Dog Walk Notes: Lighting Out for the Territories

Lighting out for the territories. It’s one of the core stories of our national identity, and especially among those of us who did leave the places where we grew up, who ran off to be ski bums and raft guides and lead groups of kids on wilderness trips. It wasn’t just an adventure we were after — we were going to completely reinvent how to live. We’d show them! All those people we left behind in those suburbs with the office jobs. We were going to be authentic. Real. We were Huck and Jim, deciding not to go home, but to go out. Out There.

And yet, the problem with the myth of lighting out for the territories is that it gives the impression that we can we can leave all our damage behind. That we can start fresh. That no matter what damage we’ve caused, we can go someplace else, someplace new and pristine and better, and we can start all over again.

One of the central sorrows we must face in order to cope with the anthropocene is that there are no more territories to light out to.

This is not to say that there are not still vast wilderness areas on earth where a person can go to have a big adventure — there is still Chile, and Argentina, and the Himalaya, and the Brooks Range and the Canadian and Siberian arctics. There are still wild places, but those wild places are now islands. And with the advent of the adventure travel industry, your chances of running into other people are pretty high.

Or perhaps that’s what you want? To fly a small plane to a remote lodge, where you will sleep in high-thread-count sheets, and eat delicious meals prepared by a talented cook, and be taken on carefully curated trips to see wild animals and beautiful scenery.

And what’s wrong with that? I can hear some of my fellow Montanans asking. We are, after all a state that depends largely on travel and tourism — it’s now the second largest industry in the state behind agriculture. As a family, we rely on travel and tourism, since Himself has a vacation cabin, the income from which he’s planning to live on in retirement. High-end tourism like the one I just described allows people who really love a place to live there, and to make a living.

True, but it also continues to normalize the consumerism as a means of experiencing the natural world and wild places — the same consumerism that is endangering them.

So if there’s no longer an “out there” to which one can flee, what are we to do with our ruined world?

If it is true that human beings have now colonized all corners of the globe, if it is true that wild places only continue to exist because the human beings who love and value them fight to preserve and expand them, if it is true that we can no longer escape the damage we have wrought by lighting out for the territories, then what?

It is a truism of wilderness studies, that the pastoral and the wild must be in opposition to one another, that it is the pastoral impulse to control nature, to suborinate it to human control (usually via agriculture) that has driven wild things and the wild into extinction. In my experience, it’s been people who grew up in urban and suburban environments who subscribe to this notion most fully. To many of us who grew up on farms, and whose first real experiences of the natural world were found in back pastures, far woods, or farm ponds, the idea that the pastoral and the wild must always be in opposition seems a little nuts. (As always, distinctions must be made between farms and industrial agriculture. Farms include farmsteads, where people actually live, and land and animals with whom one is in relationship. Industrial agriculture is the sort that led my mother to ask, when she helped me move to UC Davis, “but where are the people?”)

There’s also a strong prejudice among those who privilege wild nature over all other kinds of nature, against the very idea of the domestic, a prejudice that runs through the literature of wildness as we know it. This unfortunate strain of masculinist fear leaves us with the notion that wilderness is the locus of freedom and passion and authenticity, and that those values can only be in opposition to the relationships that characterize domestic life — relationships with spouses and children and community. It also poses wilderness as a place opposed to relationships that characterize pastoral life — relationships with one’s livestock, one’s land, one’s crops.

While it is not impossible to live in the wildnerness, those of us who have spent any time around wilderness advocates always know someone who lives off the grid, or out of a backpack, it’s not tenable (nor socially or politically desireable) to advocate wilderness as a place people can live. In fact, we should be protecting wildernesses from the people who would like to live in them, especially the folks who want to build roads and big orange log “cabins” with great rooms looking out over the scenic remains of the wilderness they just ruined.

It is in order to preserve what wild country we have left, as well as to advocate for the preservation of bigger, more intact, ecosystems that I think we need to reclaim the concept of domesticity. We need a bigger, wilder domestic framework, one that incorporates care for all beings, not just humans.

I was in a bar after a reading a few weeks ago, and when I told the woman I was speaking to that I’d been doing a lot of research on the anthropocene, she was horrified by the mere concept. “You mean making everything a garden?” she said. You have to remember where we live. We live in the Paradise Valley, we live on the shores of the Yellowstone river, in between three mountain ranges, much of which territory is wilderness populated by apex predators like the grizzly bear. People who move here do so because of the stunning beauty of the place, and because they like being in this kind of proximity to wild nature.

To accept the notion of the anthropocene is not to cede the field to those who, as my horrified companion feared, would seek to manage the wildness out of our wilderness areas, but it is to acknowledge that if a wilderness area only exists because we have named it, and protected it’s borders from violation, then yes, we are living in the anthropocene. In which case, it’s up to us to protect, preserve, and expand those remnant chunks of wild nature we have left.

We can no longer light out for the territories. We can no longer leave human civilization behind in favor of some newer, better, “untouched” corner of teh world. There isn’t anyplace left where it’s all different and better and free-er and whatever other qualities we look to project on the-place-that-is-not-this-one-I’m-tired-of. If we really are in the anthropocene, then it’s time to grow up a little. Time to look around at the world we have wrought, a world that yes, is damaged and dinged around the edges. A world that isn’t as shiny and perfect as we’d once hoped, but which is still pretty good, and which we might be able to save. But we’re not going to be able to save it if we cling to this hope that there is somewhere else we can flee to, some other, more perfect landscape, place, home. We have our one home. This one.