How alive is alive?

How alive is alive?

Dualism and the wilderness dilemma

Published on Substack: OCT 5, 2023

Irrigation ditch, cottonwoods mid distance, behind them a bank of mist, and the Absaroka front
Dog walk irrigation ditch …

A few weeks ago, before I definitively killed my Twitter account, this tweet came across my feed from the British nature writer Robert Macfarlane:

Hello — I’ve been away a while, following a river to the sea, this river, who turned me upside-down & shook me out like nothing I’ve known before, & was powerfully alive in ways that exceed the sum of the lives it contains & enables. Tell me of the most alive river you know?

It immediately stuck in my craw. We’re categorizing rivers as more or less alive? We’re valorizing those rivers we feel are more alive than others? When those sad rivers, the ones that are not sufficiently alive are probably in that state because we’ve used them for centuries as power sources, transportation vectors, and sewers?

Now, to be fair, this is Robert Macfarlane. His whole gig is nature ecstasy, and he writes about it beautifully. This is the guy who made his name by standing in a tree during a rainstorm and having an experience. We all have writers like this we love. I’ve defended poor old Henry David for years, even though he took his laundry home to his mother, and burned up a big chunk of forest by accident (as did Mark Twain, another topic, Writers and Fire). And he was very nice to Twitter with. However, the question, the question about more alive than what? and where does that leave our not alive rivers reminded me that he’s also the writer that Kathleen Jamie used as the prime example of “the Lone Enraptured Male:”

What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words. When he compounds this by declaring that ‘to reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history,’ I’m not just groaning but banging my head on the table.

She’s talking about Scotland, but she could just as easily be talking about Montana. Our version comes clad in Patagonia, posting pretty Instagram photos from high peaks in Yellowstone Park and our surrounding wilderness areas. Critiquing Macfarlane, especially for a throwaway tweet like this one, well, it’s kind of not fair. This is his schtick. He sells zillions of books by Going Forth To Experience …

And this, this is the part that sticks in my craw. What are we valorizing here? Nature? Wilderness? Some undefined quality of “aliveness”?

We all know what he’s talking about. He’s talking about all the tropes of wild nature, crashing rivers, scenic peaks, that we see in every single advertisement for the “outdoor recreation and tourism” industry. The same tropes that have graced every Sierra Club and Wilderness Society calendar for our whole lives. The same tropes which now, horrifyingly, are the backdrop for every “sport utility” vehicle sold in America, those commercials where going forth to encounter nature seems to be defined as seeing-it-through-your-car-window, ideally while driving said vehicle with abandon through streambanks and fragile salt pans, across mountain meadows and along beaches.

Wild Nature. It’s something “out there” that we should either save, or recreate in. And if we’re sending off a few dollars to “save” a wild place, or plant trees to “offset” our plane trips, then we’re good, right? We love nature! Nature is great!

I walked around chewing on my own crankiness over this for several days, muttering to myself on dog walks, confusing Hank-dog who thought I was talking to him. As is my normal routine at the end of our dog walks, I hopped up on the concrete edge of the irrigation ditch junction box to say the Heart Sutra:

And so, in emptiness there is no form,

No sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness …

Doh! I thought, looking down the ditch at the cottonwood tree where an eagle sometimes hangs out in the winter. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. No wonder distinctions like Macfarlanes’ bug the shit out of me.

I am not a real Buddhist. I don’t have a sangha. I don’t go on retreats. But ever since I studied with Gary Snyder back in the early nineties, I’ve had a tiny practice which mostly involves reciting his translation of the Heart Sutra on dog walks. Or hikes. It’s quite good when you need to make a little noise to let bears know you’re coming.

I was always prone to wanting to collapse distinctions, but thirty years of thinking about it, even in a sort of amateur way, well the values of non-discrimination are now deeply ingrained in my being.

Of course we all love a crashing river with rocks and whitewater and all the rest. All that water in the air feels good, I think there’s studies about ozone being released? It’s all fresh and dynamic and wonderful. That’s why there’s a million pictures of rushing rivers used for advertisements, and why people come from all around the world to ride down the Yellowstone, just over the edge of the bluff from my irrigation ditch, both to catch fish and just to enjoy the day.

The Yellowstone is not quite as vibrant as it once was, and it’s certainly not a wilderness experience — on a summer day the stream of fishing boats, rafts, kayaks, inner tubes, and SUPs is pretty unbroken — and with climate change, late summer sees lower and lower river levels and hotter temperatures. We’ve had fish kills. People are all panicky about warm-water fish like bass getting into the trout fishery, because distinctions. Trout fishing is classy, and an art — just ask Hemingway, Norman Maclean, or Jim Harrison — while warm water fishing is not. A topic for another post.

At any rate, this is just to say that it’s also easy to be cranky about nature writers making these kinds of distinctions, valorizing one kind of river over the others, when I live along the Yellowstone. I remember well, coming back to college after summers in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a big wilderness along the Canada/Minnesota border, and the dismay with which I watched the murky, slow, Rock River slide past the Beloit College “boathouse” where I earned some work-study money on Sunday afternoons. No one came to the boathouse, much less took the old sailboats out on the polluted river. No one fished the Rock River. The only fish I ever saw were giant carp who scared the wee out of us one night when I was keeping an eye on several friends who were tripping. They’d come up to the surface to feed, which was … unexpected.

So I know the difference. I know what it means to be trapped in places where it feels like there’s no wild nature at all, where wildness only survives in the ditches between subdivisions, where the natural world feels like it’s been entirely subsumed by industry and agriculture and suburbia and cities.

And yet.

One of the things I’ve admired about the “New Nature Writers” of the UK is their freedom. American nature writers are haunted by the spectre of the GOP and Industry and all the people who would just LOVE to deregulate the small patches of wilderness we’ve managed to put by. “Is it good for Wilderness?” is the question that haunts us. “Is it good for The Wild?” This defensive crouch is one reason we all argued for decades (arguments that happen still in the bars here in Livingston after a reading) about whether wilderness is an idea or a place, and whether academic discussions about how wilderness as an idea (an idea that defines actual places) is a human construct is good or bad for The Wild.

The UK has no “wild” — they have a few empty places, a lot of walking paths, but with no real predators, they don’t really have wilderness. It’s hard to explain, but you can feel it. When we’ve camped in parts of the state (fewer and fewer these days) where there are no grizzly bears, it does feel different. Most of the time it’s cool, living with apex predators, and then there’s an evening when word goes out that someone has been killed by one, a few short miles from the cabin, a guy who is “horn hunting” for shed antlers, and your beloved person, who you only found late in life is also out there, alone, with his phone turned off, and while you know he’s in an entirely different part of the valley, nonetheless you panic quietly until you see his car drive in and then freak him out by bursting into tears when he walks in the door. That part, not so fun.

Even less fun for the widow and three kids of the very nice man who stumbled into a day bed with a sleeping grizzly on it.

Which brings me back to my irrigation ditch. I’ve written about it before. I love this ditch. If I was a Very Rich Person building a garden at my Very Rich Person second (third? fifth?) home on a ranch here in the Paradise Valley, I would make a ditch with a distribution box like this one as the centerpiece of that garden.

Everything about The West (capitalized like The Wild or The Bear) is captured by this distribution box. The history of water rights, including the bonkers definitions of who gets what water, and the use-it-or-lose-it nature of said rights. The way we’ve always channelized water for our own uses. The fact that this ditch flows along a bluff above the Yellowstone itself, through a “State section” of land that is public, but for part of some years also has privately-owned cattle on it. And the amazing view from the distribution box. I stand on that box ledge, often above a really ucky pile of foam and sticks that has clogged up in the eddy where the water emerges, and try, for the length of a Heart Sutra, to contemplate non-discrimination. Wild/not-Wild. The highway is 100 yards uphill, and noisy most mornings, and yet, especially in winter, there’s a bald eagle, maybe 2, in the cottonwood. This summer there was a golden eagle who perched on the bluff a few times, a golden eagle half as tall as I am (I’m short but still). And then there’s cows. Cows across the river. Sometimes we can’t walk this section because there are cattle.

It’s all of it. It’s a man-made body of water that for me, at least, is very much alive, even though it’s turned off from October to May.

It’s not “wild” but it is alive.

I guess, what I’m trying to say, from my irrigation box overlooking a gigantic wilderness, from my position of deep nature privilege, is maybe these kinds of distinctions no longer serve us? We need to save it all. We need to save ourselves. We’re burning up the planet. And while it’s fabulous that rushing wild rivers that can turn a person’s soul upside down exist, and while for everyone I know who loves wild nature, it was those experiences, particularly in our youths, that turned us into people who will try to find a way, any way, to live where we can walk the dog in close proximity to eagles, perhaps it would behoove all of us to think about how “no sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness,” might help us save the scraps of the world we have left?

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