Over the years I’ve had colleagues and even some friends who’ve pressed me on the question of why a philosopher—why any human being who’s serious about the life of mind and spirit—should give much time and attention to wilderness. (Please forgive the hopelessly pretentious sound of this—you know what I mean!) Here’s a pithy and outrageous form of the question, expressed as a statement: If it can’t read a book, I’m not interested in it.
The general idea here, that serious thinkers should concern themselves only with the highest things, has been variously expressed by many philosophers. Why spend your time amongst the birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees, the mountains and the streams? Why even spend time learning about them in books? Indeed, why pursue the scientific investigation of nature if you’ve got the interest and the aptitude to pursue philosophy? (Cast in theological terms, why contemplate the creation when you can contemplate the creator?) In short, why bother with nature when the entire domain of reason and spirit awaits our exploration?
I get versions of this question because I’m a nature-lover and a man who likes spending time in wilderness. As I reflect, I see this lifelong affection evident also in what I’ve chosen to think and write about. My first published philosophical essay was on Thoreau’s Walden; I wrote my dissertation (and published a related article) on the ontology of biological species; most recently, my book has dogs and evolution among its central themes and argues that to befriend a dog means taking one’s embodiment and animal spiritedness seriously (the very things many intellectuals shy away from). Obviously, I’ve taken nature and her critters seriously. Or, as some might say, I’ve let myself go to the dogs.
Well, then, what is the ultimate value of wilderness and nature for those who profess to be lovers of wisdom about the highest things?
My first instinct is to answer along the lines of Louis Armstrong’s wonderful riposte to the person who asked him what jazz was: Hey man, if you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know. There’s a lot of sense behind Armstrong’s response, especially when it comes to music and the visual arts, but also in the present matter. I take him to be saying that jazz is one of those things whose nature is grasped through direct experience, not by roundabout speechly definitions. In any event, I’ll have more to say about this point in a post (coming soon) where I explore why wilderness and nature are worth the thoughtful person’s attention.
Of course, poets have also had a great deal to say about this, and I’d like to conclude by sharing an eloquent poem whose theme is not unrelated to the gist of Armstrong’s reply. It’s by David Wagoner, from Collected Poems 1956-1976.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.