Nature and Wilderness

File:Dhonitokyoahead.jpgOver the last couple of weeks, I’ve dipped in and out of a book that my wife was assigned when she was a graduate student at Regent College. The book is Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race by Romano Guardini, and given the subtitle you’d think I would have been excited to read it, but for one reason or another I had put it off until just recently.

In a way, I’m glad I did. If I had read it ten years ago, I think I would have been captured by it, pulled in by Guardini’s poetic writing and Romantic themes, lulled into a sense of agreement without critical reflection. Take for example this passage about a sailboat he observes:

Take a vessel sailing on Lake Como. Though it is of considerable weight, the masses of wood and linen, along with the force of the wind, combine so perfectly that is has become light. When it sails before the wind, my heart laughs to see how something of this sort has become so light and bright of itself by reason of its perfect form…. It is full of mind and spirit, this perfectly fashioned movement in which we master the force of nature. Certainly we pay for it already with a certain remoteness. We are no longer plunged into the sphere of wind and water as birds and fishes are…. We have both withdrawn from nature and mastered it. Our relation to it is now cooler and more alien…. Yet do you not see how natural the work remains? The lines and proportions of the ship are still in profound harmony with the pressure of the wind and waves and the vital human measure. Those who control the ship are still closely related to the wind and waves. They are breast to breast with their force. Eye and hand and whole body brace against them. We have here real culture—elevation above nature, yet decisive nearness to it…. We master nature by the power of mind and spirit, but we ourselves remain natural (11-12).

Putting aside for the moment the rather confusing claim that we can “master nature” yet “remain natural,” let me ask this: what sort of image does this passage evoke for you? For me, it’s a genteel pleasure-sailor serenely piloting his sailboat across a placid lake on a calm sunny day. I’ve been sailing myself on such a day, and I have to say that I had that same feeling of the boat being in “profound harmony” with the wind and waves. It’s easy to have that feeling when the weather is cooperative.

But let’s consider for a moment another kind of image. One of a frightened fisherman, drenched by rain and windswept waves, desperately trying to keep his boat afloat in the gale-force winds that came sooner than expected. No longer is the boat in “profound harmony” with the wind and waves—in fact, the sails that make up the boat’s “perfect form” have now become a dangerous liability. Without another means of propulsion and control, the best a sailor can do is drop the sails, try to keep the boat from rolling, and hope that the swell doesn’t carry the boat into the rocks.

The distinction here arises from how one understands the word ‘nature’ and our relationship to it. Romantics love to refer to nature, pointing out how technology alienates us from it, and urging us to get back to it. But the kind of nature these authors mean is what Leo Marx has referred to as “pastoral nature,” a tamed and domesticated version of the other, more raw kind of nature, which he calls “wilderness.”

Wilderness, as the name implies, is wild, a place generally untouched by humans. Wilderness is the sort of nature that you experience when you go backpacking in a remote part of the mountains, where you are the one who doesn’t belong, not the bear or mountain lion.  Wilderness is also not particularly friendly to humans; it is in a literal sense “inhospitable.” I often joke that wilderness actively tries to kill you, but that is anthropomorphic. It might be better to say that wilderness is a place where survival must be constantly won in the face of threatening conditions.

Pastoral nature, on the other hand, is the kind of bucolic nature that we typically associate with landscape paintings, well-tended farmland, or walks on a well-maintained trail. Pastoral nature has been domesticated, altered to be more hospitable to humans. It has been refashioned to serve our needs. Regardless of how “naturally beautiful” it may seem, pastoral nature is a product of human action. We might even call it an artifact.

When we talk about technology “in harmony with” nature, we need to be careful to explain what kind of nature we’re thinking of. Not everyone has the luxury of staying within pastoral nature. Think of a fisherman from an island in the north Atlantic. To perform his work, he must face a wilderness of ocean where storms can arise suddenly with devastating results. Does it really make sense to argue that a sailboat is somehow morally superior to a motor boat in that kind of context? I think not. Instead, I think it makes more sense to recognize that a moral judgement about a technology must be made within a particular context of use. Only then can we judge whether that particular pattern of use is “in harmony” with the kind of relationships, both with each other and with the environment, into which Jesus calls us to live.


3 thoughts on “Nature and Wilderness

  1. Charity Singleton

    David – This was a very thoughtful piece. I think your distinctions between pastoral nature and wildnerness is very helpful to us in 21st century America. We confuse the two, though in reality romanticizing the one and having no real contact with the other. Most of us wouldn’t know what to do with a wilderness if we were dropped off and left on our own. I think making these distinctions is important as we interact with the world around us, finding our way in an increasingly techno-noisy world.

  2. Jonathan Morgan

    I like the distinction between pastoral nature and wilderness. However, it occurred to me (while explaining the concept to my sister walking in an area that would definitely be pastoral nature) that to some extent it must be true of all the “natural” animals that they are not just accepting nature as they find it, but actively tilting the odds in their favour. For example, like we might build a house, a bird might build a nest. While we might use a fishing line, a spider might use a web. Maybe we do it in a more controlled, systematic, and comprehensive manner, but it still seems somewhat true that all animals must do this somehow.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Yes, I think you are right. Most animals are like us in that they actively reshape their environments into something more desirable or hospitable. Of course, we seem to take this to such a higher degree that I often wonder if it becomes a difference of kind instead of just degree. Thanks for making this point!


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