Origins

 

The Wildness Within

The letterhead of the Wilderness Society used to remind us constantly of Henry David Thoreau's line, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." The line meant so much to me that I used it, quotes and all, as the title of Eliot Porter's illustrated anthology of Thoreau, which he named "The Seasons" in his show at the Smithsonian in 1960.

"That long title will never sell a book," Anne Brower warned me, the only time I can remember her being wrong. We sold a million copies and the Leipzig Book Fair listed it as one of the ten most beautiful books in the world. François Leydet, native of France and author of Sierra Club books on wilderness, the redwoods, and the Grand Canyon, wanted to translate Eliot's book into French but failed.

The French had no word for wildness. They had simply lost track of it. So had the British, who didn't want their version of The Environmental Handbook, which sold a million copies for the first Earth Day in the United States, to include my chapter on wilderness. Like the French, they had lost theirs. Indigenous Americans didn't need the word. They hadn't lost theirs, but they had nothing else. Why invent a name for something there is nothing but?

Having parents who taught me what wilderness was about eighty years ago, I have tried to share the wealth of wilderness for most of those years, and wasn't succeeding as I wanted to because too few people had shared a moving experience with wilderness out there. After too long it occurred to me to ask them to think not about what was out, but what was in--the wildness we are all constantly experiencing, but usually taking totally for granted, the wildness within. I'd give a book that title.

The opportunity to think about using that title came up when a New York publishing friend, with whom we later did not agree as well as we should have, suggested he would like to publish two books. One, inspired by the Rev. Francis Sayre, of the Washington Cathedral, he would name "Sayre's Prayers." The other he would call "Brower's Hours." It would be in Exhibit Format, drawn from my Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth books in that format, more than thirty of them in eighteen years, including a spread of image and selected texts to cover each of a year's 366 days (leap year included), and weighing about eight pounds. We would devise furniture to support it, and other promotion on need.

Publisher Werner Linz, editor Bruce Colman, photographer Joseph Holmes, and I devoted some months and eight thousand dollars of my own working on this pretty impressive retrospective of what a frustrated conservationist deemed important. We thought we were on target. Three publishers agreed. Our printer in Verona, Mondadori Editori, produced the eight-pound dummy. Then, years ago, the world kept turning, at intervals of a day or so, it's habit. The book didn't turn.


                                                                                
(photo by Alberta Gerould)

So here it comes, with new thoughts from my immediate family, especially our middle son Bob, who did the precision engineering mechanicals for Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth books, and now finds things computers can do that I prefer not to learn. "At intervals of a day or so" is vague. But why not? Nature is not all that predictable yet, so why should we try to pretend we know what's up?

Perhaps we can learn to read the Earth as well as senior species do, reminded as Bernadette Cozart, who is restoring gardens in Harlem, has reminded us volunteer advisors at Interface, the U.S. corporation most concerned about ecological conscience, "We must be the youngest species of all, because everything else seems to know what to do." If we did once know, we have forgot. It isn't required that we forget. Margaret Mead described our place as "The Island Earth." It was easy to steal her idea and start Earth Island as a name in England in 1972 and an energetic combination of ideas in Earth Island U.S., or wherever. One island, not leavable, whatever hemisphere.Moreover, a place to celebrate, as our son Ken suggested when, at twenty-one, he had just returned from rewarding months in the Galapagos . . .


A living planet is a rare thing, perhaps the rarest in the universe, and a very tenuous experiment at best. We need all the company we can get on ourunlikely journey.

 

Look out there at all the company you have -- and had. Every living thing, you included, has an impressive history. You all began, no exceptions, three and a half billion years ago, give or take a decade or two. Other creatures fell by the wayside, millions of them. Not you. You are this end of success, no failure at all, for that whole multi-billion year exercise. You are here because whatever the stress, for however long it lasted, you and all your beginnings handled it. Glow with pride. Take joy in it. Remember its source.

Do you remember? Almost. But be reminded that very few months before you were you, there was a patient egg waiting for one lucky sperm that agreed it would be nice if you showed up. There you were. You hadn't gained much weight yet, but you didn't need to. Every bit of inspiration about who you could be and what you would do with it was already contained in those two, all but indiscernible traces of protoplasm, better informed than they could tell you, waiting to pick up a little nourishment, warmth, and care, and ready to become all the organs and sort out all the ideas you would ever need.

Who arranged all these logistics? To perfect the system, for how many hours or eons? How many trials worked? How many failed? Were there instructions about how to make decisions? Renaissance whizzes? Prophets? Indigenous predecessors, bright creatures not quite ready to look like us, creatures with brains, without them? Lichens looking for parents. Just surf riders on the primordial sea? Who was in charge, and so skillfully?

Your guess is as good as mine, which is that life had nothing working for it but wilderness, which knew what it was about, and kept on knowing it right on to the time that patient egg and lucky sperm had their rendezvous. For a refresher course, sit back a moment and read the Earth. Forgive yourself if you are impressed by what the wildness within you lets you see, lets you hear, helps you feel, and lets you know a little of the joy that was waiting for you to give it a chance. . .

Isaiah fretted, "Thou hast multiplied the nation and not increased the joy." That was two thousand seven hundred years ago. He sounded a little down on his luck. Was he warning us about the dangers of multiplying too well? Let's think so, and give joy a shot.

DAVID R. BROWER

THE WILDNESS WITHIN US