Monday, September 21, 2015


What is wilderness? Does it even exist anymore? Does it matter?

These are some of the inquiries explored by adventure journalist Jason Mark in his compelling new book, Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. There is a school of thought that believes we have entered a new era of planetary history - the "Anthropocene," or "Age of Man." Proponents contend "the human footprint is too big to leave any place untamed, and that all of Earth is a garden to be cultivated by us."

Mark is not ready to believe we must abandon our love of the wild, but it's obvious we're having difficulty creating an ecologically sustainable society. The ultimate question is whether "[o]ur numbers have grown too large for solitude, and our technologies have deleted all the blank spots on the map...filling them with gridlines." Do we now live in a "postwild world?"

Taking the reader along on several of his treks into the wild, Mark explores the history of "wilderness" in America, from the work of Teddy Roosevelt to our "burst of conservation" in the mid-twentieth century, to our current twenty-first century shift in thinking.

Today, according to Mark, our "overheated and overcrowded planet" has brought about a change in priorities. "Human self-preservation now trumps the preservation of wild nature." What does it mean if our love of nature is trumped by our current way of life?

To make matters more complicated, environmentalists often can't seem to agree on the issues. Take, for example, the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm controversy, where an entire community was torn apart by the fate of a local oyster farm. (Note: The story is the subject of a new book by Summer Brennan called The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America. The book is garnering critical acclaim and sits patiently on my shelf.) Each side of the controversy was backed by its own well-established environmentalists who thought the other side was nuts. If those who have devoted their lives to conservation can't agree, what chance do we have to preserve any "wild" land?

I found Mark's question of "what is wilderness?" quite fascinating. I hadn't thought about the fact that the answer changes generationally, but it seems so obvious in hindsight. What I thought of as wilderness growing up is vastly different than what kids today think of as wilderness. Mark shares a story highlighting the issue.

The author and his fellow hikers, the others not nearly as seasoned as Mark, came up on an area that made one friend exclaim about the beauty of nature. The area was the Hetch Hetchy Project, a man-made reservoir created when the Yosemite Valley was flooded upon completion of the O'Shaughnessey Dam. This "beauty of nature" wasn't really "nature" at all.

Mark shares this as an example of "Shifting Baseline Syndrome," or the way in which "each generation judges the environment based on the remembered nature of its childhood." Mark found troubling the "notion that a city reservoir was some kind of paragon of wilderness." Yet, it's understandable. The same hiker described his surroundings as "Game of Thrones." Says Mark:

The reference didn't surprise me. We have become such strangers to wild nature that we don't know how to process it, and often when people enter the wilderness for the first time their imaginations fall back on fantasy. The mind scrambles for some kind of analogy, even if that means resorting to fiction and fables.

The wild is seemingly becoming nothing more than a legend or myth, and Mark believes it to be a natural touchstone we can't afford to lose. Opines Mark: "When we search out the wild, we come to see that there is a world of difference between affecting something and controlling it. And in that difference -- which is the difference between accident and intention -- resides our best chance of learning how to live with grace on this planet."

Wilderness - or any self-willed land - can remind us that the rest of the world doesn't exist in relation to us, but that we exist in relationship to other things. The idea that every landscape should be a vehicle for our desires is specious narcissism on a planetary scale.

With nothing left to contest our will, we would be left all alone. "Do you know what happens to people who are placed in solitary confinement?" Mark asks. They often go insane.  On top of the simple intrinsic value of beauty, the wilderness serves as a living museum, a reminder of where we came from, a "historical asset."

I'm not sure anyone or anything has the ability to stop mankind from harmful progress. We started this country by taking it from others and our urge to rule and control hasn't waned since. Maybe that's doomsday of me, but when you see pictures of polar bears as living skeletons you wonder how much we really do, as a species, care about things other than ourselves. Mark calls for a new understanding of wilderness to match the new planetary age of the Anthropocene. An age where we know of wilderness other than as make-believe. If we don't stop developing to the degradation of natural systems, the wilderness "normal" for future generations may be little to nothing at all.

Current designated wilderness accounts for 5% of our national territory. Is it too much to ask for that 5% to remain outside our control?

STREET SENSE: An important read, I think, and an interesting one for those of you who are curious as to matters of wilderness and how it currently co-exists (or not) with the progress of man and whether our views should be changed for the future. This basic exploration of whether humans have ethical responsibilities to non-human life is one everyone should think about. Are we conquerors or citizens? Rulers or neighbors?

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  But it's impossible to argue with the facts of our overwhelming power. Cities and farms dominate the terrestrial landscape. We've remodeled the seas and the sky, too, as our industrial effluent heats the atmosphere and alters the pH of the oceans. With our huge population, we are steadily destroying the habitats of plants and animals and causing a mass extinction not seen on the planet in millions of years. The list goes on and on: our synthetic products have disrupted the planet's chemistry, our lights have blotted out the stars, our accidents have created atomic forests. We've even created a new stone -- plastiglomerate, formed when plastic melts and fuses with rock fragments, sand, coral, and shells. There is no place and no thing on Earth that humans have not touched.

COVER NERD SAYS:  Beautiful work. The cover is what caught my eye and brought me to the book, so hard to argue this is anything other than well done. I love everything about it, from the image to the color palette to the fonts to the ratios. Great stuff.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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