Friday, November 20, 2009

On Wildness and Civilization

Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest trees. Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.
--H.D. Thoreau, "Walking"

Thoreau was often criticized for not being wild enough. His Walden Pond was not out in the rugged mountains of Alaska. He didn't live purely off the land. He had regular interactions with others, and his experience with wildness came through the mild act of walking--he called it "sauntering"--not through extreme mountain sports like rock climbing or ultra running or what have you.

These criticisms, though, do not understand Thoreau's intent. They miss what Thoreau saw: the relation between wildness and civilization is symbiotic. Thoreau chose where he lived very deliberately. He wanted to live on the border between civilization and wildness because he thought that experience needed both wildness and civilization. After all, Thoreau was a writer, a reader, and a philosopher--an active participant in the development of a long history of humanity. His writings are highly civilized--but their energy is wild. Let me see if I can show you what I mean.

Thoreau's belief was not that his contemporaries ought to abandon civilization for the wild. His complaint was that we miscontrue the relation between wildness and civilization by putting them into opposition, forcing us to choose one over the other. He saw his task--and the American experience along with it--as one of renewing civilization, making the lives in it stronger, better, more vibrant, and more alive by means of measured and civilized encounters with wildness. His essay "Walking" is a masterpiece in this respect. Listen to this thought--it is wild, radical even, yet expressed in such civilized language:

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, — when fences shall be multiplied, and man traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road; and walking over the surface of God’s earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come.

The act of running crosses what's left of Thoreau's common ground. Running is a small act of resistance against private property. Where others see yards and business and property, we see pathways and openings. We just move through it. We exercise a kind of comparative freedom across our terrain--I step on grass, cross parking lots, follow sidewalks, the narrow shoulder of the road--none of it is my space or your space. It's not really space at all. The world does not appear to us as a collection of static properties, but as a series of paths through which to move. We saunter across land, forgetting completely questions of boundaries and borders. And by taking up this attitude, we see wildness.

I often head out around rush hour, and as I trot along barely dressed making my primitive motions, I pass through a veritable chaos. Most of the wildness of Nashville life today is encased in automobiles, but I know it's in there. I see the animals hunkered over in their man traps behind their steering wheels, eyes crazed or glazed over. They have the radio on and it's pounding out tribal rhythms or maybe they are listening to the medicine man rant and rave about the gods in Washington. I see it in the way the cars move, jerking out and around other cars, creeping as closely as they can to the back of the next. Everyone hustling with outrageous energy and yet going nowhere, confined to the public road, brake lights shining, a long red river flashing on and off. I see it in the fumes and smell the rich diesel and gasoline: smoke signals sent off like messages between Exxon and Mobil, Chavez and the Sheiks. My route takes me over the interstate on high bridges, and you can look down below and see a whole river of human beings roaring at 70 miles per hour, cutting through the air like terrestrial dolphins. The wildness is there.




It's there but oh it's hidden and locked up and expressed without intelligence: in road rage and boredom and the constant hustle. For us wildness is too wild. It's the three Starbucks a day that keeps the wildness just rolling on and on and never stopping to reflect on where or why how because it's now and then next and then this webpage click then outrage then work then family and dinner and bed and alarm then coffee and on and on a movement that has become so pure and direct and unstoppable that goes nowhere at all. It disperses itself as soon as it gets started. It can't be measured because it crosses no place. It's life as pure movement this tame and uncivilized existence, this ordered and stressed and monotonous life.

Running takes the pure movement and sets limits to it. It calms the spazmatic herking and jerking and gives it direction. This animal act, this simple sweating creature, this rhythmic striding, settles experience and slows it down. It brings wildness into play with order, goals, and destinations. The goals and orders and rhythms of running grow internally and organically out of experience itself. The wildness leads to an order, an order which points back into wildness.

I need running because it makes the dissociative blur of contemporary experience into a vital movement. It brings civilization to wildness and makes wild--in the vital sense--civilization. See, we think wildness is a type of limit experience, and that's where we misunderstand Thoreau. We think it's the pure adrenaline of the ski slope or the utter loneliness of the mountain hermit. But wildness is not best expressed by a wolf in the frenzy of the kill or the rolling eyes of the deer when pursued. This is wildness as violence, and these are images that we understand, being so close to the pure movement, the extreme wildness of the rat race. That's just fear, pain, adrenaline; it is not the wildness that nourishes and transforms civilized life into something better.

The wildness I want and need and which running sometimes gives me is a civilized experience of wildness. The wildness of the living organism. The wildness of vitality. Wildness expressed and made into an object of experience. That's what I want instead of this non-society, non-place, non-experience with its bored outrage, its detached violence, its dispersive experience, its movement that has no ends and no beginnings. Running ravels the obliterated experience of contemporary life back into a kind of integrated cloth. It gives life a distance, an order, and an end, however temporary.

I guess that means that running is an escape, mostly, for me. Maybe someday more of my ordinary experience will be imbued with real and living vitality. Maybe someday. Until then, I'll spin it up myself for an hour or so a day. I'll twist and dodge the steel buffaloes, swim the asphalt streams, saunter through the gasoline air. Find impervious and quaking swamps in the urban scene. I'll go for a run.

3 comments:

  1. excellent stuff, well explained.

    "Running is a small act of resistance against private property. Where others see yards and business and property, we see pathways and openings."

    because i now own a piece of land, i am very concious of crossing the pieces of land belonging to others. not the businesses so much as the private lawns, driveways, and backyards that i cut through to connect the various parts of my route into one route.

    back in the day, we didn't regard riding our bikes or playing hide-and-seek through the neighboring yards as trespassing, and i'd venture to say the neighbors didn't think of our games that way either. but now, when they glance out the kitchen window and see the adult me crossing their yard... what do they think?

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