This is a review of Wallace Kaufman's new book, a pointer to which Larry
Klaes passed on in the transhumantech list. Kaufman's earlier work, "No
Turning Back" may be the best book on environmentalism and questions of
humanity's relationship to the non-human world I have ever read (by a great
margin). I look forward to reading his new book.
On the contrary, Mr. Thoreau
By Chet Raymo, Globe Correspondent, 2/27/2001
''In wildness is the preservation of the world,'' wrote Henry David Thoreau
in one of his more self-indulgent moments, and environmentalists never tire
of quoting him. Into the woods, they urge. Into the woods. That's where we'll
find our salvation.
Not in science or technology. No, no. They are the enemy. It's wildness that
will save us from ourselves, restore us to our primeval wisdom, discipline
our hubris, chasten our sins.
Of course, Thoreau lived in a landscape that was anything but wild. The
Fitchburg Railroad ran along the banks of Walden Pond, for heaven's sake.
''Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in
towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps,'' he wrote, but
he was glad to get back to good old civilized Concord after a sojourn in the
Never mind. Betake us to the quaking swamps, say the Thoreauvian
environmentalists, back to the impervious woods. Let us live like our
hunter-gatherer ancestors, in harmony with the land and other creatures. Let
us become dryads and naiads, gentle spirits of tree and brook, taking
nothing, leaving only footprints - and not too many of those.
''We have built a greenhouse, a human creation, where once there bloomed a
sweet and wild garden,'' laments Bill McKibben in his influential ''The End
of Nature.'' McKibben is a man of unimpeachable principle, and I wouldn't
want to live in a world without him, but his sweet wild garden never existed,
and if it did, the only way back is for 6 billion or so human beings to
commit mass suicide.
How refreshing, then, to have a book called ''Coming Out of the Woods,'' by
an environmentalist who doesn't look at the wild through rose-colored
glasses. Wallace Kaufman sought his own little Walden, his own place in the
woods. His experience there is a bracing antidote to those who believe that
wilderness is an Eden that we messed up.
In the late 1960s, inspired by the first great flowering of green politics,
Kaufman bought 360 acres of forested land in North Carolina with the idea of
creating a whole community of little Waldens, including one for himself.
He built a road into the forest, doing his best to save the fine old trees,
then wrote covenants for prospective purchasers that would keep the place
wild - no chemical pesticides or serious tree-cutting, that sort of thing.
Soon he was the ''mayor of Hippie Town,'' according to the folks in nearby
Pittsboro and Chapel Hill.
On his own corner of the 360 acres, he built a house and settled in. Like
Thoreau, he went into the woods ''to live deliberately,'' communing with
nature, washing his spirit in the wild - and he stayed 15 times longer than
Thoreau resided at Walden. Indeed, he's still there.
It would be a shame to spoil the reading of this wise and funny book by
retelling Kaufman's adventures. Suffice it to say that Thoreau and Kaufman
had a loving but troubled relationship in the North Carolina woods. Green
politics met practical realities, and what came out of the clash was less
quaking swamp than quaking principles.
Sweet and wild garden? Try copperheads in the crawl space, squirrels in the
eaves, and deer in the bean patch. Kaufman tried his best to accommodate them
all, but found that human interests and natural instincts don't always mesh.
And then came Hurricane Fran, roaring up his valley and knocking down all
those grand old trees he had tried so hard to protect.
''Nature had been no kinder to this forest than God was to Job,'' Kaufman
muses, unromantically. ''She would as soon make maggot meat out of a squishy
little human being as offer him or her a fine view.''
And now, with a new administration in Washington, we can expect increased
pressure on the few remaining ''wild'' places where the touch of the human
hand is light - the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, for example, or the
not-so-quaking swamps of the Everglades. How can we best resist these
pressures? Not by romanticizing wilderness, or by invoking the sentiments of
hunter-gatherer societies, but by drawing upon our own most civilized
This is the lesson of Kaufman's experience: ''Nowhere is nature a Garden of
Eden. Whenever consciousness dawned in the human brain, our ancestors found
themselves in a wilderness. They set about conquering its dangers. They began
to reshape it with Eden as their model. They knew, in those days before
romantic illusions, that if nature was ever to be a friend to humankind, they
would have to command it to be so.''
We did not come from Eden, Kaufman says, but we can go there. With wisdom,
humility, optimism and restraint, we can devise a world in which humans and
the wild achieve some sort of accommodation - a beautiful dominion. Science
and technology can - and must - be part of the equation. Thoreau had it
backwards: In civilization is the preservation of the wild.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 09:59:39 MDT