8 Apr 2009

The Wild Within: Shepard, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Ch.8, subsection 6

Paul Shepard

Coming Home to the Pleistocene

Chapter VIII: Wildness and Wilderness

Subsection 6

The Wild Within

Humans have domesticated many plant and animal species. But in many cases, their wild ancestors have become extinct. So we no longer can compare domestics to wilds in order to see which is which.

Yet many other species have been spared.
Wildness occurs in many places. It is composed of the denizens of wilderness -- eagles, moose, and their botanical coinhabitants and all of the species whose sexual assortment and genealogy have not been controlled or set adrift by human design or captivity. But it also includes those species who have been cohabitants with domestication -- house sparrows, cockroaches, and ourselves. (142c-d)
But domesticated species have undergone "bodily and behavioral degradation." They have been "bred to be passive and to have physical conformities that are 'babylike' and thus appeal to our protective instincts" and show "the destruction of wildness." (142d)

So we ask, what is the wild human? Shepard quotes Lévi-Strauss as saying that wild humans are not savages, rather, they are we ourselves: "mind in its untamed state as distinct from mind cultivated or domesticated for the purpose of yielding a return." (Savage Mind qt 143a) Wildness remains our "generating matrix."
The savage mind is ours! We may be deformed by our circumstances, like obese raccoons or crowded, demented rats, but as a species we have in us the call of the wild. (143b, emphasis mine)
The loss of wildness is the destruction of the other. We have made the wild our prey, but now we are prey to the deep destruction this has brought upon us.
The loss is usually spoken of in terms of ecosystems or the beauty of the world, but for humans, spiritually and psychologically, the true loss is internal. It is our otherness within. (143c)
According to Julia Kristeva, modern civilization's problem of otherness and the self finds its source in self-consciousness. There are two failed solutions:
1. We try transcending the problem by merging with the One or God through meditation, ascetic solitude, and renouncing the physical world: "nature is merely the illusion of a mistaken reality." (143d)
2. We see the world as a reflection of the self. This is the "new insanity" of Narcissus.
Our selfhoods were once intertwined with the landscapes around us. But then the ancient world discovered the psychic self, an internal life versus an outside. This isolated the self and "drove the mechanistic empiricism of the seventeenth century toward 'the conquest of the outside . . . the outside of nature, to be subjugated by science." (qt 144b)

We domesticate and strip nature of her otherness to us. Then we reintegrate this neutered world back into us.
We discovered that our own inner otherness -- fundamentally perceived as a reflection of the outer forms of life -- when bereft of wildness was no longer infinitely mysterious and beautiful and diverse. (144bc)
But consider the hunter. He must imitate the animal in order to hunt it. He turns within himself to find otherness. Within us is an alien aspect, which as well is the otherness of the wild. We are a part of nature's wildness, but we are not the whole. So nature is other to us in the sense that we are not her in her entirety. But she is within us, because we are a part of her.

Domestication is a kind of alchemy whose animals reshape the character of people who have tamed them. Remembering that the opposite of wild is not civilized but domesticated, the best in ourselves is our wildness, nourished by the wild world. To be in a community with crops is to feel like a crop, to have the edges all dulled, our diversity muted. (145b)
Domestication has corrupted us. So too has nature-aesthetics. The corporate world cordoned off
parcels of wilderness that restrict the random play of genes, establish a dichotomy of places, and banish wild forms to enclaves where they may be encountered by audiences while the business of domesticating and denuding the planet proceeds. The savage DNA is being isolated and protected as esthetic relics, like the vestiges of tribal peoples.
My wildness, according to this agenda, can be experienced only on reservations called wilderness, but cannot be lived daily in ordinary life. (145c, emphasis mine)
But we should experience our wildness. Our selves grow by incorporating our natural surroundings into our personal identity.
To the indigenous people of the Australian outback the terrain is not a great three-dimensional space, not a landscape, but a pattern of connections lived out by walking between places and performing rites that link the individual in critical life stages to sacred places -- places that become part of an old story told, sung, and walked through over generations. To be so deeply engaged in place and myth is for most of us today a great hunger. (145d)

Shepard, Paul. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1998.

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