It is in vain to dream of a wildnessdistant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog of our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream.
-Thoreau’s Journal Aug 30, 1856, epitaph to S. Schama, Landscape and Memory (1995).
I’ve been missing the wild. Maybe what that means is I’ve been missing the rhythms of what’s not me in me. I’ve been missing having myself before me and outside me, where what I do is nouny and rough and evident. But what is missing the wild? Where did it go?
The wild offers itself as something material and bodily to be missed. Last August I wrote an entry in my journal on Day 17 of a 22-day course, ‘Things I will miss: this feeling I have now sitting on a log in the evening at Shelter Cove and being in the middle of the woods but feeling clean and dry, not wearing a bra or underwear as the summer wind blows and the sun shines through the trees, choosing each consecutive action, apart from this brief moment of writing, on the basis of often selfless necessity, feeling in my body still the rocking motion of a canoe afloat, being more freckled, more muscular, watching the sky for vital signs that will define my day, waking up at 3:30am and seeing Orion set and the golden sunrise from the canoe, knowing exactly what to do and having enough energy because I have to know what to do and I must have enough energy.’
It’s only a dream of modernity that the wild is not always, always pressed against me. That my rhythms are all my own. Early modern people had a wildly different understanding of ‘the bog of our brains and bowels’ based on the Hippocratic theory of health. Hippocrates upheld a humoral view, where good health depended upon the balance of various humours within the body (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile). The primary source of that balance was an equilibrium between an organism and its environment, and the theory acknowledges a great degree of permeability between the two.
This view dramatically shifted in the nineteenth century with the introduction of bacterial theory, which blamed an external agent for illness, rather than an overall equilibrium. Disease came to be situated specifically in the body, and the surrounding environment, as Linda Nash argues, became ‘a passive and homogeneous space’ (211). The enlivening of our own wilderness and the wilderness outside us is mutually dependent. When I am missing the wild, perhaps I am missing the fact of my own wilderness, I am missing this wide wide sense of health.
On the environment and health, see: L. Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (2006). Nash takes the California Central Valley as a case as she advocates for a view of disease which takes more account of environmental factors. She contends that ‘the narrow situating of disease in the organic dysfunction of bodies and particular pathogens begins to look like a brief period of modernist amnesia’ (6).
G. Mitman, ‘In search of health: Landscape and Disease in American Environmental History’ in Environmental History 10.2 (2005). Greg Mitman similarly focuses on histories of landscape and disease, and contends that the concept of health offers a ‘means of rethinking nature and how we come to know the natural world.’ When we separate our own wilderness from the wilderness outside us, Mitman is suggesting, both have perished.
A. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949; 1966). In Leopold’s famous environmentalist journal, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold understands both human health and the health of the land to be based upon the possibility of ‘internal self-renewal.’ Leopold observes that what we take to be facts of degradation are rather symptoms of a sick land. ‘The art of land doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the science of land health is yet to be born’ (251).
I recently came across Kathleen Dean Moore, a writer in residence in 2013 at Denali National Park. I think her short essays are a reminder of how health and the wild can be remembered in words.