“Uncommon Ground” Reconsidered

It has been almost two decades since the publication of the volume Uncommon Ground. While some of the essays now appear somewhat dated (the Nature Company, for instance, has long since vanished from America’s malls, although that by no means diminishes the essay’s relevance), the book articulates a line of thinking that has had an enduring presence in environmental history and philosophy, and the arguments it puts forward continue to raise hackles amongst the environmentally committed both inside and outside the academy. J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson have done all of us a tremendous favor by collecting a large sample of essays on the concept of wilderness by academic as well as activist supporters and detractors in The Great New Wilderness Debate (1998) and The Wilderness Debate Rages On (2008), and I can only recommend those two books to anyone who wishes to orient themselves in the wilderness discussion. If nothing else, they are a testament to how polarizing the arguments in Uncommon Ground continue to be.
I recently got myself a copy of Uncommon Ground, and felt moved to share a few reflections. First a bit of background: the book evolved out of a colloquium that took place at UC Irvine in 1994. Being a UCI alumnus, that alone makes me a rather sympathetic reader. William Cronon edited the book, and his seminal essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” is the leading text in the volume. The basic thesis of the essay:

Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation – indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.  It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization.  Instead, it is a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.  Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural.  As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.  For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem. (69-70).

As Cronon himself acknowledges, these claims will seem heretical to many of different ecological stripes. I don’t think anyone will say that he wasn’t at least right on that count. Particularly from an activist point of view, this claim would at best be a weak basis on which to build an environmental politics, at worst a philosophy that justifies the activities of Monsanto (although it’s also worth saying that Monsanto never needed permission from humanities scholars to do what it does). The paperback edition responds to the furor that the book’s initial appearance provoked. The subtitle was changed from Toward Reinventing Nature to Rethinking the Human Place in Nature,and included a preface that emphasizes the reality of what we commonly think of nature. Nevertheless, the paragraph above is an easy go-to text for anyone who wishes to take umbrage with the so-called constructionist camp. And that is unfortunate, because in the texts that I have read that cite Uncommon Ground, Cronon’s essay seems to eclipse the many other thought provoking essays.

An often cited passage from the book that Cronon is not responsible for comes towards the end, when the colloquium participants shared a few concluding thoughts on their time together in Irvine and the arguments they presented. In her remarks Anne Spirn appears to have second thoughts about the kinds of positions that emerged at the colloquium and in the book itself:

But I also remember our discussions as so abstracted from the “nature” in which we were living, which I was feeling so intensely but perhaps not expressing verbally.  Sometimes the talk seemed so disembodied.  I regret that we didn’t fully engage the tangibility, the “reality,” of nonhuman nature.  I wonder how different our conversations might have been if they had not taken place under fluorescent lights, in a windowless room, against the whistling whoosh of the building’s ventilation system. (448)

The comments have the appearance of tacitly acknowledging that because of the conditions in which academic discourse all too often happens, the authors lack the authority to make the claims that they do. It would seem that Spirn is taking the side of those in the environmental humanities in particular who seea sustained unmediated encounter with nature as the prerequisite for ecocriticism, ecophilosophy, environmental history, and unfortunately I have seen some of the book’s critics use this particular quote to bolster their own criticisms. But I wonder if Spirn’s words haven’t been unfairly turned against the project. The quote above follows a reminiscence about the collegiality at the colloquium, and the quote itself reads like more of an afterthought than a weighty counterargument. In any case, Spirn’s point is not that “had we gone outside we would have discovered that nature is real after all.” She goes on to say:

Our discussions deepened my awareness of how nature is and has been culturally constructed, but now more than ever I feel it crucial to reassert the reality of nonhuman features and phenomena.  I hope our book doesn’t overemphasize the cultural construction of nature to the extent that readers come away with the impression that nature is only a construct. (448)

In other words, it’s less of a negation of the project itself and more of a qualification against possible abuse by an overly sympathetic readership. This is not the first time this point is made in the book, nor is the affirmation of the reality of the world just a flimsy rearguard defense against ostensibly common-sense objections. What the essays in the book really get at is the strange dialectic of first and second nature that Neil Smith talks about in Uneven Development. There is a world out there, but it’s a world that is constantly being cycled through the labor process, for one thing, but also perceived through its cultural mediation. Getting away from the crowds in Yosemite Valley and exploring the far reaches of the park may be an encounter with reality, but the the windowless room with the noisy ventilation system that Spirn mentions also has a real existence in that sense.

Cronon has a beautiful moment in the introduction to Uneven Development where he encounters this dual character of the planned space. He describes the non-native snails that would come out to enjoy the water from the automatic sprinklers that kept alive his garden of non-native plants. He writes:

The snails were the one element of this garden that had somehow escaped automation and control, the one example of nature doing its own thing instead of what the planners had prescribed.  Never mind that the snails could hardly have been native to the place and depended just as much as our succulent plants on the artificial rain that our computer delivered each night.  Because they didn’t fit the plan, they somehow seemed more natural.  (43).

What Uncommon Ground arrives at is not a naïve Weisheit letzter Schluß that “it was all a construct.” Instead the book offers a nuanced way of accounting for environments that we would (and should) otherwise shudder at simply because they represent our society’s worst excesses in the consumption of the planet.

It seems to me, then, that the salient point in Cronon’s essay is not merely that nature is not what we commonly take it to be. The passage that sticks with me is instead the conclusion, where Cronon writes:

But if we acknowledge the autonomy and otherness of the thing and creatures around us – an autonomy our culture has taught us to label with the word “wild” – then we will at least think carefully about the uses to which we put them, and even ask if we should use them at all.  Just so can we still join Thoreau in declaring that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” for wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies.”  (89)

And this is what the so-called constructonists have over the camp that seems to think that you can only talk about nature after you’ve logged enough hours in “wilderness.” There is no easy ground here on which to base a political program, but at least we have a framework for thinking about more than what commonly gets offered to us as “nature” and “wilderness.”

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