In Patagonia: Part 2

I have been meaning for many weeks to write a second blog reflecting on the time I spent at the end of last year in Patagonia. (You can read the first post here.) There is a lot I could say, perhaps too much, and this, I think, is the problem. I have wanted to write in particular about what it taught me about ‘nature’: a terrible, overused, potentially meaningless and yet also vital word, that encompasses so much of what we are concerned with here at the Dark Mountain Project. My experience in Patagonia was an immersion in wildness, and it brought bubbling up in me many thoughts, emotional responses and instinctual reactions which needed a lot of processing, particularly when I brought them back to the overdeveloped world.

I’m currently reading Gary Snyder’s book of essays The Practice of the Wild. Snyder is a fascinating writer, fully immersed in his subject, unafraid to reflect emotionally as well as analyse rationally, and mostly able to do so without coming across as a terrible old hippie.

In Uncivilisation, we rejected the whole notion of ‘nature’ in the sense in which the word is often used in this culture. We wrote:

The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free. Both are intimately bound up with each other. Both tell us that we are apart from the world; that we began grunting in the primeval swamps, as a humble part of something called ‘nature’, which we have now triumphantly subdued. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won. In this, our unique glory is contained.

The ‘myth of nature’, in this context, is the falsehood – long established in the modern world – that humanity is somehow not natural; we are apart from everything else, destined to control it, above it, or perhaps below it, but not integral to it or related to it in any sense but the scientific. While I stand by this notion, I have also more recently come to prefer the word ‘nature’ to the  word ‘environment’, by which it has been largely replaced. ‘Environment’ is a technocratic, dry, pseudo-scientific word, which strips the natural world of any sensuous or living qualities, and reduces it merely to the backdrop of human activity. In Dark Mountain book two (which you can buy here, and really should) Rob Lewis, in his essay The Silence of Vanishing Things, does an incisive job of exposing the language of contemporary environmentalism as part of the reason why that movement has hit a wall. The reclamation of the word ‘nature’ by its practitioners might be a starting point if we were looking for some change there.

Snyder has another take on nature, though, which I very much like. In his essay The Etiquette of Freedom, he explains that he uses the word ‘nature’ in its broadest sense, to mean ‘the physical universe and all its properties.’ The word ‘wild’, on the other hand, he uses to denote those portions of the physical universe which  remain free from the agency of humanity. Snyder writes that this definition of wild:

Come very close to being how the Chinese defined the term Dao, the way of Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self organising, self informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self authenticating, self willed, complex, quite simple.

The undomesticated animal; the self propagating plant; the land unfarmed or unmanaged: the food crop growing unbidden rather than in forced regiments; the human societies ‘whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation’ –  these are wild.  In this context ‘we can say,’ writes Snyder, ‘that New York City and Tokyo are natural but not wild. They do not deviate from the laws of nature, but they are habitat so exclusive in the matter of who and what they give shelter to, and so intolerant of other creatures, as to be truly odd.’

I take you on this long etymological diversion because much of my time in Patagonia was spent in genuinely wild places, where humanity intruded only slightly. One of these places was Parque Pumalin, in northern Patagonia. Pumalin is one of the last significant areas of temperate rainforest in South America – and increasingly in the world. It is an incredible place, and it had a strange effect on me. It is around the same latitude in the southern hemisphere as Britain is in the north, so while a visit to a tropical rainforest, for me, is a truly alien experience, a visit to the temperate forests of Chile was a comforting one. I seemed to recognise much of the flora and fauna, even though it was different: the same niche was being filled, the same atmosphere was being created. Pumalin is an incredible landscape of huge old trees, steep green mountains, sea fjords full of dolphins, porpoises and sea lions. The air is clean, the galaxies can be seen at night, you hear no industry, no cars. It is what much of Britain must have been like before the Neolithic revolution. In some deep, old, primal part of myself, I felt I had come home.

 

The preservation of Pumalin is the work of Doug and Kris Tompkins, hugely ambitious conservationists who are pioneering a number of similar projects across South America. Their aim is to conserve, or in some cases recreate, vital natural habitats, on a scale which makes that conservation meaningful enough for the survival of threatened ecosystems and species. Both deep ecologists, they are raising a flag for the importance of preserving natural systems in an age of global ecocide. The transcript of a conversation with Doug and Kris, which I recorded  in Pumalin, will appear in Dark Mountain book 3 later this year.

I was hugely impressed with the work that the Tompkins’ are doing – it is one of the  few truly inspiring things I have seen in a very long time. Regular readers will know that I have long come to the conclusion that it is now going to be impossible to prevent serious climate change, more destruction of habitats and species or the continued expansion of the human Empire. That Empire currently affects 93% of the Earth’s surface. The environmental movement, despite a huge amount of work and passion, and despite being right about most of the big picture for forty years, is failing to prevent the ongoing destruction. I don’t believe that anything will prevent much more of it now, bar the collapse or winding down of the industrial system or the running dry of the sources of fuel on which that system operates.

This is a bleak view to hold, but despite wanting to find it, I haven’t found anything which convinces me it’s not the correct one. On the other hand, thinking like this does not lead me to believe that ‘nothing can be done.’ Plenty can be done, to try and protect what we have left; but we need to do it in the context of the unravelling of the wild, and not in the context – common up to this point – of a ‘campaign’ to put all the pieces back together again when so many of them have already been washed away by the sea.

It seems to me that if we value the wild, as Snyder defines it, the most important task on our hands now is to preserve whatever aspect of it we can. Most of us will never be able to do anything like the work that the Tompkins’ do, but all of us can do something, whether it be physically preserving land that we own, or spreading the word, or learning useful skills to teach others, or working to keep safe what remaining wild things and places can be kept safe from the gathering storm.

There is something of a fashion, currently, for predicting the end of the wild – or for suggesting that it has already ended. The first shot was fired nearly 25 years ago by Bill McKibben in his pioneering book The End of Nature, in which he suggested, correctly of course, that globalised impacts of the human Empire such as chemical pollution and climate change meant that there was no genuine wildness left, in the pre-human, pristine sense. Recently, there has been a new slew of books and websites proposing that we are entering the ‘Anthropocene’ era, and that we must now take our rightful place in the pantheon of gods, pulling the levers of the natural world in order to to preserve a living planet.

This dubious neo-Wellsianism is, I suspect, simply a manifestation of a growing panic in a culture which feels it is losing control. While we are, in one sense, clearly facing the end of the wild world we have known, we are not going to be taking control of it any time soon. Given that we can’t even control our own economies, or plan our transport systems effectively, or indeed manage our individual lives in most cases, it takes a strange kind of blind optimism to imagine we can ‘manage’ an entire planet.

But, fantasies aside, we are in any case still left with very large areas of the Earth – such as that preserved by Pumalin – which are still effectively primordial. Will they survive climate change and the growing human appetite for more shiny things? We don’t know. But we have to hold on to them as if they will, because there is, at this stage, nothing else to do.

I suspect that the best hope we have now – hope for a living planet, hope for the continuation of beauty and wildness and ecological diversity and our own sanity as a species – is to protect as much of the world’s wildness  as we can, try and carry it through the coming storm and just hope that on the other side we will have found some accommodation with ourselves and with the wild. Any such accommodation, if it ever comes, won’t happen in our lifetime. But we have a flame to keep, in case it ever does.

In the first Dark Mountain book, I wrote a long essay entitled Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, in which I tried to analyse my reasons for falling out of love with green activism. This essay has been reproduced this month in the US-based Orion magazine, and last week I had an hour-long online discussion about it with the American writers Lierre Keith and David Abram. David Abram has been a friend of the Dark Mountain Project for some time, and I find him one of the wisest thinkers on the nature of wildness and humanity.

In this conversation, David said two things that struck me in particular. Firstly, he talked about the ‘metamorphosis’ which our civilisation needed to go through if we were to have any hope of understanding the real meaning of the wild world – and he didn’t suggest that this would be easy, or even possible in our lifetimes. The second thing he said took me right back to the temperate forests of Chile, and to the passion and determination that I felt when I walked in them. ‘The way that nature exceeds us,’ he said, ‘is so necessary.’

The way that nature exceeds us: I find a kind of dark hope in this thought. Somehow, in whatever form, nature will always exceed us; this is the fact that our culture cannot face but is going to have to. I came back from Patagonia with a new determination to do what I could to carry something wild and precious through this storm. I don’t see that there is a better or more important project than that right now.

Wanderweg

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve become more and more aware of other journeys crisscrossing my own. I’m following the route of a man who walked this way in 1934, tracing his path from the words in his books, but increasingly I find that his are not the only footsteps. The people I’m staying with bear testimony to the journeys of previous guests: ‘someone stayed here for a few days last year who was walking from Germany to Morocco,’ or ‘riding a Vespa over the Alps,’ or ‘cycling from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean…’ I am starting to glimpse a continent bisected by wanderers on strange, lonely quests, striking out on unknowable missions. Sometimes they leave traces.

My energy was low on the Rhine near the village of Rolandseck. It was a damp, dispiriting day and my steps were getting heavier – I still had a long way to walk before I had a place to sleep. At that point I came across a long metal plaque zigzagged into the paving stones, engraved with English words: a 2838 kilometre coast to coast walking journey on roads pavements tracks and bicycle paths from bilbao to rotterdam starting at the river nervion continuing to an alpine origin of the river rhine and following its course to the north sea ending at the hook of holland spain france switzerland germany the netherlands. Nearby was a sign with further explanation, but actually I didn’t want to know more. It was enough that someone had been here, that someone had walked this same path, and this evidence of a previous walker lightened my steps until nightfall.

Walking slightly drunk one afternoon (I was decanting whiskey into my hip-flask and the whiskey didn’t all fit), acted as a weird charm – out of a sudden squall of rain appeared a wild-eyed, grinning man with broken teeth and an enormous, demonic-looking grey dog. ‘Come, come, you must stay dry here,’ he said, motioning me into the shelter of someone else’s garage, and then embarked on a strange monologue: ‘My name is Harry. Like your youngest prince! But I am not a royalist, never! I am free. I hate hierarchy! Do you know that this class system, this system of kings and earls and counts, was brought here by the Romans? Before the Romans came to this land the Germans were free, we were all equal, no one was better or worse than any other. We must still overthrow this Roman mentality, so we can be free again…’

He went on in this vein until the rain stopped, at which point I walked on. It was only later that afternoon that I came across a little sign – a centurion’s helmet and the word limes – and realised I was inadvertently tracing the old boundary of the Roman Empire from Holland to the Black Sea. The Romans controlled the west bank of the Rhine but never conquered the wild tribes to the east. How amazing, a thousand years later, to meet a man enthusiastically babbling an ancient communal memory of tribal freedoms versus imperial oppression – however vague and inaccurate – through a mouthful of crooked teeth, on the line of that frontier.

Another route I constantly cross, follow for a while, lose again, and pick up a few days later, is the Pilgerweg – the pilgrim’s way – that spreads through all the countries of Europe until it becomes the Camino de Santiago. Until now I hadn’t realised that these paths were connected, branching and dividing and merging again like the map of a nervous system, until they converge, after thousands of miles, on that dusty little town in the north of Spain. I am heading east, not west, but I’m still tracing the same pathways. So far I haven’t met another walker, but sometimes I get the notion that someone might be shadowing my journey, or I might be shadowing theirs – they might be half a mile behind me or half a mile ahead of me, perhaps even stopping when I stop, crossing the road where I cross the road, having a rest on the same low wall, sneaking off for a surreptitious piss behind the same tangle of trees.

For two days this week I found myself following a series of little brown and white signs showing the silhouette of a woman driving an antiquated vehicle, with the words ‘Bertha Benz Memorial Route.’ These signs didn’t strike me as particularly exciting, but, I later found out, mark a journey of almost unimaginable significance – something that led, around the world, to cultural and environmental changes so profound that they seem better understood as a shift in consciousness. In 1888, Bertha Benz, wife of engineer Karl Benz, test-drove her husband’s prototype automobile on this road from Bruchsal to Pforzheim. This seemingly unassuming jaunt was the maiden voyage of the world’s first car – the car from which every other car, from the Model T Ford to the SUV, can trace its lineage. Even Karl Benz had his doubts about it, but by driving this route between the two cities, his wife proved that the automobile was a viable form of transport. Just how viable, she couldn’t have imagined. Only fifty years later, Germany gave that first car’s descendants the world’s first autobahns, ensuring their dominion over the landscape. Perhaps a walker following this route is like a Carib Indian – if there were any of them left – retracing the voyage that Columbus took with the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Sketching the outline of a journey that led to the destruction of a world.

Looking at Europe’s map today, the logical consequence of that journey can be seen in the webwork of red and yellow lines that divide and subdivide the continent, autobahns and their tributary roads that split the formless wilderness into abstract geometrical partitions – another branching nervous system like that of the Camino de Santiago, but one that has no end to arrive at, no destination. Walking alongside these roads, which I often find unavoidable, I see and hear and smell and feel that consequence every day. And yet, as I’m starting to discover, it’s not the only map. There are roads between the roads, from the limes to the pilgrim’s way, the cycle-tracks, the borders of fields, the Wanderweg – the wander way – the corridors of connected woodland left behind from carved-up forests, as well as the rivers and the streams that were Europe’s first thoroughfares. This is the map I am starting to glimpse, tracked by the ghosts of travellers past. Sometimes they leave traces.

Man and the Natural World

Most people in today’s society are profoundly helpless. Try to imagine what you would do if the water stopped coming out of the taps and filling up your toilet tank. As America and perhaps the global industrial system begin to come apart at the seams, one stops taking such services for granted. One also realizes that potable water comes out of taps every so often in human history, but then also disappears, usually for centuries at a time.

I would give you some of the specifics, but unfortunately I have been realizing lately that I am a historical illiterate. Virtually everything I know about the human past has been picked up from historical novels, movies, or asides in books about other things. I haven’t read a work of pure history in a long time, and it’s only recently – as I realized that modern industrial civilization is just as susceptible to collapse as the ones that have come before it – that I began to feel the weight of my ignorance.

Which brings us to Man and the Natural World by the British historian Keith Thomas. I found it for a dollar at an outdoor book market and was attracted to the title. Thomas describes changing attitudes to the natural world in early modern Britain, a time period that he sets at approximately 1500-1800. A great many things happened in the relationship between Britons and their natural environment during this period: enclosures of common land, increasing urbanization, the birth of scientific taxonomy, early attempts at conservation, and many others. I read a few pages, saw that Thomas was an engaging writer, and decided to take a first step towards dispelling my massive ignorance of the human past.

Man and the Natural World, as a study of attitudes, contains references to an extraordinary variety of sources, everything from poetry to pamphlets to popular sermons to the log books of merchants and aristocrats. Thomas realizes that to convince people that a certain belief was actually widely held, he must accumulate a fair amount of evidence, and the book often consists of fascinating lists of information. Here is an example from the chapter on botanical nomenclature:

Anyone who wants evidence of the way in which polite sensibilities have changed with the centuries need only consider the briskly anatomical nature of this now suppressed terminology, for in the seventeenth-century countryside there grew black maidenhair, naked ladies, pissabed (or shitabed), mares fart and priest’s ballocks. In the herb garden could be found horse pistle and prick madam; while in the orchard the open arse (or medlar) was a popular fruit. Even the black beetle was twitch-ballock and the long-tailed titmouse bum-towel. Many of today’s more fanciful flower names—lords and ladies, for example—are deliberate inventions of the nineteenth century, designed to obliterate some unacceptable indecency of the past…

If this passage bores you, don’t bother with Man and the Natural World. If you are delighted and a little sad that the pissabed is now called a dandelion, this book will give you endless pleasure. My favorite country-name for a plant was ‘welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk,’ now commonly known, apparently, as the houseleek, and still associated with virility in some quarters.

Man and the Natural World is more than a wonderful assemblage; Thomas’s arguments slowly emerge out of these progressions of lists, and his points are complicated and sometimes disturbing. For example, one might simply long for earlier times when local people knew plants and their functions. As Thomas demonstrates, though, these names only existed for plants with some obvious human utility, and placed man’s needs at the center of their world (pissabed describes the diuretic quality of the plant’s roots, whereas the more modern word dandelion apparently comes from the ‘lion’s tooth’ shape of the leaves themselves.) Early naturalists who came to rural people to help identify plants soon reached the limits of their knowledge; rural curiosity did not extend to even common plants that had no known human function, so the naturalists had to go around naming and classifying these plants themselves.

‘By eroding the old vocabulary, with its rich symbolic overtones,’ Thomas writes, ‘the naturalists had completed their onslaught on the long established notion that nature was responsive to human affairs.’ This may seem like a simple impoverishment, but it also led to the modern attitude, which I am certainly in sympathy with, that parts of the natural world deserve to be left alone whether people can get anything out of them or not.

Another fascinating chapter is on the human attitude towards animals. Thomas shows how urbanization and the keeping of pets led to a sentimental attitude towards animals (he has a list of animal names over time, showing how they got progressively closer to human ones) which then led, often, to the revulsion of city-dwellers towards country people who made a living off these animals. And the country people were, indeed, enormously cruel. Some of the old means of producing tastier meat, including nailing live ducks to a floor by their webs, are as brutal as anything one can find in a modern industrial plant, albeit on a smaller scale.

So which attitude is ‘correct’ — that of the practical countryman, or the city sentimentalist who refuses to give up the meat and services which these animals provide, but instead, like Gilbert White, simply plants a screen of trees to protect himself from the sight of the slaughterhouse? And to what extent is vegetarianism – which is my personal choice – even possible without the global supply lines that provide people in cold climates with a continuous supply of varied food?

These questions arise constantly while reading this book, because Thomas convincingly shows how most modern environmental attitudes actually arose out an increasing estrangement from nature, which then produced a longing for the world that was being destroyed, often without a concomitant willingness to give up the fruits of that destruction.

…by the end of the eighteenth century, a growing number of people had come to find man’s ascendancy over nature increasingly abhorrent to their moral and aesthetic sensibilities. This was the human dilemma: how to reconcile the physical requirements of civilization with the new feelings and values which that same civilization had generated…The growth of towns had led to a new longing for the countryside. The progress of cultivation had fostered a taste for weeds, mountains and unsubdued nature. The new-found security from wild animals had generated in increasing concern to protect birds and preserve wild creatures in their natural state. Economic independence of animal power and urban isolation from animal farming had nourished emotional attitudes which were hard, if not impossible, to reconcile with the exploitation of animals by which most people lived.

Obviously, none of these contradictions have gone away. It is generally comfortable city-dwellers that call for environmental protection, are quite convinced about climate change, and then take flights across the country to enjoy the scenery of their favorite national park, all while depending on massive quantities of resources to maintain every aspect of their lifestyle.

And yet some of the attitudes that such people have developed, even tinged with hypocrisy and a lack of practical knowledge, seem to have enduring value: a respect for nature outside its utility to man, compassion for the lives and suffering of animals, and an aesthetic feeling for wild as well as managed nature. As D. H. Lawrence once wrote, the road that modern man has been struggling along has been filled with waste and mistakes, and we may end up going back to where we came from, but it has also been a real journey; there has been some development along with the destruction. When we begin to return to a pre-industrial pattern of life – I am starting to suspect this will happen forcibly with the end of cheap oil, and probably entail a great deal of suffering – hopefully there are some lessons that can be saved from the path that we have been on. We also have lots of things to re-learn from past societies, and books like Thomas’s (his other classic work about the same early modern period is called Religion and the Decline of Magic) can help illuminate the road that led to the modern world, which we may soon be walking back down.

Tenuous, traceable threads

I’ve been walking for over two weeks, and it’s only just starting to occur to me that travelling this way is so much slower – indescribably so much slower – than any other form of transport. Apart from walking backwards, perhaps, or crawling on my belly. I’m on the first stretch of a very long journey, on foot across Europe to Istanbul, and I have plenty of time to think about these things. It’s an interesting adjustment. Bicycles pass me with speed and grace that I envy, but at least recognise as just a faster version of what I’m doing – making my way from one place to another – while cars, to my pedestrian eye, travel so incomprehensibly fast I have already started to think of them as something quite alien, engaged in an activity entirely different to my own. I’m wondering if the same is felt by geese when an aeroplane thunders in the distance.

My perceptions of distance have altered quickly. In a car, or even on a bike, you see a landmark on the horizon – a church tower, say, or a tall tree on a hill – and you spend ten minutes watching it steadily growing bigger and bigger and then suddenly you’re there, adjusted to its scale. Walking, you barely notice it change. It stays the same size and it stays the same size, and it stays the same size and it stays the same size, and then you watch the ground for a while and when you look up it’s fractionally bigger – or maybe that’s just a trick of the eye. It can be agonising – the trick is to stop caring. After all, if I was in a hurry I wouldn’t be walking in the first place. I’ve been thinking of those fairytales about castles that never draw closer, no matter how long a traveller walks, always teasingly keeping their place on the edge of the horizon. I know where those stories come from now, and imagine the way they were dreamed up by walkers, one step after another.

Walking has also made me consider the urban landscape differently. There’s a huge difference, I’ve discovered, between walking on soft grass or mud and walking on a high-impact surface like tarmac or on pavements. Hard surfaces jar the bones of the legs, sending regular shock waves through the body, and caused agony in my shins in the first few days. For this reason I’ve become obsessed with finding low-impact passageways through towns, clinging to any grassy verge, strip of mud or municipal lawn, doing everything I can to avoid the harder ground. Pavements are more obstructions than aids. This marks me out as a different type of walker to the strollers in the streets. I am not walking in town, I am walking through town, and these narrow corridors of soil are my connection back out to the countryside, a tenuous but traceable thread that strings one green space to the next.

The environment I’m in, I’ve noticed, determines people’s perceptions of me. Along the river path on the bank of the Rhine, people see my muddy boots and rucksack and sleeping bag and two-week beard and recognise me as a walker – one of their own, doing the same thing as them, only going a longer distance. When I’m in a city centre, eating bread and cheese on the steps of the cathedral, I morph suddenly into a tourist – what else could I be? But in the spaces in-between – nowhere lands like industrial zones or urban sprawl or outer suburbs, flanked by highways and motorway bridges and factories and out-of-town car showrooms, far from beauty either rural or urban – then I don’t belong in any category at all. People stare from passing cars, shooting me baffled and suspicious glances, as if I must be lost or desperate or doing something vaguely illegal. This isn’t a walking-designated zone, there is no clear reason for me to be here – I am out of place. Between country and city, in these no-mans-lands, I can only be perceived as a vagrant.