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Down on the Ground with Wildness

By George Sibley

Professor John Hausdoerffer is running wild at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison – but not with the conventional 20th-century “born-to-be-wild” wildness.

His is a disciplined, philosophically grounded wildness, most recently manifested in Western’s December announcement that the university (which 25 years ago barely had an Environmental Studies minor) now has a School of Environment and Sustainability, which Dr. Hausdoerffer – Dean of the new school – has worked with other faculty to create from a mix of existing and new Western programs. The new school assembles a place-based but globally-visioned smorgasbord of sustainability transition initiatives and public land initiatives ranging from Mountain Resilience to Environmental Diversity and Justice.

Western has already begun to show up on national surveys of top schools for environmentally oriented programs; under Dr. Hausdoerffer’s leadership the new programs will put Western ahead of many larger and wealthier universities – less fortuitously located and less creatively imagined. Western has finally ceased being embarrassed by the long-obvious fact that most students come here for the mountains and outdoor recreation, and has begun incorporating its advantageous locus into programs in a living laboratory for helping students re-create themselves for the 21st century.


At the heart of Hausdoerffer’s vision lies a concept of wildness, both really new and really old. Despite an obvious talent for negotiation and management in the cultural environment of academic politics, Dr. John (as students call him) is first a philosopher, in his academic preparation as well as by natural inclination, at home with other modern nature philosophers like Gary Snyder, Rod Nash, Vandana Shiva or Winona LaDuke, all of whom he has brought to Western’s autumn Headwaters Conferences.

California philosopher-poet Gary Snyder has long wrestled with the distinct concepts of “wilderness” and “wildness,” and he and Dr. John tag-teamed on it at a Headwaters conference several years ago, planting the concept of working wild

Wild comes from an Old English word for will, willed; and wilderness comes from a related word that translates as self-willed land – land that is, in Snyder’s words, “self-organizing, self-maintaining and self disciplining.” With neither human help nor hindrance, wild nature is driven by a will to be, wish is a mystery of life itself, Dylan Thomas’s force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Wildness in this sense is the root of creativity, a self-renewal possible in the human mind as well as in natural systems.

Dr. John has taken his fascination with this connotation-loaded word into print, in a collection of essays from others who have wrestled with it: Wildness: Relations of People & Places (University of Chicago Press). He worked on this book with Gavin Van Horn of Chicago, who previously developed another collection of essays titled City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness. Van Horn’s book may give you an idea of the breadth and depth of the new collection’s exploration of the concept of wildness everywhere in the natural and cultural environments.

It has a rich diversity of contributors – American Indians, India Indians, Hispanics, blacks, as well as white academics. It truly ranges the globe for examples of people in wild creative relationships, with self-willed places, from dense inner cities to the stark new fire-and-ice barrens of Iceland.

But to bring it home, to Central Colorado – the headwaters of the American Southwest and Lower Midwest – do we have this kind of wildness here (outside of Western)? We certainly have a lot of officially designated wilderness – eight Wilderness Areas in and around the Upper Gunnison Basin alone.

Fossil Ridge Wilderness is right in the middle of Upper Gunnison’s valley, more surrounded by, than surrounding, human settlements. This wilderness designation is basically a form of land zoning – protecting remaining relatively untrammeled land from ourselves, rather than protecting ourselves from the howling wilderness that Puritan preachers railed about. Most of our ancestors saw this land as more willful than self-willed, as likely to deliver killing hail as life-giving rain, water coming in unusable spring floods with nothing left for late summer, periodically testing faith with plagues of grasshoppers, et cetera.

After a century and a half here of contention to wrest some control of the land from its self-willed natural cycles and extreme vagaries, have we also driven the self-renewing wildness out of the land – and out of our urbanized industrialized selves?

Dr. John himself examined this question in his book, in an essay based on an extended conversation with Roderick Nash, the philosopher-author of Wilderness and the American Mind, a seminal book for the environmental movement of the 1960s and ’70s that came out shortly after Congress had finally passed a Wilderness Act in 1964. Nash is often in the Upper Gunnison Valley where he has a vacation home, and their conversation involved a couple of face-to-face meetings in the valley and a lot of emailing and texting.

The conversation came to focus on the most fitting relationship of humans to the planet’s residual self-willed wild, with Nash citing a choice presented by Howard Zahniser, the grandfather of the American Wilderness Movement in the 1950s: “Zahniser asked us to decide whether we will become gardeners or guardians on this earth.”

Nash joined Zahniser in advocating for the “guardian” role for earth’s remaining wildness. “Gardeners,” he said, “still need to control; gardeners still need to substitute their will for that of many wild creatures.” He decided to become a “guardian of the will of other species,” on the conviction that nature is more creative when left on its own than when humankind is interfering.

Toward that end, Nash imagines the world a thousand years from now as deeply bifurcated, with highly evolved urban islands, technologically and culturally capable of providing for all of their inhabitants’ needs intra-island, surrounded by wilderness – all of it self-willed, self-renewing land where evolution is proceeding uninfluenced by humans. Humans could visit the wild lands, but not willfully – no gardening.

Dr. John was bothered by the dichotomous implication of being either gardeners or guardians. “Aren’t there ways in which our species has blurred those boundaries?” he asked. “Aren’t we capable of cocreative partnerships with the natural world, in which through the production of our livelihood we and the land together can create more biodiversity, build more resilience, and enhance the land’s capacity for self-renewal? Can’t we learn from human communities who have coproduced wildness (drawing on other essays in his book)? Why can’t we learn from those societies to become – again – something like a keystone species, cocreating with nature a necessary human niche rather than simply keeping ourselves out?”

“Not with seven billion people we can’t,” Nash responded. “Not within our industrial economy” – telling points.

Nonetheless, I found myself coming down mostly on Dr. John’s side: that we must become planetary gardeners, if only because inadvertently, clumsily, and rushing in where angels hesitate to tread, we have caused damage that somehow must be repaired. And that doesn’t mean put back the way it was, which is impossible, but functionally restored, renewed – in Dr. John’s larger sense, “re-wilded,” the planet’s potential for self-will revitalized, with us still partners in it. Obviously this is an easier role to consider here in the headwaters, where the urban-industrial revolution lies more lightly on the places, and where the people have enough residual wildness to want to keep it that way, and the will to invest some energy in the repair work. Dr. Nash’s caveat about “control” needs to be kept in mind; a humility that Euro-Americans are not known for is mandated.

I am also bothered, however, by the extent to which this feels like an academic argument, given the current political environment which, at least at the national level, seems to be dominated by neither a gardener or guardian sensibility, but by the 1950s born-to-be-wild, all-guns-firing-at-once lawlessness of The Wild One.

A solid third of the American voting populace is committed to a retro belief that we poor little humans are incapable of imposing any significant changes on our big old planet. Our Father God, who told us to dominate, will take care of us as his chosen people, who will trump any disciplinary tricks Mother Nature tries to pull on us. Any evidence contradicting that can be dismissed, the way the administration has dismissed evidence-based and science-based from the vocabulary of the Center for Disease Control, and climate change from that of other departments.

There’s more to be said on this, and the role of Central Colorado in it, but I’m out of space here for this issue; stay tuned. Meanwhile – keep working wild, Dr. John, and the other creatives recharging Western. The world might again need a Lindisfarne.


George Sibley lives, writes and works, mostly on the wild side he hopes, in Gunnison.