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Wildness

by James Barnes

We environmentalists talk an awful lot about the wild, wilderness and sometimes even wildness without, I think, really knowing what weíre talking about. To me wildness is a quality in living things and the world that is more important, in the long run, than quantitative measurements of biodiversity, native purity of ecosystems or protected legal designation.

The wild is opposed, commonly and of course, to the tame. We think of domesticated plants and animals as somehow inferior (if more useful to us) to wild varieties, usually because their reproduction and development has been compromised by our bred specializations and they have become dependent on our care. This may be a fallacious view, in that one can also look at domesticated species as having been preadapted to humansí choosing them to enter into symbiosis. That symbiosis can be described as a trade of food: eggs, milk, seeds, fruit--and bodies--or other useful products for competition-free habitat and guaranteed care and feeding. As an example, the range of the domestic cow is global, excluding only Antarctica, and it numbers in the billions of individuals of numerous varieties. An unarguable success for such a large mammal. Is it a good strategy in the long term? Only time will tell. All adaptive strategies are short term, for the moment. The future is equally unknowable to a cow, a gene or a human.

If this makes the meaning of domestic unclear except insofar as it is connected to things human, then wild can only be defined as not human-influenced. That leaves humans in a somewhat hopeless position of being forever the negative definition of the term, condemned to inhabit a fallen world of social control while wildness exists in fenced-off preserves.

Yet it would be a real mistake to believe that humans are somehow also domesticated, and not wild. Not so. We are dangerous wild animals, the most dangerous. And as witnessed by our population of six billion strong and growing, we have no problem managing our reproduction autonomously.

Like uncertainty principle, merely looking at the "wilderness" changes it. Not just roads and logging but air and water pollution, climate change, lack of traditional human activity (fire, gathering, hunting), likewise, the nonhuman creeps into our most carefully ordered spaces, making mockery of our control whether it be fire or flood, insect or disease or the perils of our own wild behavior

If the dichotomy wild/domestic is valid, it is not by reference to human versus non, the domesticated , the tame comes from but rather the impulse to subsume under the authority of our conscious selves the autonomy of the other, whether that is a landscape, a creature or a part of our own striving for freedom.

Wildness is the ineffable quality of the left-alone, the autonomous and self-creating. It is not ordered, managed or restored. It's existence is independent: it can be used, altered and even destroyed (in places, in part) but it cannot be manufactured. It is not pure, nor is it a clear thing: it is the result of a movement of forces some of which may have intent and purpose, but cannot direct the whole. It includes all of us.

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