Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Wilderness and the human spirit

I saw this meme recently on Twitter, and several throughts came to mind.

Firstly, living in the anthropocene, humanity has pushed several of the planetary boundaries, in particular the climate system. There is no where that has not been "rearranged by the hand of man." Secondly, there are many places where this has not been the case since ecosystems took their present or approximate shape. For example, if humans crossed into north America near the end of the last ice age, ecosystems were changing to the new conditions as they arrived. As another example, many places in central America show evidence of temples and cities under rainforest, demonstrating that these areas were at one time cleared for settlement and agriculture.

None of these should belittle the idea of wilderness as such, of wild places. They have great value in terms of ecosystem services. But what of their spiritual value?

Many wild places today are not really that wild. Perhaps there are dangers to do with terrain, starvation, dedyration, or getting lost, but people usually enter prepared. In many places though, large predators have been exterminated. Apart from the risk of snake bite say in Australia, staying away from the oceans (sharks) or tropical rivers (crocodiles) and there are fewwer dangers that in parts of north America or Africa.

Wilderness proper should be wild, not so much so we can experience a romantic connection with nature - though I think that is right and proper too. A sense of continuity with nature is important. In Christian theology this is a reminder that we are creatures along with all others, made by and sustained by a creator. The rich variety (currently under threat of mass extinction) and aesthetic value pervade our senses. It should also teach us that they have value in and of themselves, for themselves, and for God (Psalm 104). Wilderness is not just for us at all - for our spirits or material needs.

But the wildness of wilderness should teach us that we are small. A clear night sky should do that (Psalm 8). When popularisers of science like Brian Cox talk about humanity being (seemingly) insignificant, this is not a new thought. God's care for non-humans (Psalm 104), our inability to tame it (without destroying it, see the end of Job) or the vastness of the sky (Psam 8) not normally visible from urban areas should all act to humble us and challenge our hubris.

That said, I planted a banksia in my back yard, in my very disturbed area, to attract and feed New Holland Honeyeaters. Even here, in these margins, I can be reminded that I share the earth with other creatures, and need to make room for them.

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