Wilderness boundaries 

Using an academic dialectic to redefine wilderness

For 23 years, the Wilderness Lecture Series has been a clearinghouse for environmental philosophy, activism, and education. Sponsored by the Wilderness Institute at the University of Montana, the lecture series brings speakers from near and far, helping to make Missoula a major hub for human debate and discussion on all things wild. Each week of the spring semester, a different speaker takes the podium and takes a stab at revealing a sliver or two of that elusive concept known as “wilderness.”

Last year’s lecture series, planned and guided by retired UM Professor Roger Dunsmore, was by all accounts a watershed. Dunsmore went to great lengths to provide a lineup that began at the Paleolithic roots of human consciousness, and included a diverse chorus of native perspectives, as well as a top-notch cadre of other thinkers and activists. Rather than letting these voices disappear into the ether like so much froth on a wave, the proceedings of the 22nd annual Wilderness Issue Lecture Series, entitled The Poetics of Wilderness, have been transcribed and compiled, and are now available in the UM Bookstore.

This book is a rich and dense compendium of information, perspective, and grace. Having myself been at many of these lectures, scribbling feverishly (and usually illegibly) in a vain attempt to capture all the nuggets cast by speakers, it’s sure nice to have them all bound up in one volume.

Dunsmore introduces each speaker, followed by his or her brief bio, and a list of the speaker’s recommended readings. What follows is a transcript of the speaker’s talk, including the question-and-answer session. Finally, three or four students respond to each speaker, in essay form. All together, this format presents an informative cross-section of the dialectic educational process. The student responses alone make this book worth reading. Students were given full latitude in how their responses could be framed, running the gamut from poetry to vigorous polemic to rhetorical questions to speaking to God. Reading these responses is like getting a sneak preview of Wilderness Lecture speakers of tomorrow.

Dunsmore kicks off the lecture series by challenging students to think about the very meaning of the word “wilderness.” He suggests that the true meaning of wilderness extends well beyond the Forest Service definition of land “untrammeled by the hand of man,” noting that one aspect of the wild is “this energy within human beings to understand and control their environment. Neither the speed of light nor the gene pool itself are safe from the wild desire to bring it all under our domination. Our desires themselves are a form of wildness.” From here, Dunsmore breaks down the dichotomy “wilderness and civilization” and asserts, in the words of the late Paul Shepard (whose widow was the first guest speaker) that the opposite of wilderness is not civilization, but domestication—“the process by which gene combinations in living organisms have been interrupted and redesigned for cultural purposes. Civilization, on the other hand, is a condition of society including arts and sciences and the accouterments of a culture.” This leads to the important observation that our wilderness areas (that is, wilderness in the Forest Service sense) can only be as healthy and sustainable as our cities.

This idea was delivered in spades by Peter Berg (whom Dunsmore calls “Mr. Green Cities”) in his talk, “The Post-Environmental Directions of Bioregionalism.” As one of the architects of such concepts as “bioregionalism,” and “reinhabitation,” Berg has been for decades a driving force behind, as Dunsmore puts it, “a planet-wide movement of ecological and social/political realignment and restoration.” In his talk, Berg expounded on the importance of looking at the word “biosphere” as a verb. Which is to say, the biosphere is more than just the thin film of life that coats Planet Earth. It is the way we inhabit this zone so that it can continue to support life in the future. Berg brings biosphere-as-verb back to the concept of cities as the arena where we can unite “wilderness and civilization” in a sustainable balance.

Elsewhere in the book, Will Baker takes Henry David Thoreau to task, pointing out that as great as Thoreau was, he was still a long way from practicing what he preached. Missoula’s own Janisse Ray, a rising star in the world of nature writing, stunned the audience with her presence, including readings and discussions from her new book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Freeman House, a colleague of Berg’s in northern California watershed restoration, spoke on the reciprocity of perception that is necessary for truly inhabiting a place, reminding the audience, in the words of Florence Krall, “In each one of us, there is an indigenous person waiting to be released.”

Of the many powerful voices in this series, the one speaker who took me most by surprise was Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz. Rereading his lecture had the same effect, as though his every word were in boldface. His simple, careful, and bare language is on the leading edge of a massive force, calmly stating and restating a kernel of truth that continues to block the coming of age of the American consciousness: “The American ecological and environmental debate, discourse, and discussion is being waged over stolen property.” This is a threatening and disturbing concept for many people, including many environmentalists. But Ortiz is not asking that land be returned to native peoples, or that non-natives must feel guilt for what their ancestors may have done. He is simply pointing out that the implicit denial of this aspect of American identity has kept us in a holding pattern of sorts. To fully and consciously make informed decisions about where to go from here requires that we fully comprehend where we are, and how we got here.

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