Saturday, November 22, 2014

The necessity of wild places

Lexington, Kentucky bills itself as the Horse Capital of the World. Here, a manicured and almost feudal landscape mantles rolling hills. Board fences envelope grassy fields.  Castles occupy hilltops. Ornate barns, spires adorned with galloping-horse weathervanes, suggest that every horse here is, or could be, a Secretariat.

The Kentucky roamed by Daniel Boone has been consumed by gated estates.  Not to mention Walmarts, Petsmarts, and Krogers. While Lewis and Clark might still recognize the Bitteroots, and maybe even the landscape of the Columbia River Gorge--though certainly not the river--here, every vestige of the wild has vanished.

It has apparently vanished in my Eastern Kentucky University intro geology students, too. On field trips, they are aghast at the thought of stepping off pavement and onto an outcrop. Some think it illegal, some consider it immoral, and others are just plain scared. The only student with sufficient chutzpah to scramble up a 5-foot embankment to touch the ancient, slickensided surface of the Kentucky River Fault was a young man who aspired to be a U.S. Army Ranger. I did not compel the rest of them for fear of sprained ankles and subsequent lawsuits.

The loss of the wild, and the emergence of the world through our smartphones has repercussions beyond  the oft-lamented issue of inattention. We have changed the nature of reality, and of our capacity to deal with it. In a way, we are becoming extremeophiles-- organisms "that thrive in physically or geochemically extreme conditions that are detrimental to most life on Earth", according to Wikipedia.  Frankly, I view shopping malls, ubiquitious cell-phone towers, and pervasive pavement as pretty extreme-- and also detrimental to life on Earth in so very many ways.

When we loose touch with the wild landscape, we seem to loose touch with the wild within ourselves. This includes not only risk-taking--from scrambling up a five-foot slope to touch a fault surface, to embarking on a lengthy journey into unknown territory-- but also many capacities that have made life resilient for the past 3 billion years or so: adaptability, curiousity, and tenacity to name a few. It is life connected to only one species, and untethered from its foundations-- the billions of species ancestral to humans, and all their anthropocene kin.

So, what to do, here amid a manicured, de-wilded landscape? Perhaps there is still time to find the wild in little things, from ant colonies to blackbirds.  To change
geology classes into out-door leaning. To take students into the well-tracked, vine-laden woods and ensure that they find wild rocks, and also do something that is innately foreign-- to sit still and listen, look, and smell. That they feel with all their senses-- something that used to be essential for survival. These students, born into a curb-reined world, have little understanding of what "wild" is.

And if they do not learn, and if this generation does not at least appreciate "wild" and all its implications, then how will humanity remember?  Life here is life tamed.  And life tamed seems to be missing its soul.


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