Julian Huxley wrote, “Man is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.” Perhaps so many people struggle with fear, alienation, and depression because we are conscious at some level that we have stopped evolving. The part of our humanity that is most vital—our diversity of experience, our awareness, our sense of purpose and optimism for the future—is closer to extinction than anytime in the history of our species.
Others argue that we can solve our environmental problems through technology, and this may be possible in the short term, bur what will solve the alienation and meaninglessness?
We are told we should be optimistic about our ever-growing ability to use science to maintain human prosperity. Bioengineering and nanotechnology are today’s evidence of our determination to colonize and put under our will every level of the natural world. We replace natural DNA chains with human-created ones. We replace wild forests with domesticated forests or plantations. We replace wild fish with farm-raised fish. We replace wild animals with domesticated animals. We replace our wild, independent, self-willed selves with lesser, domesticated selves. As we increasingly domesticate wild communities, including ourselves, we create the kind of world our philosophy leads us to believe is right. We see fewer and fewer alternatives.
There is a middle path, a teaching for life that is as old as time and still the freshest antidote for what ails us. What is true for the grizzly bear is no less true for the human. We, too, need a natural habitat. All of life seeks the rest of life; we are tuned for relationship. We need wildness in the world and wildness in ourselves to continue a healthy evolutionary journey. The extinction of human experience is parallel and equal to the extinction of biodiversity. We cannot go it alone. We let the grizzly bear die, and we have killed a part of ourselves. We contribute to the homogenization of Karma Tashi and his people, and we have made ourselves less real, less aware, less stable.
Vandana Shiva, an Indian activist, physicist and philosopher, says:
It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse species to evolve; it is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse cultures to evolve; it is a struggle to conserve both cultural and biological diversity. It is a struggle against new and old forms of colonization.
The middle path, or the radical center, is our struggle to regain a relationship to the land, and to carry it with us in our modern lives as the lesson for how we might better live. In this light, the work of land conservation takes on a purpose and gravity as important as the greatest achievement of any culture; it becomes the noble effort of saving ourselves along with the life that still surrounds us.
This is the renewed awareness of the critical need for refugia, seedbeds of life that survive the modern-day glaciers of destruction to enable life to begin anew. The purpose of land conservation is to create refugia, places where humans can re-learn where and how to be in healthy relationship with the rest of life. Refugia are the places that sustain all life, the places where humans and other species can continue to change and evolve together. Refugia contain land and people together.
Some say this is impossible to do, that people have become too destructive, too numerous, too focused on ourselves. I say we must do it. How are we ever going to curb our population, or restore in people some sense of their responsibility to the earth without a strong connection to the land? How will people know what is sacred and essential to a whole life? How can we possibly preserve biodiversity while simultaneously allowing our own human experience to become extinct? It is our relationship to land, in fact, which gives us our highest hope of survival, because it is our relationship to land that has developed our highest values: our sense of patience, commitment, generosity, and belief in a story that is larger than ourselves.
My friendship with Karma Tashi, my devotion to his people, and my own life work in land conservation comes from a passion for the diversity and wildness in this world. Re-thinking land conservation as the conservation of relationships is the rewilding of people and the land. Rewilding means restoring to both people and the land a sense of wholeness or connection to one another because it is only through our relationships with the rest of life that we find our capacity to be uniquely ourselves, or, in other words, to be untamed, self-willed, wild.
It is our radical interconnectedness with life that is the source of our capacity to suffer with our world. Take that away from us, and how do you expect us to act?
What most inspires me, what I know to be most true and worthwhile, are all the efforts to record and protect the beauty, value, realness, and interconnectedness of lives that are led in opposition to this mechanical, diminished world of ours. And what connects all of these efforts, large and small, urban and rural, is a love of the land and our embeddedness in it. This is what defeats the extinction of human experience and our death by alienation. Our love of land is the wildness inside of us, saving us and saving the land
Peter Forbes is a former director of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for Land and People, a farmer, photographer, and the author of The Great Remembering.
“Lifting the Veil,” copyright © 2003 by Peter Forbes. Excerpted from Coming to Land in a Troubled World, copyright © 2003 by the Trust for Public Land. Reprinted by permission of the author.