The first time I met John Hanson Mitchell, the prolific author and longtime editor of Mass Audubon’s Sanctuary magazine, it was in September 2010 over lunch in Lincoln, Mass., not far from his office at Drumlin Farm. Engaging and generous with his time, he listened gamely as I talked about some crazy idea I had for an essay about walking to Walden Pond from my house in Wayland, just down the road from Concord and Lincoln. I’d sought him out because, as several people told me, if I wanted to write about Thoreau and the contemporary landscape around these parts, I needed to talk with John Mitchell — and read his books, like Living at the End of Time (1990), his fine memoir about building and living in a cabin at the edge of the woods behind his house in Littleton, just up the road from Concord; and Walking Towards Walden (1995), in which he and friends traipse cross-country, in one long day, from Littleton to Concord.
Nobody knows better than John Mitchell that “the wild” is just outside our doors, if we care to look. His highly regarded first book, Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile, published in 1984, is a thought-provoking extended essay on the natural and human history of his semi-rural neighborhood, known traditionally as Scratch Flat. Near the outset, he notes that many people doubted him when first told that, among the surrounding landscape’s abundant wildlife, they could find great horned owls living in the white pines a short walk from their backyards. This leads him to reflect:
They are interested, of course, but not so interested that they would get up from their comfortable chairs and walk out through the snowy woods to witness that chaos of hooting and yowling that takes place during the great horned owl nesting season at the end of February. Wilderness and wildlife, history, life itself, for that matter, is something that takes place somewhere else, it seems. You must travel to witness it, you must get in your car in summer and go off to look at things which some “expert,” such as the National Park Service, tells you is important, or beautiful, or historic. In spite of their admitted grandeur, I find such well-documented places somewhat boring. What I prefer, and the thing that is the subject of this book, is that undiscovered country of the nearby, the secret world that lurks beyond the night windows and at the fringes of cultivated backyards.
That idea of the nearby wild, and of “natural” and human landscapes intertwined, has been explored and debated many times, before and since — I think of David Gessner, just to name one recent example, who writes enthusiastically of protecting the suburban wild in My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism. It’s also at the heart of the recent controversy over a provocative essay by Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, titled “Conservation in the Anthropocene.” Kareiva calls for a more human-friendly, even human-centered, conservation movement — and trashes (bizarrely) Henry David Thoreau, among others, in the process.
I’ve stayed in touch with Mitchell since that lunch, and I reached out to him again as I was launching this blog. I wanted to see if he’d share his thoughts on Thoreau, climate, and conservation in the Age of Man. He gladly agreed to the exchange — and when the debate over Kareiva’s essay erupted, I knew I had my first question. Turns out it relates to the topic of his next book.
But John not only agreed to exchange email — he also agreed to take a walk with me to one of Henry Thoreau’s favorite haunts, Fairhaven Bay, on the Sudbury River southwest of Walden. The first part of our email exchange follows, but our walk was rained out earlier this week. We’re aiming for next week now, if the weather gods smile on us. Or maybe we’ll walk in the rain. I’ll keep you posted.
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From: Wen Stephenson
To: John Hanson Mitchell
Well, one hardly knows where to begin. Thanks again for taking time to engage in this little email exercise. Let’s see if there aren’t a few topics, timely and otherwise, worth getting exercised about.
Actually, you strike me as a pretty laid-back kind of guy, a bit like the people I grew up with in California (much to your credit — you’re not a native New Englander, are you?). What, if anything, really gets you exercised these days?
Here’s something that’s exercised me. Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, recently made some waves (made a stink, really) with an essay called “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility,” posted online in Breakthrough Institute’s journal and included in the recent anthology Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene. Kareiva says (gasp) that “conservation is failing,” despite the creation of parks, preserves and wilderness areas, in large part because conservationists cling to a myth of “pristine nature.” He writes:
conservation cannot promise a return to pristine, prehuman landscapes. Humankind has already profoundly transformed the planet and will continue to do so. What conservation could promise instead is a new vision of a planet in which nature — forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems — exists amid a wide variety of modern human landscapes. For this to happen, conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness — ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science — and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision.
Now, honestly, I don’t find much shock value in Kareiva’s main point here, which seems pretty old-hat to me — and in fact reminds me a lot of William Cronon’s argument in his landmark (and controversial) essay, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” back in 1995(!). Though I will say, Kareiva’s essay seems strangely oblivious to the coming impact of climate change on those “modern human landscapes.” (He seems to project smooth, uninterrupted growth for the developing world as a kind of panacea, despite the drought, flood, and sea-level rise in the pipeline.)
No, what really bugs me is something that’s gone unremarked in the commentary I’ve read on this piece — namely, the way he misuses and abuses Henry David Thoreau! Immediately following the above quote, he goes on to blame this “idealized” notion of nature on Emerson and Thoreau, using them to set up a straw-man caricature of Romantic nature-worship. Not that he actually has much to say about them. Here’s his critique, in full:
Since the early 19th century, a number of thinkers have argued that the greatest use of nature is as a source of solitary spiritual renewal, describing nature as a place to escape modern life, enjoy solitude, and experience God. “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his seminal essay, “Nature.” Cities and human development were portrayed as threats to these transcendence-enabling idylls, even though the writers were mostly urban intellectuals. Nathaniel Hawthorne complained bitterly of hearing the railroad whistle from his country home despite depending on modern transport to arrive at his own private Eden. Henry David Thoreau famously extolled his self-sufficiency, living in a small cabin in harmony with nature; in fact, Thoreau lived close enough to town that he could frequently receive guests and have his mother wash his clothes. More recently, Edward Abbey pined for companionship in his private journal even as he publicly exulted in his ascetic life in Desert Solitaire.
Yep, that’s it. Now, others have leapt (correctly) to Abbey’s defense, but I haven’t seen anyone come to Henry’s aid on this. I mean, seriously, the mom-doing-the-laundry bit? Give me a break. That sentence strikes me as a classic misrepresentation (or at least a total misunderstanding) of Thoreau. No undergrad would get away with it — why should the chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy get a pass?
It seems to me, if what you want is a more human-centered environmentalism, you should be celebrating Thoreau — not getting rid of him. First, though, you might try actually reading him. He never presents himself in Walden as living in wilderness, or amid “untrammeled nature” (one of Kareiva’s favorite phrases) — go read the “Bean-Field” chapter or “Visitors.” His cabin wasn’t a retreat or refuge from the world, and Walden isn’t about some solitary back-to-nature trip — it’s about waking up to one’s immediate surroundings and engaging the world, right where you live. Kareiva really ought to know that Thoreau was actually more of a human-rights advocate — as a committed and active abolitionist — than any sort of proto-environmentalist. I’ve said all this before, but if anyone took refuge in Henry’s cabin it was the runaway slave he sheltered there on the Underground Railroad.
Thoughts? You’ve written and thought a great deal about Thoreau, and about nature existing “amid modern human landscapes.” Is Kareiva saying something provocative and important?
* * *
From: John Mitchell
To: Wen Stephenson
That’s right, I’m not a New Englander – my family is from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and they were a decidedly laid-back group. Lazy even. Except for my father, who left, and was very active in liberal politics. He was considered a communist fellow-traveler during the McCarthy witch hunts.
I’m more lazy than activist. But I do get worked up about many things: the loss of small towns, shopping malls, the loss of wild land, the right-leaning drift of the world, the failure of the American educational system that has managed to raise up a generation that does not believe in evolution, nor science, nor climate change, nor the written word.
Closer to home, where I live, there are still working farms. The community as a whole is in favor of preserving the farms, but the governing bodies of the town, in an undemocratic move, are hoping to get some of the farms at least partly developed. Unfortunately, the farmers themselves are not open to any of the community- proposed strategies to preserve agriculture. Maddening.
> “Is Kareiva saying something provocative and important?”
As you say, nothing new here. In the 1960s, Rene Dubos, in a more humane and rational way, pointed out the same thing. Some interesting observations there, actually. In Plato’s time the hills and mountainscapes of Greece were stripped of their native pines, showing the limey body of the earth beneath and letting the sun in. I can’t remember whether Dubos or someone else suggested a correlation between the presence of light and the flowering of the Golden Age of Greece. One has to wonder if something there might relate to the mid-19th-century Flowering of New England. As you may know, the landscape here was 80-percent cleared of forest cover back then.
As to Kareiva’s Thoreau bashing, there is nothing new here either. In fact it began in Henry’s time. Local legend holds that he was a drunk — among other eccentric sins. It’s interesting that those who have not read Thoreau are always expressing the same tired themes: That he did not live in wilderness. That his mother did his laundry. That he went to town every day and mooched dinners from his friends and family. Kareiva has missed the point. Thoreau was concentrating on the humane, altered landscape that he, Kareiva, is arguing about. Thoreau’s “wildness” was closer to home — every town should have its forest, or however he phrased it. And “I have traveled a great deal, in Concord…”
Actually, “wild nature vs the human landscape” is the subject of a book I am now working on. It’s a natural history of my garden, a little along the lines of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne (a book Henry knew well, I believe). There is a twist, though. The ornamental garden I created is decidedly un-Thoreauvian. It consists of a combination of native and non-native (albeit non-invasive) plants, and it was planted on an acre-and-a-half tract of land that formerly consisted of arrowy white pines — same tree Henry cut down to create his cabin.
The conceit of the book is this: Thirty years ago, before I cut down the trees to create the garden, I did a survey of the living things there. Basically, I counted only five species of higher plants, not including the white pines. Birds did not nest there, and only one mammal, a grey squirrel had a nest, along with — no doubt — a number of white-footed mice, although I saw no signs of them. Three years later, before the real garden was even in process, in a patch of land no larger than a backyard vegetable garden, I counted 37 species of plants, plus several species of spiders, many species of insects, evidence of voles and shrews and moles, three species of snakes, as well as pickerel frogs, wood frogs, green frogs and three species of salamanders. Now, 30 years later, I am unable to even begin to count the vertebrate and invertebrate creatures that live there. I am still in the process of attempting to document all the flowering and non-flowering plants, and the number of nesting birds is difficult to judge because the number changes every year. The fact is, my destruction of a tract of native white pines has increased the biodiversity of the tract dramatically.
But how can that be a good thing for the world? And what does this say about the unstoppable human tendency to alter the earth? That, in essence, is the subject of the book. Kareiva should read it. But in the end, he may not like what I have to say. The fact remains, Henry Thoreau was right. We need wildness. It was after all the source of all that diversity of the garden.
Continued: Read Part Two of my exchange with Mitchell.