Taming the Wild

gohagan_2014_tcoxford_02_chippingcampden_towncowsThe West suffers from an unhealthy view of wilderness. Wilderness is often called innocent, pure, untrammeled, sacred, and God’s country. It is land not (yet) desecrated or sullied by human development. Humans impose themselves upon the “natural condition” of wilderness in the interest of habitation. Our development is, however necessary, an impure act. The governing principle is, as John Muir concisely stated, “All wildness is finer than tameness.” Wilderness is higher than tameness. And since human dwelling and flourishing require the taming of the wild to a significant degree, humans are spoilers.

I’ve written about this before on this blog. In this post, I will show that wilderness, far from being innocent in itself, is actually alien to us, immature, and demands completion through human cultivation.[1] It is, indeed, lower in beauty and purity than true human cultivation. Tameness is higher than wilderness.

We see this in scripture and nature. God tells Adam and Eve to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…” (Gen. 1:28). The completion of these tasks required human effort and it would take some time. Hence, Adam and Eve, at the moment of the issuance of these commands, had not yet subdued, nor gained dominion over the earth. They had not tamed the wild. They lived in the midst of wildness. The world was, to a certain degree, alien to them. It was unfamiliar. They had not yet mixed their labor with it to make it their own, to identify with it. So humans were separated or set apart from the rest of creation, yet it was their duty and within their power to bring it near.

For God’s plan was not for man to remain alienated. Human cultivation was to complete the creation of the world—to subdue it, make it suitable for human flourishing and therefore tame it. The purpose was to make the unfamiliar familiar and bring creation to a higher, mature state.

Nature shows us that our love affair with wilderness today is possible only after the establishment of civilization. As much as we want to “go back to nature” through hiking, backpacking, and camping, we bring the comfort of civilization with us. I do not refer only to modern equipment such as camping stoves, but the comfort that civilization is always there to which we can go when wilderness gets too wild. In other words, we can enjoy it only because we can eventually leave it. Remove civilization and there is nothing left but terror and thoughts of survival. There are some Robinson Crusoe’s out there, but most of us are Christopher McCandless (from Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild). In such situations, wilderness discloses itself as totally alien, foreign and utterly disinterested as Stephen Crane beautifully showed in The Red Badge of Courage. The nature-worshipers such as Emerson and Thoreau would lose their obsession rather quickly if they could not flee the wild to civilization.[2]

Humans, by realizing that human beings are part of the natural world and have the capability of reason, can develop civilization in harmony with nature. Our uniqueness of being rational animals does not necessarily make us desecrators, but cultivators. Furthermore, we can bring order and a unique beauty to it. I discussed this here.

Human development, then, is potentially higher than wilderness. For this reason, it can be more beautiful, life-affirming, comforting, consoling, and more demanding of goodness and fellow-affection than wilderness. Creation does not reflect the face of man, but civilization, as human cultivation, can. The developed environment can be a declaration of fellow-affection—a statement that we dwell here. This speaks to the awesome and terrifying demand that humans develop, not to minimize desecration, but to stake a claim that we live, dwell, play, work, and die here. Humans are meant to bring creation to familiarity—to tame it to promote human flourishing. This is of utmost concern, and we dare not fail.

So how dare we create such ugliness and junk. How dare we strew the highways with billboards of Big Macs and permit ugly commercial districts. It is not cultivation that lays pavement everywhere but the view that all human development is a necessary evil. After all, if all human development is desecration, then what is there to which our development practices ought to conform? If humans are so separated from the design of creation that our works sully the world, then what else are we to do than lay pavement and more pavement? But if our actions are for cultivation toward the completion of creation, we would not create such ugliness. We would create beauty and harmony—a place worthy of calling home. The places in which we are born, live and die ought to be higher, in every possible way, than wilderness.

We need to change our view of nature and our role in it. We do not desecrate wilderness. It is not innocent or higher than human development. It is immature, and only through civilization is creation brought to completion. We need to build and plan our towns as if we are part of this thing called creation, not separate from it as its unfortunate destroyers.[3]

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[1] The word, cultivate, comes from cultus, meaning “care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence,” originally “tended, cultivated.” See here and here.

[2] It is doubtful that wilderness would be as terrifying prior to the Fall. But the command to subdue implies that the other—the wild—has by its very untamed presence a certain claim to itself that challenges humans in their claim of authority. It relinquishes its claim only after having been mastered.

[3] This in no way justifies exploitation and a dominating principle of extraction. We are to live in harmony with nature in general, which include a respect for wilderness and its resources. The point is not to bulldoze creation, but to cultivate it.

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