Act I: The crime (Internet summary)
How wild is wilderness and how wild are our experiences in it, asks Jack Turner in the pages of The Abstract Wild. His answer: not very wild. National parks and even so-called wilderness areas fall far short of offering the primal, mystic connection possible in wild places. And this is so, Turner avows, because any managed land, no matter its designation, ceases to be wild. Moreover, what little wildness we have left is fast being destroyed by the very systems designed to preserve it. Natural resource managers, conservation biologists, environmental economists, park rangers, zoo directors and environmental activists: Turner takes aim at these and all others who labour in the name of preservation. He argues for a new conservation ethic that focuses less on preserving things and more on preserving process and "leaving things be." He harshly criticizes zoos and wilderness tourism, and he cautions us to resist language that calls a tree "a resource" and wilderness "a management unit." Eloquent and fast-paced, The Abstract Wild takes a long view to ask whether ecosystem management isn't "a bit of a sham" and the control of grizzlies and wolves "at best a travesty." Next, the author brings his readers up close for a look at issues surrounding pelicans, mountain lions and Shamu the whale, stirring into his arguments the words of dozens of other American writers including Thoreau, Hemingway, Faulkner, and environmentalist Doug Peacock.
Act II: The accuser (Goodreads review)
"I can't do it anymore, I just can't. And I was in the middle of a lengthy, snarky rant about Libertarians and 'Wilderness' as a man-made construct and how GMO crops are going to save both us and the mountain lions before I realized that a Goodreads review is not really the place to air out my grievances against Western-American eco-nut-writers. Also, I only read two pages of this thing so I have no idea if anything I was going to say would be relevant to the text or not.
"But I have reached a turning point in my relationship with America's aging 1970s-Era nature writers. Two pages of Turner's introduction finally broke me. I've never believed in extremes, especially when it comes to the Earth, our home. I think we should live with a 'deep' ecological passion tempered and fine-tuned by what Turner dismissively calls 'soft' ecological knowledge, namely 'conservation biology, environmental journalism, environmental public policy, environmental politics, and the byzantine world of environmental philosophy.' The reverse is also true, but maybe that is just another way of saying that to truly make a difference one needs to bring the two together in her heart, her head, and in her hands (or his, of course). She needs a spiritual connection with Nature, practical knowledge of Nature, and a passion for It that manifests itself in pragmatic yet relentless activism. Anything else is either useless information in a crusty encyclopedia or a pompous book with a very limited print run and a high cover price published by the University of Arizona Press. Ha! I got an irrelevant rant in somehow. I always find a way."
Act III: The defender (heroic rejoinder)
Yes you did get an irrelevant rant in there. And that irrelevance was elevated, unfortunately, because you did not read the book — in whose pages you would have found general agreement with many of your own principles and vision.
That you didn't even bother to finish the intro — literary equivalent of an abstract — and then follow through to find out what was actually behind that summary, may have been simple lack of interest. But it also sounds like a dismissal of both the tenets of philosophy and the careful laying out of a position in referenced essay form. In other words, it can certainly be argued that you are right; but you would have to make that argument and support it in order for everyone to judge. On the other hand, it can also be argued that Turner is right, and he has made his argument — rather eloquently I would say — and supported it. In typical philosophical cadence it's less about "this is/this isn't the way to go" than "I'm just saying'..."
Even if you don't agree with elements of Turner's argument (as I don't, impractical as some of it is in 2014 — and was, in part, almost 20 years ago when first articulated) this is a fantastic piece of work that really makes you think about what you believe to be true. Whatever context they may finally come to rest in, many of his observations and insights are eye-opening; some even mind-blowing.
I'm a trained biologist and science/environment writer who continues to spend much time in the "wild" with ecologists, conservation biologists, taxonomists, biodiversity experts, climate researchers, reproduction/re-introduction scientists and the like, and I can tell you firsthand that the practical and philosophical ethos which they — and all of us, really — wrestle with around extinction and conservation issues, are laid out perfectly in this volume. This alone makes it more relevant than ever; controversy + original thinking = seminal work.
Last winter, while sitting in on a week-long "emergency" meeting about the potential captive-breeding and reintroduction of the critically endangered greater sage grouse on the North American Prairies, I couldn't help think that the discussions and tug-o'-war between all parties charged with this task — conservation and re-introduction biologists, zookeepers, animal care experts — and the various levels of government in both Canada and the contiguous U.S., as well as land stakeholders like ranchers and oil and gas industry reps, was handicapped more often than not by an inability to admit to some of the subterfuge Turner's book raises around ideas of preservation and management. I would have loved to have seen the meeting adjourned for two days while everyone went away and read The Abstract Wild, then watch how things proceeded when they returned — shell-shocked but thinking more deeply that they ever had before.
I'm just sayin'...
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.