We have never been wild

We have ideas about ‘nature,’ don’t we? What it really is, how we are–or aren’t–part of it, the role it should play in our lives, our politics. And we also…

We have ideas about ‘nature,’ don’t we? What it really is, how we are–or aren’t–part of it, the role it should play in our lives, our politics. And we also have ideas about cities, about the country, parks, city parks, national parks, the purpose of a park. What is worth dwelling on is how our ideas and expectations shape our experiences, what we think and feel while we are there.

Walker Percy claimed that the only person who ever saw the Grand Canyon was Garcia Lopez de Cardenas–the conquistador who discovered the future National Park. Nevermind the strangeness of claiming someone could actually ‘discover’ something like the Grand Canyon because Percy’s real point is that the modern sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex.  If it does so, if it looks just like the postcard, he is pleased; he might even say, ‘Why it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!’  He feels he has not been cheated.  But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be.

This was an idea I wanted to probe in our visit to the Nina Mason Pulliam EcoLab at Marian University. I laid out two poles of discussion: the idea of wildness and the idea of design.

We began by reading Scott Russell Sanders’ one particularly memorable discussion of the wildness of nature:

The prime exhibit for the vigor and genius of nature is the creation itself. That the universe exists at all, that it obeys laws, that those laws have brought forth galaxies and stars and planets and–on one planet, at least–life, and out of life, consciousness, and out of consciousness these words, this breath, is a chain of wonders. Wildness is the patterning of power in this lavish production; it is orderly, extravagant, inventive.

This view was given some context by a reading from Wendell Berry, which chronicled the “forgetfulness” of modern civilization: “we no longer traveled in the wilderness as a matter of course, we forgot that wilderness still circumscribed civilization and persisted in domesticity. We forgot, indeed, that the civilized and the domestic continued to depend upon wilderness.” These observations seemed to resonate with a number of attendees who commented on our modern desire to tame nature.

With these assumptions, the idea of design–especially the idea of designing a nature park–seems a little twee at best, at worst, a contradictory neuroses of modern life that seems exemplified by this Jens Jensen quote: “To shut out nature from man’s whole life is to shut out the inspiration of noble and humanitarian things.  The artificial state has come to be the producer of insanity, crime, and immorality.” And yet it was Jensen who designed significant elements of what has become the EcoLab of today.

Jens Jensen was a landscape architect during an era of great American landscapers and architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Frederick Law Olmstead, who was responsible for that most iconic symbols of the divide between the wild and the city: Central Park. Similarly, Jensen was responsible for much of Humboldt Park in Chicago. He saw parks as a way to restore balance between nature and the increasingly distant populace. His parks aspired to a social vision, to bring nature into the city for the sake of the lower classes unable to escape the freneticism of industrial labor.

Jensen was largely associated with the Prairie School, which sought to create a design that literally grew out of the American prairies. Such styles favored latitudinous lines, circularity, and water. These elements, like the prairie itself, invited the viewer to wander–outside in nature, yes, but also outside the self, the expectations and notions that often define away our ability to encounter the Grand Canyon. Jensen claimed that prairies have “the distinct power of drawing one out, of arousing one’s curiosity to investigate what is beyond the horizon.” In other words, Jensen turned to conscious design as a way to make us wild again.

Or perhaps not wild again…because were we ever truly wild? Later in our hike, we stopped among a grove of maple, ash, and sycamore trees. Jensen claimed that “Rocks, like trees, have a character all their own, and this character is emphasized when the rock is rightly placed.” There is something distinctly human in that quote. In this grove of trees we read Robert Pfingston’s “Presence of Trees”:

I say their names: oak,

cottonwood and willow,

diamond bark

of white ash,
foot-long leaves

of pawpaw, a black prize

of cherry and walnut.

A camouflage of sycamores,

the light gray bark

of American beech/elephant tree,

on the upper trunk

a death sign

of fungus.

Dogwood content

in moist, rich soil.


hardiest of maples.

The hard wood of hickory,

the ornamental hawthorn.

Part of the beauty of this poem is in how it simply dwells on the names of the trees. It appreciates the pleasure of feeling these words in our mouth and the images they call to mind at the same time. Embedded in this poem may be the idea that as long as trees have had names, as long as rocks have looked like faces and had a character, we have never been really wild.

Even long after a garden is overtaken by less tamed elements, Jensen points out that one can “Let the garden disappear in the bosom of nature of which it is a part, and although the hand of man is not visible, his spirit remains as long as the plants he planted grow and scatter their seeds.” Human persons are conscious, able to name the things like Adam in the Garden, to investigate scientifically, to consider poetically, to take pleasure in using, and, yes, sometimes abusing those same things. To humans, nature always bears the mark of human designs. And insofar as humans also from “the bosom of nature,” that sense of human design is also folded back into the wild. As Sanders aptly sums it up, wild nature brings “new and complex forms into existence; and it has brought forth, in us, a creature capable of gazing back at the source.”

Which is not to say that the wild can’t still rattle our overdetermined designs. On our hike through the EcoLab, reading the passages I cite above, there was one moment where we all forgot the readings and the EcoLab and the dull roar of cars that punctured our ‘park bubble.’ A rainbow appeared–in fact, a double rainbow. Rainbows appear from nowhere, in all contexts. We’ve all seen rainbows, but they aren’t something you can go ‘see,’ which may account for how miraculous they seem to us. They just appear, and if you are open to looking up after a misty rain, you might see one (or two). In our own way, we were like Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, and the double rainbow was our brief Grand Canyon.