Why Wildness Matters

categories: Cocktail Hour

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satelittesThis past weekend the Wall Street Journal ran this review I wrote of Jason Mark’s “Satellites in the High Country.”


Wildness, that important but often vague word, is at the heart of

Jason Mark’s “Satellites in the High Country.” As is this question:

Have we been Googled and GPSed, Facebooked and fracked and generally over-computerized into such domesticated creatures—living in a minutely mapped world of diminished species, diminished biodiversity and diminished space—that experiencing wildness is no longer possible?


Good question, Mr. Mark. Ten years ago I followed the osprey migration

from Cape Cod to Cuba and marveled that, since I was carrying a

cellphone for the first time, I could be tracked just like the

radio-tagged birds I was chasing. As everyone knows, the changes in

the decade since have been head-spinning, but what continues to amaze

me, as a professor, is how technology and its uses change from year to

year, as if a whole new species of Homo sapiens were coming back to

school each fall.


One of the pleasures of “Satellites in the High Country” is that Mr.

Mark does not follow the usual nature writer’s path and just throw the

word “wild” out there, waving it like a flag, before carrying on with

his own happy tramps into the wilderness. His approach to decoding the

word is comprehensive, and he begins logically with etymology, laying

out all the definitions but focusing on “self-willed” and



“There’s simply something tougher about wild things,” he writes.

Wilderness and wildness are not synonymous, but Mr. Mark argues that

wilderness, especially big wilderness, is where wildness most often

happens. The reasons we need to continue to protect large swaths of

wilderness are many: because wilderness is where evolution occurs;

because it is where we can find an alternative to, and solace from,

our cluttered virtual lives; because it is simply moral to allow other

creatures their rights on this planet instead of carrying on like

anthropocentric bullies.


These arguments will sound familiar, but as Mr. Mark notes, the very

concept of wilderness has recently been under intellectual assault: We

are told by contemporary environmental thinkers that we have entered

the Anthropocene, the age of man. And since there really are no

pristine, untouched lands, we should move on and treat the Earth like

the human garden it is, embracing our role as gardeners and

benevolently guiding the fate of wild things.


Mr. Mark, who was the co-founder of San Francisco’s largest urban

farm, knows a thing or two about gardening, and he gives it its due.

He acknowledges that to be a gardener is a noble ambition. But he

argues that in the United States our wilderness areas, which

constitute less than 5% of our land, should be kept truly wild—that

is, “free from our intentions,” including the intentions of those

mostly benign control freaks known as conservation biologists.


This is a hard argument to make as many conservationists wrestle with

climate change, and most environmentalists prefer what Mr. Mark

rightly calls “the Pottery Barn mentality”—that is, “you broke it, you

fix it.” We need to right our environmental wrongs, the argument goes,

moving marmots north, for instance, as the their habitats warm. Mr.

Mark is hardly anti-marmot, but he makes a strong case that we need at

least some places that we keep our meddling hands off of.


You will notice that so far I have focused on the ideas in “Satellites

in the High Country,” and to my mind the ideas are the best part of

the book. I am slightly less thrilled with the more conventional,

journalistic presentation of these ideas, braided as they are into

trips to wild places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the

Black Hills, Yosemite and the Olympic Wilderness in the Pacific

Northwest. These trips are well-described and linked clearly to the

book’s intellectual lessons, but the book’s genre conventions leave it

feeling a bit, well, tame. “Satellites in the High Country” never

achieves the electric heights of Jack Turner’s “The Abstract Wild”

(1996), a work full of revolutionary verve that, in its thorny

intractability, was as self-willed and uncontrolled as its subject.


What Mr. Mark’s book does that earlier books did not is to

intelligently place the cry for wildness inside a time when the end of

nature and the rise of the virtual have been almost universally

declared. He never fails to acknowledge just what a predicament we are

in, both environmentally and intellectually. The planet is tamed and

all is known, we are told, so why not accept our fates, take our

numbers and do our best as we trudge through this unwild world?


Mr. Mark argues the opposite: that we have never needed the wild more

than we do now. “Big Data in the backcountry? No thanks. Wifi in the

woods? I think I’ll pass.” Someone could write these sentences

blithely, but he does not. He knows that it will be a nearly

impossible thing to respect the rights of other species and continue

to place lands beyond human hands, and that it will require what many

would consider the opposite of wildness: discipline. But if difficult,

it is also necessary and, Mr. Marks believes, both morally and

practically imperative. Because if we do not we will sever a lifeline

to the place we came from and to any lives beyond our own.

  1. M. Graham writes:

    Thanks for this review. I’ll have to pick this up. Very curious as to how his ideas on “wilderness,” “the wild,” and “conservation” line up (or not) with Jack Turner’s in The Abstract Wild (one of my favorites). Off to my online independent bookseller. . .