains the best for sustaining biodiversity and the wild side of human life.
There are certainly major problems with the 1964 Wilderness Act, some of which are due to the compromises that were made to pass it into law, and others are due to the historic fact that the science of conservation biology had not yet provided the awareness for continental-scale and global-scale wilderness. However, it correctly defines wilderness as a place that retains the “primeval appearance” of the land, which means that if the land loses its Form, its beauty, then it is no longer wilderness. Beauty is essential to wilderness; it is the expression or Face of wilderness as it self-forms. If the original face or appearance of the land is unrecognizable, then the land is not self-forming, not wilderness. Wilderness is self-formed land and water. The 1964 Wilderness Concept understands beauty as the harmonious expression of self-organizing and self-determining land and water, which is a perspective that agrees with Kant, Schiller, Hegel, and Marcuse, who regarded beauty as the “Form of Freedom.” In short, no beauty, no freedom, no wilderness, no human participation in wilderness, no human satisfaction, no sanity, no life on Earth.
Beauty is but another name for harmony, and all of wild nature is beautiful or harmonious because each part responds to all the other parts. It is a self-shaping and self-balancing whole, creating order out of chaos so that all the parts fit together and function together with rhythm, proportion, symmetry, and reciprocity. To call wilderness beautiful is to say that I feel inside myself the harmony that is “out there.” We cannot find Big Harmony in a park, garden, or sustainable rural landscape. The authors of the 1964 Wilderness Concept understood that for human beings an authentic wilderness experience is an aesthetic experience in the sense that it is through big beauty that we enter wilderness.
I submit that we need to aesthetically walk in real wilderness to be at One with wild nature again. An aesthetic wilderness experience is a felt-awareness of the original world in which we evolved. We cannot be at One with the wilderness as the Mountain Lion is, and we cannot be part of the wilderness as Stone Age hunter-gatherers are, but we (modern humans) can aesthetically re-unite with wilderness by experiencing the Big Harmony that is “out there” inside ourselves. It is through Big Harmony that we belong to the wilderness, that we are “in” the wilderness again in the only manner available to us as modern humans. Anything less than the Big Harmony may sustain some ecological functions and some biodiversity, although this is a dangerous and dubious human experiment at best, but such a “protected” (managed) landscape is very far removed from what humans need because it does not engage the deep and original psycho-biological dimension of human existence that is necessary for sanity and satisfaction.
When Leopold described Sandhill cranes as the “Trumpet in the orchestra of evolution” he captured perfectly the relationship between form and function that characterizes wilderness. Both ecological and evolutionary processes display an order and composition that is like a work of great art in terms of inner-necessity and overall balance and harmony, with the very important difference that wilderness is real while a work of art is an illusion, a fictitious world. A work of art is, as Stendhal said, the “promise of pleasure,” while wilderness actually delivers fulfillment. One would no more think of adding a feature (word, image, or note) to a great work of art than one should add anything to the wilderness, for it is perfect in its own right. A road through a wilderness area is like a thick brown line thrust across a Monet or Renoir painting. One should enter the wilderness as one enters a great novel, by traveling through its storylines of characters and places, understanding and appreciating how everything is arranged to produce a compositional whole that includes suffering and death within its wider embrace of truth, goodness, and beauty. No one in their right mind would attempt to add a new character or scene to Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, for example. It cannot be improved because everything already exists and unfolds according to inner-laws, and so it is with wilderness: evolutionary and ecological processes produce a perfect whole in which each part is what it is in terms of all the other parts working together over millennia, and no one in their right mind would think or attempt to improve the wilderness (which requires a Half Wild Earth to remain itself).
Aesthetic distance, according to Schiller, enables us to see beauty, which is a uniquely human experience (as far as we know). The eagle flying over the landscape cannot see beauty because it cannot distance itself from the landscape to contemplate its Form, which is the harmonious organization of the parts into a well-designed and functioning whole. Following Kant, he argued that the unique pleasure of an aesthetic wilderness experience is due to the agreement or balance between the two sides of human nature (animal sensibility and rationality) that occurs when we permit the objective harmony of wilderness to re-organize and transform human Subjectivity. The Jaguar, for example, basking in a ray of sunshine on a river bank in the Amazon feels the pleasure of sensation (the sun on its back) but not the special pleasure that accompanies the agreement or harmony of human nature that results from perceiving and reflecting on how everything in this place fits together so well, “as if,” Kant says, it was made (perfect) for us, when in reality we were made for it. Participation in the Big Harmony makes us feel at home, even if we are only visitors.
Read Part 2 of this essay concerning strategy here.
Glenn Parton is a former student and friend of Herbert Marcuse and an incurable lover of wilderness, and he would like to hear comments from others regarding the basic ideas he shares in his “Wilderness Walking” essay. Readers are encouraged to email him at: email@example.com.