The chickadee was oblivious to its surroundings and seemed almost machine-
like, if enfeebled, in its single-minded concentration: take a seed,
deliver a few futile pecks, then drop it; take a seed, peck-peck-peck,
drop it; take a seed .... The little bird, with its unsightly, disheveled
feathers, almost never managed to break open the shell before losing its
talons' grip on the seed. I casually walked up to its feeder perch from
behind and tweaked its tail feathers. It didn't notice.
My gesture was, I suppose, an insult, although I felt only pity for this
creature — pity for the hopeless obsession driving it in its weakened
state. There were several sick chickadees at my feeder that winter a few
years ago, and I began to learn why some people view feeding stations
themselves as an insult to nature. A feeder draws a dense, "unnatural"
population of birds to a small area. This not only encourages the spread
of disease, but also evokes behavioral patterns one might never see in a
less artificial habitat.
And if feeders are problematic, what was I to think of my own habit of
sitting outside for long periods and feeding birds from my hands?
Especially during the coldest winter weather and heavy snowfalls, I
sometimes found myself mobbed by a contentious crowd, which at various
times included not only chickadees but also titmice, red- and white-
breasted nuthatches, hairy woodpeckers, goldfinches, juncos, blue jays,
cardinals, various sparrows, and a red-bellied woodpecker. To my great
delight, several of the tamer species would perch on shoulders, shoes,
knees, and hat, as well as hands.
But by what right do I encourage tameness in creatures of the wild? The
classic issue here has to do with how we should assess our impacts upon
nature. Two views, if we drive them to schematic extremes for purposes of
argument, conveniently frame the debate:
On one side, with an eye to the devastation of ecosystems worldwide, we
can simply try to rid nature of all human influence. The sole ideal is
pristine, untouched wilderness. The human being, viewed as a kind of
disease organism within the biosphere, should be quarantined as far as
possible. Call this "radical preservationism".
On the other side, impressed by our society's growing technical
sophistication, we can urge the virtues of scientific management to
counter the various ongoing threats to nature. Higher-yielding,
genetically engineered vegetables, fruits, grains, livestock, fish, and
trees — intensively monocropped and cultivated with industrial
precision — can, we're told, supply human needs on reduced acreages,
with less environmental impact. Cloning technologies may save endangered
species or even bring back extinct ones. Clever chemical experimentation
upon the atmosphere could change the dynamic of global warming or ozone
Managerial strategies more appealing to many environmentalists include re-
introduction of locally extinct species, collaring of wild animals for
tracking and study, controlled predation by humans, and widespread use of
bird nesting boxes — practices that have aided in the recovery of
some threatened species, even if their lives now must follow altered
The problem with scientific management, founded as it is on the hope of
successful prediction and control, is that complex natural systems have
proven notoriously unpredictable and uncontrollable. Ecologists, writes
Jack Turner in The Abstract Wild, keep "hanging on to the hope of better
computer models and more information". But their hope is forlorn:
The "preservation as management" tradition that began with [Aldo]
Leopold is finished because there is little reason to trust the experts
to make intelligent long-range decisions about nature .... If an
ecosystem can't be known or controlled with scientific data, then why
don't we simply can all the talk of ecosystem health and integrity and
admit, honestly, that it's just public policy, not science?
"The limits of our knowledge", he adds, "should define the limits of our
practice". We should refuse to mess with wilderness for the same reason
we should refuse, beyond certain limits, to mess with the atom or the
structure of DNA. "We are not that wise, nor can we be" (Turner
1996, pp. 122-24).
Turner's critique of the ideal of scientific management is not unlike my
own. But, as is usually the case with pitched battles between opposing
camps, the real solution to the dispute between radical preservationists
and scientific managers requires us to escape the assumptions common to
both. Why, after all, does Turner grant that acceptable "messing" with
ecosystems could only be grounded in successful prediction and control?
Once we make this assumption, of course, we are likely either to embrace
such calculated control as a natural extension of our technical reach, or
else reject it as impossible. And yet, when I sit with the chickadees,
messing with their habitat, it does not feel like an exercise in
prediction and control. My aim is to get to know the birds, and to
understand them. Maybe this makes a difference.
It is certainly true, in one sense or another, that "the limits of our
knowledge should define the limits of our practice". But we need to
define the sense carefully. By what practice can we extend our knowledge,
if we may never act without already possessing perfect knowledge?
Our inescapable ignorance mandates great caution — a fact our society
has been reluctant to accept. Yet we cannot absolutize any principle of
caution. The physician who construes the precept, "First, do no harm", as
an unambiguous and definitive rule can no longer act at all, because only
perfect prediction and control could guarantee the absence of harm. Those
of us who urge precaution must not bow before the technological idols we
are trying to smash. We can never perfectly know the consequences of our
actions because we are not dealing with machines. We are called to
live between knowledge and ignorance, and it is as dangerous to make
ignorance the excuse for radical inaction as it is to found action upon
the boast of perfect knowledge.
There is an alternative to the ideal of prediction and control. It helps,
in approaching it, to recognize the common ground beneath scientific
managers and those who see all human "intrusion" as pernicious. Both
camps regard nature as a world in which the human being cannot
meaningfully participate. To the advocate of pristine wilderness
untouched by human hands, nature presents itself as an inviolable and
largely unknowable Other; to the would-be manager, nature is a collection
of objects so disensouled and unrelated to us that we can take them as a
mere challenge for our technological inventiveness. Both stances deprive
us of any profound engagement with the world that nurtured us.
My dominant sympathies are with the preservationist. But my hope for the
future lies in a third way. Perhaps we have missed this hope because it
is too close to us. Each of us shares in at least one domain where we
grant the autonomy and infinite worth of the Other while also acting
boldly to affect and sometimes even rearrange the welfare of the Other. I
mean the domain of human relations.
We do not view the sovereign individuality and inscrutability of our
fellows as a reason to do nothing that affects them. But neither do we
view them as mere objects for a technology of control.
How do we deal with them? We engage them in conversation.
We Converse to Become Ourselves
I would like to think that what all of us, preservationists and managers
alike, are really trying to understand is how to conduct an ecological
conversation. We cannot predict or control the exact course of a
conversation, nor do we feel any such need — not, at least, if we are
looking for a good conversation. Revelations and surprises lend
our exchanges much of their savor. We don't want predictability; we want
respect, meaning, and coherence. A satisfying conversation is neither
rigidly programmed nor chaotic; somewhere between perfect order and total
surprise we look for a creative tension, a progressive and mutual
deepening of insight, a sense that we are getting somewhere worthwhile.
The movement is essential. This is why we find no conclusive resting
place in Aldo Leopold's famous dictum. "A thing is right when it tends to
preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It
is wrong when it tends otherwise" (1970, p. 262).
Integrity and beauty, yes. But in what sense stability? Nature, like us,
exists — preserves its integrity — only through continual
transformation. Mere preservation would freeze all existence in an
unnatural stasis, denying the creative destruction, the urge toward self-
transcendence, at the world's heart. Scientific management, on the other
hand, reduces evolutionary change to arbitrariness by failing to respect
the independent character of the Other, through which all integral change
Turner, applying Leopold's rule to the past, is driven to suggest that
"the last ten thousand years of history is simply evil" (1996, p. 35). He
is, in context, defending the importance of moral judgment and passion.
By all means, let us have moral indignation where it is due — and,
heaven knows, plenty of it is due. But a ten thousand-year history
was simply evil? This is what happens when you make a principle of
stability absolute and leave conversation and change out of the picture.
The antidote to Turner's stance here (a stance he himself continually
rises above) is to consider what it might mean to engage nature in
respectful conversation. One can venture a few reasonably straightforward
In any conversation it is, in the first place, perfectly natural to remedy
one's ignorance by putting cautious questions to the Other. Every
experimental gardening technique, every new industrial process, every
different kind of bird feeder is a question put to nature. And, precisely
because of the ignorance we are trying to remedy, there is always the
possibility that the question itself will prove indelicate or otherwise an
occasion for trouble. (My bird feeder was the wrong kind, conducive to
the spread of disease. And you can quite reasonably argue that I should
have investigated the issues and risks more thoroughly before installing
my first feeder.)
In a respectful conversation such lapses are continually being committed
and assimilated, becoming the foundation for a deeper, because more
knowledgeable, respect. The very fact that we recognize ourselves as
putting questions to nature rather than asserting brash control encourages
us to anticipate the possible responses of the Other before we act, and to
be considerate of the actual response when it comes.
This already touches on a second point: in a conversation we are always
compensating for past inadequacies. As every student of language knows, a
later word can modify the meaning of earlier words. The past can in this
sense be altered and redeemed. We all know the bitter experience of words
blurted out unwisely and irretrievably, but we also know the healing
effects of confession and penance.
This in turn points us to a crucial third truth. At any given stage of a
conversation, there is never a single right or wrong response. We can
legitimately take a conversation in any number of healthy directions, each
with different shades of meaning and significance.
Moreover, coming up with my response is not a matter of choosing among a
range of alternatives already there, already defined by the current state
of the exchange. My responsibility is creative; what alternatives exist
depends in part on what new alternatives I can bring into being. Gandhi
engendered possibilities for nonviolent resistance that were not known
before his time, and the developers of solar panels gave us new ways to
heat our homes.
All conversation, then, is inventive, continually escaping its previous
bounds. Unfortunately, our modern consciousness wants to hypostatize
nature — to grasp clearly and unambiguously what this "thing" is so
that we can preserve it. But the notorious difficulties in defining what
nature is — what we need to preserve — are no accident. There
is no such thing as a nature wholly independent of our various acts to
preserve (or destroy) it. You cannot define any ecological context over
against one of its creatures — least of all over against the human
being. If it is true that the creature becomes what it is only by virtue
of the context, it is also true that the context becomes what it is only
by virtue of the creature.
This can be a hard truth for environmental activists to accept,
campaigning as we usually are to save "it", whatever "it" may be. In
conversational terms, the Other does not exist independently of the
conversation. We cannot seek to preserve "it", because there is no "it"
there; we can only seek to preserve the integrity and coherence of the
conversation through which both it and we are continually transforming
ourselves. Hypostatization is always an insult because it removes the
Other from the conversation, making an object of it and denying the
living, shape-changing, conversing power within it.
Finally, conversation is always particularizing. I cannot converse with
an abstraction or stereotype — a "democrat" or "republican", an
"industrialist" or an "activist", or, for that matter, a "preservationist"
or a "scientific manager". I can converse only with a specific
individual, who puts his own falsifying twist upon every label I apply.
Likewise, I cannot converse with a "wetland" or "threatened species". I
may indeed think about such abstractions, but this thinking is not
a conversation, just as my discoursing upon children is not a conversation
with my son.
Permission and Responsibility
How, then, shall we act? There will be many rules of thumb, useful in
different circumstances. But I'm convinced that, under pressure of
intense application, they will all converge upon the most frightful,
because most exalted, principle of all. It's a principle voiced, albeit
with more than a little trepidation, by my colleague at The Nature
Institute, Craig Holdrege:
You can do anything as long as you take responsibility for it.
Frightful? Yes. The first thing to strike most hearers will be that
impossibly permissive anything. What environmentalist would dare
speak these words at a convention of American industrialists?
But hold on a minute. How could this principle sound so irresponsibly
permissive when its whole point is to frame permission in terms of
responsibility? Apparently, the idea of responsibility doesn't carry that
much gravity for us — and isn't this precisely because we are less
accustomed to think of nature in the context of responsible conversation
than of technological manipulation? Must we yield in this to the mindset
of the managers?
If we do take our responsibility seriously, then we have to live with it.
It means that a great deal depends on us — which also means that a
great power of abuse rests on us. Holdrege's formulation gives us exactly
what any sound principle must give us: the possibility of a catastrophic
misreading in either of two opposite directions. The only way to get at
any principle of integrity, any principle of organic wholeness, is to
enter into conversation with it, preventing its diverse movements from
running off in opposite directions, but allowing them to weave their
dynamic and tensive unity through our own flexible thinking.
"You can do anything if you take responsibility for it". An ill-
intentioned one-sidedness can certainly make of this a mere permission
without responsibility. But, then, too, as we have seen, taking on the
burden of responsibility without the permission ("First, do no harm —
never, under any circumstance; do not even risk it") renders us catatonic.
Permission and responsibility must be allowed to play into each other.
When we deny permission by being too assiduous in erecting barriers
against irresponsibility, we are also erecting barriers against the
exercise of responsibility. The first sin of the ecological thinker is to
forget that there are no rigid opposites. There is no growth without
decay, and no decay without growth. So, too, there is no opportunity for
responsible behavior without the risk of irresponsible behavior.
"But doesn't all this leave us dangerously rudderless, drifting on
relativistic seas? Surely we need more than a general appeal to
responsibility! How can we responsibly direct ourselves without an
understanding of the world and without the guidelines provided by such an
Yes, understanding is the key. We need the guidelines it can bring. But
these must never be allowed to freeze our conversation. This is evident
enough in all human intercourse. However profound my understanding of the
other person, I must remain open to the possibilities of his (and my)
further development — possibilities that our very conversation may
serve. This doesn't, in healthy experience, produce disorientation or
vertigo, a fact that testifies to a principle of dynamic (not static)
integrity, an organic unity, as the fundament of our lives.
Such a principle, above all else, is what we must seek as we try to
understand the world around us. The Nature Institute where I work sits
amid the pastures of a biodynamic farm. The cows in these pastures have
not been de-horned — a point of principle among biodynamic farmers.
Recently I asked Holdrege whether he thought one could responsibly de-horn
cows, a nearly universal practice in American agriculture.
"How does de-horning look from the cow's perspective? That's the first
thing you have to ask", he replied. When you observe the ruminants, he
went on, you see that they all lack upper incisors, and they all possess
horns or antlers, a four-chambered stomach, and cloven hooves.
If you look carefully at the animals, you begin to sense the
significance of these linked elements even before you fully understand
the relation between them. They seem to imply each other. Do you
understand the nature of the implication? So here already an
obligation presses upon you if you want to de-horn cattle: you must
investigate how the horns relate to the entire organism.
Given his own observations of the cow (see "Pharming the Cow" in NF #43),
and given his discussions with farmers who have noted the different
behavior of cows with and without horns — and given also the lack of any
compelling reason for the de-horning — Holdrege's own conclusion is:
"Unusual situations aside, I don't see how we can responsibly de-horn
Strange as this stance may seem outside a respectful, conversational
context, it is a conclusion that remains natural to us at some half-
submerged level of understanding. What artist would represent cattle
without horns? (Picture the famous Wall Street bull, de-horned!) The
horns, we dimly sense, "belong" to these animals.
What the ecological conversation requires of us is to raise this dim
sense, as best we can, to clear understanding. The question of what
belongs to an animal or a plant or a habitat is precisely the
question of wholeness and integrity. It is a question foreign and
inaccessible to conventional thinking simply because we long ago quit
asking it. We had to have quit asking it when we began feeding animal
remains to herbivores such as cows, and when we began raising chickens,
with their beaks cut off, in telephone book-sized spaces.
Most dramatically, we had to have quit asking it by the time genetic
engineers, borrowing from the philosophy of the assembly line, began
treating organisms as arbitrary collections of interchangeable mechanisms.
There is no conversing with a random assemblage of parts. So it is hardly
surprising, even if morally debilitating, that the engineer is not
required to live alongside the organisms whose destiny he casually
scrambles. He is engaged, not in a conversation, but a mad, free-
Our refusal of the ecological conversation arises on two sides. We can,
in the first place, abandon the conversation on the assumption that
whatever speaks through the Other is wholly mysterious and beyond our ken.
This all too easily becomes a positive embrace of ignorance.
I do not see how anyone can look with genuine openness at the surrounding
world without a sense of mystery on every hand. Reverence toward this
mystery is the prerequisite for all wise understanding. But "mysterious"
does not mean "unapproachable". After thirty-two years of marriage my
wife remains a mystery to me — in some ways a deepening mystery. Yet
she and I can still converse meaningfully, and every year we get to know
each other better.
There is no such thing as absolute mystery. Nearly everything is unknown
to us, but nothing is unknowable in principle. Nothing we could
want to know refuses our conversational approach. A radically unknowable
mystery would be completely invisible to us — so we couldn't
recognize it as unknowable.
Moreover, the world itself is shouting the necessity of conversation at
us. Our responsibility to avoid destroying the earth cannot be
disentangled from our responsibility to sustain the earth. We cannot heal
a landscape without a positive vision for what the landscape might become
— which can only be something it has never been before. There is no
escaping the expressive consequences of our lives.
Our first conversational task may be to acknowledge mystery, but when you
have prodded and provoked that mystery into threatening the whole planet
with calamity, you had better hope you can muster a few meaningful words
in response, if only words of apology. And you had better seek at least
enough understanding of what you have prodded and provoked to begin
redirecting your steps in a more positive direction.
But claiming incomprehension of the speech of the Other is not the only
way to stifle the ecological conversation. We can, from the side of
conventional science, deny the existence of any speech to be understood.
We can say, "There is no one there, no coherent unity in nature and its
creatures of the sort one could speak with. Nature has no interior".
But this will not do either. To begin with, we ourselves belong to
nature, and we certainly communicate with one another. So already we can
hardly claim that nature lacks a speaking interior. (How easy it is to
ignore this most salient of all salient facts!) Then, too, we have always
communicated in diverse ways with various higher animals. If we have
construed this as a monologue rather than a conversation, it is not
because these animals offer us no response, but only because we prefer to
But beyond this, whenever we assume the organic unity of anything,
we necessarily appeal to an immaterial "something" that informs its parts,
which otherwise remain a mere disconnected aggregate. You may refer to
this something as spirit, archetype, idea, essence, the nature of the
thing, its being, the "cowness of the cow", or whatever. (Some of these
terms work much better than others.) But without an interior and
generative aspect — without something that speaks through the
organism as a whole, something of which all the parts are a qualitative
expression — you have no organism and no governing unity to talk
about, let alone to converse with.
Remember: the science that denies an interior to nature is the same
science that was finally driven by its own logic (for example, in
behaviorism) to deny the interior in man — a reductio ad absurdum if ever
there was one. The same oversight accounts for both denials — namely,
the neglect of qualities, which are the bearers of expression in both the
world and the human being. Where there is genuine expression, something
is expressing itself.
In his study of the sloth (NF #97) Holdrege remarks that "every detail
of the animal speaks 'sloth'". Of course, you cannot force anyone to see
the unity of the sloth — to see what speaks with a single voice (against
standard evolutionary logic) through all the details — because you cannot
force anyone to attend in a disciplined way to the qualitative substance
of the world. But this much needs saying: a science that long ago
decided to have nothing to do with qualities is not in a good position to
tell those who do attend to qualities what they may or may not discover.
(The stance of some churchmen toward Galileo's telescope comes to mind.)
What those who are receptive to the world's qualities consistently
discover is a conversational partner.
Where Does the Wild Live?
To foreclose on the possibility of ecological conversation, whether due to
reticence in the presence of the mystery of the Other or simple denial of
both mystery and Other, is to give up on the problem of nature's integrity
and our responsibility. It is to forget that we ourselves stand within
nature, bringing, like every creature, our own contributions to the
ecology of the whole. Most distinctively, we bring the potentials of
conscious understanding and the burden of moral responsibility. Can it be
merely incidental that nature has begun to realize these potentials and to
place this burden here, now, upon us?
Raymond Dasmann sees wilderness areas as a refuge for "that last wild
thing, the free human spirit" (quoted in Nash 2001, p. 262). The phrase
is striking in its truth. But one needs to add that the human spirit is
not merely one wild thing among others. It is, or can become, the spirit
of every wild thing. It is where the animating spirit of every wild thing
can be known, where it can rise to consciousness, where its interior
speaking can be spoken anew under conditions of full self-awareness.
This is true only because, while we live in our environment, we are not
wholly of it. Our ability to detach ourselves from our surroundings
and to view them objectively is not in itself a bad thing. What is
disastrous is our failure to crown this achievement with the selfless,
loving conversation that it makes possible. Only in encountering an
Other separate from myself can I learn to love. The chickadee does not
love its environment because it is — much more fully than we — an
expression of its environment.
The willfulness and waywardness — the wildness — that has enabled us to
stand apart and "conquer" nature is also what enables us to give nature
a voice. The miracle of selflessness through which a human being today
can begin learning to "speak for the environment" is the other face of
our power to destroy the environment. So we now find ourselves actors
in a grave and compelling drama rooted in the conflicting tendencies of
our own nature, with the earth itself hanging in the balance. Given the
undeniable facts of the situation, it would be rash to deny that this
drama both expresses and places at risk the telos of the entire evolution
of earth. To accept the role we have been thrust into, and to sense
our nearly hopeless inadequacy, is at the same time to open ourselves
to the wisdom that would speak through us.
We do as much damage by denying our profound responsibilities toward
nature as by directly abusing them. If you charge me with
anthropocentrism, I accept the label, though on my own terms. If there
is one creature that may not healthily scorn anthropocentrism, surely it
is anthropos. How should we act, if not from our own center and from
the deepest truth of our own being? But it is exactly this truth that
opens us to the Other. We are the place within nature where willing
openness to the Other becomes the necessary foundation of our own life.
The classicist, Bruno Snell, somewhere remarked that to experience a rock
anthropomorphically is also to experience ourselves petromorphically
— to discover what is rock-like within ourselves. It is the kind of
discovery we have been making, aided by nature and the genius of language,
for thousands of years. It is how we have come to know what we are —
and what we are is (to use some old language) a microcosm of the
macrocosm. Historically, we have drawn our consciousness of ourselves
from the surrounding world, which is also to say that this world has
awakened, or begun to awaken, within us (Barfield 1965; Barfield 1977).
In general, my observations of nature will prove valuable to the degree I
can, for example, balance my tendency to experience the chickadee
anthropomorphically with an ability to experience myself
"chickamorphically". In the moment of true understanding, those two
experiences become one, reflecting the fact that my own interior and the
world's interior are, in the end, one interior.
The well-intentioned exhortation to replace anthropocentrism with
biocentrism, if pushed very far, becomes a curious contradiction. It
appeals to the uniquely human — the detachment from our environment
that allows us to try to see things from the Other's point of view —
in order to deny any special place for humans within nature. We are asked
to make a philosophical and moral principle of the idea that we do not
differ decisively from other orders of life — but this formulation of
principle is itself surely one decisive thing we cannot ask of those other
There is no disgrace in referring to the "uniquely human". If we do not
seek to understand every organism's unique way of being in the world, we
exclude it from the ecological conversation. To exclude ourselves in this
way reduces our words to gibberish, because we do not speak from our own
But nothing here implies that humans possess greater "moral worth"
(whatever that might mean) than other living things. What distinguishes
us is not our moral worth, but the fact that we bear the burden of moral
responsibility. That this burden has risen to consciousness at one
particular locus within nature is surely significant for the destiny of
nature! When Jack Turner suggested that the last ten thousand years of
human history may have been "simply evil", he ignored the worthy
historical gift enabling him to pronounce such a judgment. How can we
downplay our special gift of knowledge and responsibility without
disastrous consequences for the world?
Toward Creative Responsibility
We create "by the law in which we're made" (Tolkien 1947). Our own
creative speech is one, or potentially one, with the creative speech that
first uttered us. (How could it be otherwise?) This suggests that our
relation to every wild thing is intimate indeed. We cannot know ourselves
— cannot acquaint ourselves with the potentials of our own speaking
— except by learning how those potentials have already found
expression in the stunning diversity of nature.
Every created thing images some aspect of ourselves, an aspect we can
discover and vivify only through understanding. The destruction of a
habitat and its inhabitants truly is a loss of part of ourselves, a kind
of amnesia. Wendell Berry is right to ask, "How much can a mind diminish
its culture, its community and its geography — how much topsoil, how
many species can it lose — and still be a mind?" (Berry 2001, p. 50).
As Gary Snyder puts it, "The nature in the mind is being logged and burned
off" (quoted in Nash 2001, p. 263).
When Thoreau told us, "In wildness is the preservation of the world"
(1947), the wildness he referred to was at least in part our wildness.
If humankind fails to embrace with its sympathies and understanding --
which is to say, within our own being -- every wild thing, then both we
and the world will to that extent be diminished. This is true even if
our refusal goes no further than the withdrawal from conversation.
We discover our own wild in the Other, and we elevate the Other's wildness
through our understanding. Our failure to reckon adequately with the
Other is as much a feature of human social relations as of our relations
with nature, and as much a feature of our treatment of domesticated
landscapes as of wilderness areas. In its Otherness, the factory-farmed
hog is no less a challenge to our sympathies and understanding than the
salmon, the chickadee no less than the grizzly bear. We do not excel in
the art of conversation. If the grizzly is absent from the distant
mountains, perhaps it is partly because we have lost sight of, or even
denigrated, the wild spirit in the chickadee outside our doors.
If we really believed in the saving grace of wildness, we would not
automatically discount habitats bearing the marks of human engagement. We
would not look down upon the farmer whose love is the Other he meets in
the soil and whose struggle is to draw out, in wisdom, the richness and
productive potential of his farm habitat. Nor, thrilling to the discovery
of a couger track in the high Rockies, would we disparage the cultivated
European landscape which, at its best, serves a far greater diversity of
wild things than the primeval northern forest.
The point is not to pronounce any landscape good or bad, but to ask after
the integrity of the conversation it represents. None of us would want to
see the entire world reduced to someone's notion of a garden, but neither
would we want to see a world where no humans tended reverently to their
surroundings (Suchantke 2001). We should not set the creativity of the
true gardener against the creativity at work in our oversight of the
Denali wilderness. They are two very different conversations, and both
ought to be — can be — worthy expressions of the wild spirit.
A Word Unasked For
In late winter or early spring the chickadee flock frequenting my feeder
begins to break up as the birds pair off for mating. Only two (with their
offspring) will occupy a given territory, and during summer those few may
rarely visit a feeder; there are too many superior insect delicacies
This past summer I decided not to maintain a feeder and, because of other
preoccupations, scarcely noticed any chickadees on the property. They
were the furthest thing from my mind when, on a warm August day at a time
of extraordinary personal distress, I happened to be standing outside in a
small clearing. There was no brush or other bird cover immediately at
hand. Suddenly a chickadee alighted on the fence railing four or five
paces in front of me.
Standing still, I watched for several seconds as it regarded me with an
apparently intense interest. Then, instead of veering away as I expected,
it flew with its soft, stutter-step flight straight toward me, dipping
characteristically a few inches in front of my nose before rising as if to
land on my bald pate. But, with a slight hesitation, it seemed to have
second thoughts (there's not much of a perch up there), and passed on
behind me. This unlooked-for gesture from a "long-lost friend" — a
moment of mutual recognition recalling an earlier conversation —
touched me deeply. In the flush of affection I felt for the creature
granting me this unexpected interview, I found an easing of my pain. Its
life was so free, so far removed from my own problems, yet it was so
"That's very nice, but do you really glorify this encounter as part of a
meaningful conversation? And do you believe the chickadee was responding
to your inner condition at the time?"
Well, hardly. I am serious — and I include myself in the rearmost
rank — when I say we have scarcely learned to converse with nature
(or, for that matter, with each other). But, nevertheless, one can at
least glimpse the beginnings of conversation here.
The very first — and perhaps the most important — conversational
step we can take may be to acknowledge how we have so far failed to
assume a respectful conversational stance. For example, how much of my
activity in feeding the birds by hand is driven by my self-centered
pleasure in their attentions, rather than by selfless interest in who they
are and what they need? To ask such a question is already to have shifted
from manipulator to listener.
But, no, I would not claim that the chickadee on the fence railing was
sympathizing with my troubles. Of course, because of my ignorance, and
because the chickadee is a speaking presence, I cannot say absolutely that
it was not, at some level of its being, responding to my inner condition,
or that it was not the agent of some sort of Jungian "synchronicity". But
I am skeptical, and such things are in any case wholly beyond my
knowledge. So I leave them alone.
What I do know is that the chickadee was, in an obvious and unproblematic
sense, responding to me in its, expressive, chickadee-like manner. And
this manner was partly familiar to me because I have paid attention to the
chickadees in my neighborhood. The behavior, even if unexpected, was not
altogether strange to me. I could say, "Yes, if a chickadee were to
gesture in my direction, that is how it might do it; it was just like a
chickadee" — and in saying this I could bring to mind much about the
chickadee's way of speaking itself into the world. This in turn gives me
something to respond to, something to respect, something to make a proper
place for both in the world and in myself.
And, yes, maybe even something to invite in certain directions through
attentive, reverential conversation. I do still occasionally feed the
birds from my hands. This is a behavior they would never engage in if
there were no humans in the world, but I have yet to see that it in any
way diminishes them. I am more inclined to think the opposite.
Chickadees are known to have a great curiosity about other creatures,
along with a particular affinity for humans, and giving them room to
explore this affinity does not seem such a bad thing.
There are, of course, appropriate limits. Personally, I draw the line
when the chickadees try to use my mustache as nesting material.
** "Sowing Technology", by Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott in NF #123.
This applies some of the thinking represented here to agriculture and
** "The Farm in Its Landscape", by Craig Holdrege in NF #86. On teaching
ecology to high school students in a New England farming community.
** "Why Not Globalization?", by Steve Talbott in In Context #5
(Spring, 2001), pp. 3-4. Brief reflections upon the ecology of human
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Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Barfield, Owen (1965). Saving the Appearances. New York:
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. Originally published in 1957.
Berry, Wendell (2001). Life is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern
Superstition. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint. First published in
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Conservation from Round River. New York: Ballantine.
Nash, Roderick Frazier (2001). Wilderness and the American Mind.
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Suchantke, Andreas (2001). Eco-Geography: What We See When We Look at
Landscapes. Great Barrington MA: Lindisfarne.
Thoreau, Henry David (1947). "Walking". In The Portable Thoreau,
ed. Carl Bode. New York: Viking.
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Steve Talbott is the editor of NetFuture, a truly interesting e-zine about the pros and cons
of technology, from which this article was taken: www.netfuture.org