Lighting out for the territories. It’s one of the core stories of our national identity, and especially among those of us who did leave the places where we grew up, who ran off to be ski bums and raft guides and lead groups of kids on wilderness trips. It wasn’t just an adventure we were after — we were going to completely reinvent how to live. We’d show them! All those people we left behind in those suburbs with the office jobs. We were going to be authentic. Real. We were Huck and Jim, deciding not to go home, but to go out. Out There.
And yet, the problem with the myth of lighting out for the territories is that it gives the impression that we can we can leave all our damage behind. That we can start fresh. That no matter what damage we’ve caused, we can go someplace else, someplace new and pristine and better, and we can start all over again.
One of the central sorrows we must face in order to cope with the anthropocene is that there are no more territories to light out to.
This is not to say that there are not still vast wilderness areas on earth where a person can go to have a big adventure — there is still Chile, and Argentina, and the Himalaya, and the Brooks Range and the Canadian and Siberian arctics. There are still wild places, but those wild places are now islands. And with the advent of the adventure travel industry, your chances of running into other people are pretty high.
Or perhaps that’s what you want? To fly a small plane to a remote lodge, where you will sleep in high-thread-count sheets, and eat delicious meals prepared by a talented cook, and be taken on carefully curated trips to see wild animals and beautiful scenery.
And what’s wrong with that? I can hear some of my fellow Montanans asking. We are, after all a state that depends largely on travel and tourism — it’s now the second largest industry in the state behind agriculture. As a family, we rely on travel and tourism, since Himself has a vacation cabin, the income from which he’s planning on for his retirement. High-end tourism like the one I just described allows people who really love a place to live there, and to make a living.
True, but it also continues to normalize the same consumerism as a means of experiencing the natural world and wild places that is endangering them.
So if there’s no longer an “out there” to which one can flee, what are we to do with our ruined world?
If it is true that human beings have now colonized all corners of the globe, if it is true that wild places only continue to exist because the human beings who love and value them fight to preserve and expand them, if it is true that we can no longer escape the damage we have wrought by lighting out for the territories, then what?
It is a truism of wilderness studies, that the pastoral and the wild must be in opposition to one another, that it is the pastoral impulse to control nature, to suborinate it to human control (usually via agriculture) that has driven wild things and the wild into extinction. There’s also a strong prejudice against the very idea of the domestic that runs through the literature of wildness as we know it — a masculinist prejudice, since most of that literature was written by men, and specifically men running from the relationships that characterize domestic life — relationships with wives and children as well as the relationships that characterize pastoral life — relationships with one’s livestock, one’s land, one’s crops.
I would like to argue for a new domesticity — I would like to argue that it is precisely in the relationships of care that define domestic life that we might find a way to save our world, and by extension ourselves.
I was in a bar after a reading a few weeks ago, and when I told the woman I was speaking to that I’d been doing a lot of research on the anthropocene, she was horrified. “You mean making everything a garden?” she said. You have to remember where we live. We live in the Paradise Valley, we live on the shores of the Yellowstone river, in between three mountain ranges, much of which territory is wilderness populated by apex predators like the grizzly bear. People who move here do so because of the stunning beauty of the place, and because they like being in this kind of proximity to wild nature.
To accept the notion of the anthropocene is not to cede the field to those who, as my horrified companion feared, would seek to manage the wildness out of our wilderness areas, but it is to acknowledge that if a wilderness area only exists because we have named it, and protected it’s borders from violation, then yes, we are living in the anthropocene.
What I am proposing is that we expand the notion of domesticity and stewardship to one big enough to encompass the preservation and care of our remaining wild areas.