Questions of Wilderness

We’ll take advantage of a short hiatus of sorts (don’t worry: we’ve seen the WebMD, and have been assured it’s not serious–we’ve decades left in us!) to draw attention to some other things going on that will, no doubt, be of interest to the sensible (and sensitive) readers of and contributers to the WIZ Community.

First up: George Handley waxes on and off, and wisely, about wilderness as a backdrop to and a factor in the way we humans relate and communicate. His work here is subtle: more subtle than usual. Perhaps that’s because, generous of spirit and passionate of cause, George isn’t interested in winning friends or enemies, but rather in giving pause and a space for consideration.

I’m particularly taken with what George does because I live in a place that as yet has not developed a culture of conservation, though steps are being taken: we’ve grown soft, and the a/c pumps all day long, cars are left idling in parking lots for extended runs, the windows are shuttered, the complaints are thick with indolent anger and slick with sweat. During Ramadan, it’s even worse. The environment impacts mood and manners essentially and almost necessarily: we are few who love the heat and worship the sun even when it aims to kill us. And we few, (we happy few), are inclined to each other and to others in ways (a nod, a quick tap on the shoulder, a smile, and many other muted signs) that redeem the heat, that sacralize our over-arching desire to conserve not just a resource or a land, but human ecology, too: that thing we call community.

George reminds us that we are stewards, not masters, and will be judged by the conditions of stewardship. If we cannot cultivate a place or a community, cannot leave it better than we found it, then at very least we ought to leave it no worse for our being there by taking pains to mitigate our tracks and traces, collect our own rubbish, dispose of it responsibly–not leave it to moulder or poison, not bury our inheritance in waste and wanton pursuits.

In his second post, George asks us to disagree, and boldly, but without rancor and without guile. We ought, it seems, “to speak the truth in love,” both to each other and to this ramshackle place we’re squatters in. If we need, we ask and receive, as gently as we can, and plant something where we’ve left a void: a seed, a conversation, a compliment, plain thanks. We ought, it seems, to stay small.

Elder Marlin K. Jensen, speaking at the Days of ’47 Sunrise Service said the following about the question of community, culture, and wilderness in Utah’s own history (read the full account in the Desert News):

“Regardless of how one views the equities of Indian-Mormon relations in those times, the end result was that the land and cultural birthright Indians once possessed in the Great Basin were taken from them,” he said. “As tragic as that is, history cannot be unlived. What we can do, the least we can do from a distance of 160 years, is to acknowledge and appreciate the monumental loss this represents on the part of Utah’s Indians. That loss and its 160-year aftermath are the rest of the story.

“We can also work until the rest of the story becomes an integral part of the story; until Wakara, Wanship, Washakie and Black Hawk have their appropriate place in Utah’s history books as well as Brigham, Heber and Parley; until Utah’s history includes Indian history and July 24th commemorates everyone’s contribution to our state’s unique past.”

Indeed. And the same can be said of place after place, civilization after civilization, right down to Dylan Thomas’ bright and spinning place, that first garden, which was and is, of course, God’s, given to us with a charge to care for it, and for each other.

To finish up (if you’ll forgive the indulgence), this:

This is a rather wretched place,
All things considered:
More paradox than paradise;

A poky little patch of dust and scrub
Now parched, now drowned,
Shaken and, as often, stirred;

A heaven gone to ground,
Ground gone to seed,
Thorn- and thistle-crowned

And for the very birds €”
The dove, the hardy thrush,
The brown chat with his melancholy word.

It’s an abated wish,
This dense and dropping orb,
A momentary, dark, full-throated hush;

A nascent sun, an infant star,
This crib of Adam-Christ:
Worth falling and worth rising for.

Look for George’s next post soon.


14 thoughts on “Questions of Wilderness”

  1. We should be wary of statements like Jensen’s, which smack of paternalism. When a dominant group in a community stretches forth its hand to make the “rest of the story” (aka the story of the losers because history is written by the winners, right?) an “integral part” of the grand story, it is a subtle form of imperialism. The very notion of writing history is itself a Western invention, a tar baby nobody escapes, and for someone like Jensen to offer to weave into the narrative some notion of fair representation rings a little false.

    Between the opposing forces of paternalism and self-determination I see an interesting borderland where the two sides of this equation mingle. Frederick Jackson Turner called frontier the “meeting place between savagery and civilization” and, while I would not use those words at all, I think that his point is still valid. Where we meet the other, there is always a frontier of sorts, whether the other is a tract of wetlands, a canyon or a native, a space where we can negotiate a mutual value, where things can change and evolve in ways we cannot necessarily always control or predict.

    I just returned from the International Native American and World Flute Association convention, where I witnessed the odd spectacle of native flutists, dancers, and craftsmen bemoaning the loss of the old ways, the old culture and language–to a passel of aging white folk (ave age about 60). Is that really the demographic that could do anything about it? Why were there not more natives in the audiences? One presenter suggested it was because Indians don’t buy flutes or flute music. The Native American Flute, for them, is an object of cultural significance, but the music being played and celebrated is mostly processed for the appreciation and use of non-natives. It is not native music, not really. It is an integrated mishmash for sale to people who value it for cultural reasons that probably have very little to do with what is valued among the native peoples who produced these flutes originally.

    Westerners often assimilate or “receive” (unto themselves) that which is wild (or Other) and reprocess it into something we can value, use, or consume without reference to what the native sees or values in it. I think this is as true for flute music as it is for wilderness. It is as if these two cultures (or communities) are on two entirely different narrative tracks that only appear to join in the distance, but never will really meet, but between them is this borderland where neither is truly itself. Thus, statements like Jensen’s propose the impossible because there can be no true integration, except in a space that is neither one nor the other but something wholly new and belonging neither to the white nor the red man. To say that the native will or should have his “appropriate place” in the history books is simply another way of saying Europeans are still playing the tune that indigenous people must dance to.

    And the same disingenuity may apply when we talk about mastering vs husbanding the natural world.


  2. Except he speaks here of acknowledging loss, not recovering that which is lost: that’s impossible, as both he and you point out.

    I don’t know, Will. I think you’re over-reading. It’s worth looking at the whole DesNews article (and I wish I could get my hands on the entire text): Jensen is critiquing the dominant group for celebrating its dominance at the expense of other narratives, other cultures, some now lost forever. Might that be paternalistic? Sure, if he were interested in inclusiveness as a quality merely. But I think what he’s after is inclusiveness as a recognition, as an act, and as an opening.

    As for your final line: given a choice between the two, I’ll take husbanding. But that’s not what my comments, and certainly not what George’s comments, are suggesting, I don’t think. A good steward knows when to leave well enough alone, not to tend as a way of attending to. A good steward serves the interest of that which he serves, not his own. And that sometimes requires keeping out of the way.


  3. I’ve often been accused of over-thinking things, Jonathon, but never over-reading. That’s a new one for me.

    I don’t want to be heavy-handed about anything, but I reacted to this quotation as I did because it contains a pattern of thinking that resonates with so many different voices through the centuries that have spoken about the uneven relationship between the European and the Native. It might be interesting to ask whether Utah’s indigenous population can contribute its own voice to “the story” Jensen proposes? Are there native archeologists or historians or folklorists who could provide an indigenous perspective? If so, why shouldn’t they write their own histories and incorporate the Mormon thread as they see fit? If not, then it certainly seems to be more of the same paternalism we have seen in the past. As for his call to “acknowledge and appreciate” the losses of native peoples, perhaps Utah should institute a “Sorry Day” in the mode of Australia. I’m being mostly, but not entirely, facetious about that.

    Also, I agree that husbanding requires a light touch, but my thought was simply that even the lightest touch on the face of nature is done for the purpose of increasing its value for Man, and thus is a form of mastery over the environment. If we think that the Noble Savage, so-called, had the lightest touch of all and was more virtuous because of it, then we are mistaken. Indigenous peoples could be quite hard on the environments they lived in; in Australia, for example, Aborigines are said to have even contributed to several extinctions through over-hunting. Still, many of them did develop management strategies to augment the value of the land for them, just as we moderns attempt. To think of the husbandman as somehow more virtuous or to be, as you say, a servant of the environment would be less accurate, I believe, than to think of him as simply a more prudent master.


  4. Will, I don’t think you’re over-thinking: the issues you raise are important to me as well. I work hard to make sure my children know how to identify demeaning, derogatory, paternalistic, insensitive, and colonizing language and therefore know what not to say. Even the common expression “my wife” can make me wince in certain contexts. Possessive language is problematic, whether we are speaking of resources, places, or people.

    Language that romanticizes is of a piece with all of that: it condescends, contains, controls. Post-structuralist feminism and post-colonialism alike have done a good job of helping us see that how we speak pressures and orders the world in very real, meaning-making ways.

    I think you’re over-reading because I don’t think Elder Jensen, or George, or I are doing any of the things that worry you. A political or theoretical sensitivity on your part, made more sensitive because of your recent experience, may be part of what’s leading you to that reading. But I don’t see anything substantive in the language used in the post that lends itself to such a reading per se. A call to stewardship is a call away from ownership to responsibility. Husbanding is still a strong term. Stewardship suggests, as I said elsewhere, that you put the need of the thing you are responsible for over your own desire, and further that you accept full responsibility for your own attitudes and actions.

    But let me take a practical turn, if I may: how would you articulate what George and Elder Jensen want to articulate, assuming the best? What language is permissible? unproblematic? sufficient to the purpose?


  5. First, Will, I would love it if you would make an mp3 recording of a piece of your flute music and permit WIZ to post it. WIZ and its readers-listeners would be lucky to sample such a delicacy. FYI, Native American flute and ceremonial music plays an important role in our family. My severely brain-injured daughter responds especially positively to its expressions.

    Second, I think that your calls for caution regarding Elder Jensen’s rhetoric are not without merit, simply because the language shares appearances with other promises for fair treatment that Euro-Americans have uttered publicly and–perhaps even more unfortunately–ceremonially as they’ve addressed redress. Not all such promises or calls to action fail, though the successes likely happen on personalized, smaller scales in tiny hot spots here and there rather than via the fires of revolution that people try to summon up when they speak such words across pulpits or podiums during celebrations fat with human feeling. You know–like during the Pioneer Day celebration held in Utah on July 24. In other words, Will, I think your historian’s instinctive, “stand back from this” response a good one.

    Third, I think Jonathon’s sympathetic response to Elder Jensen’s statement is likewise justified. I’ll guess that Elder Jensen’s words probably made more than a few who believe their pioneer story defines the over-arching narrative for Utah more than a little uncomfortable. I live in a town on the edge of the Navajo Nation. The town’s population is swelled by Navajos from the reservation. I’ve heard some local, Euro-American Mormons, many of whom are of pioneer stock, express attitudes toward their native neighbors that suggest the speakers would find Elder Jensen’s words puzzling at best and misguided at worst. Or they’d expect such a proposal for inclusive history to be at tacitly asterisked: Yes, right next to us, Native Americans share a place in the story about what has made this state what it is today (nudge nudge, wink wink).

    Likewise, many Euro-American locals express reverential respect for their Native American neighbors and work to support them through acts of effectual relationship. These Euro-Americans might be able to build Elder Jensen’s words into their own views of community.

    By the way, Jensen’s sentence, ” €œAs tragic as that is, history cannot be unlived,” also shares similarities with and might actually draw from Maya Angelou’s famous assertion that “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again”–just to add some possible context for the segment of Elder Jensen’s speech that Jonathon shows us. Maybe everyone was already aware of the echos, but I’ll bounce them out there just in case.

    My thinking about George Handley’s rhetoric, Elder Jensen’s rhetoric, and the stories I hear from students about what is and what needs to be all share a common nature, and that is that the storytellers must and do speak from the narrative ground on which they currently stand as if with authority, because the authority that imbues the stories they tell about their experience as they perceive them at the time is the only authority from which they can speak. My experience has suggested to me that for various reasons those stories are evolving, whether their recounters appear to acknowledge that fact or not, whether they are aware of the shifting in their narrative grounds or not. Part of the job of attentive hearers is to interpret carefully and over a long period of acquaintanceship and perhaps friendship how a speaker might mean his or her story. Increasingly, I find that kind of acceptance of “tale as is” can help the teller form the tale more fully simply through the hearer’s part of being a careful, responsive listener. Quantum mechanics, and all that: Simply witnessing the event–in this case, the recounting of a narrative strain–changes it as well as alters the observer’s own position in ways that cannot be predicted and often cannot be controlled. Actual relationship (as opposed to simple witnessing) may be even more catalytic in this regard.

    I’ve more to say about this stuff, but this comment has already gone too long. Look for a post in the near future.


  6. Some useful ideas for a narrative poem I’m working on. Thanks, guys.

    Mark appears to be busily engaging in niche construction from the language supplied him above. Very ecologically sound and evolutionarily apt.


  7. In practical terms there is no way that I can imagine to escape completely the roots of one’s perspective. In the historical profession the question sometimes arises, for example: can a white male write the history of black females? Can an European write the history of the Indigenous native? Answer: of course, but his bias will always run athwart his narrative. And when I say bias, of course I mean his perspective, the mettle of his narrative ground. The historian must always write with a sense of awareness of his or her limitations.

    My beef with the Jensen quote, as I said earlier, is simply that it slid so easily into rhetorical patterns I’ve seen before. There may be no way for a person in his position to escape that rhetorical stance. The least problematic language for inviting a minority group to participate with the majority in creating a common history is simply to invite and then to listen and use as best as possible what is offered.

    My interest in the Native American Flute began when my family attended a local pow wow. It was around Father’s Day and my children purchased an inexpensive flute as a gift for me. I was taking bagpipe lessons at the time and they perhaps thought here is something for the old man to blow on that would be more pleasant to listen to. I enjoyed it, kept at it, learned more about it, and eventually decided to incorporate it into my class on Frontier history and culture.

    I’ve used it with some success for several years, but the thought keeps occurring to me that this flute, though made by a Native American craftsman, is tuned to the Western ear and is taught and played in my classes by people who listen with Western ears. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to Mary Had A Little Lamb played badly on the Native American flute. It has dawned on me gradually that putting this flute into students’ hands is only getting me part way to where I want to be, which is an authentic musical understanding of Native American culture €”if such is even possible.

    Recently, though, I have come in contact with some individuals who want to preserve and teach songs from the Lakota people, and who may be able to put a cheap flute tuned to native tuning into the hands of my students, together with a CD and songbook that would allow them to learn authentic native music. In my view, that would be a point of real beginning to understanding. We’ll see how it goes. The entire experience of learning to play, of learning to love, and to teach, the Native American flute, has illustrated for me the need to be sensitive when speaking of others’ culture and experience.

    I like the notion of speaking from a narrative ground that lends authority, and that stories evolve. In the native flute tradition, flute players made and €œowned € songs which are not to be played without permission. Songs are property and can be gifted to others. I think part of the responsibility of finding ways to talk about Euro-Indigenous relationships in the past as well as in contemporary settings is to tie these two notions together. I have a narrative space from which I speak. You may not speak for me. My speaking is mine and I offer it to you. You may accept my speech and use it, play it, honor it. We can join narratives by offering and accepting and mutually incorporating what is offered. The mechanics of how that might work in a history book, from a podium, or in a court room, are of course open to interpretation, but I feel at this moment like that might be a way to proceed and perhaps escape the rhetorical €œmeeting place between savagery and civilization € that Turner envisioned, and which never works out well for either the native or for nature.

    In the spirit of this thought, Patricia, I will send you a song at some point in the future, which you may post on this site.


  8. We have a lot to talk about here, Will. But for the sake of this venue, I’ll just post a couple of thoughts.

    In practical terms there is no way that I can imagine to escape completely the roots of one’s perspective. In the historical profession the question sometimes arises, for example: can a white male write the history of black females? Can an European write the history of the Indigenous native? Answer: of course, but his bias will always run athwart his narrative. And when I say bias, of course I mean his perspective, the mettle of his narrative ground. The historian must always write with a sense of awareness of his or her limitations.

    I agree completely that we need to become conscious of and then take responsibility for how we story others. By “how we story others” I mean how we arrange others–rhetorically, ideologically, morally and so forth–in the stories we tell about ourselves. That’s the kind of story that most of us tell. If we’re charged with composing a community narrative, as historians sometimes are, then yes, we certainly should make every effort for meaningful representation of all involved. Of course, problems related to the fostering of bias are not limited to those “winners” who tell stories about others. The “black females” and indigenous native” mentioned above are at as great a risk for bias-culturing as is any while male writing history. Anytime we devaluate other persons and their roles in our stories and use them as mere props to bolster perhaps otherwise unsupportable yarns we tell about ourselves, we’re storying them for our own advantage and our recounting is rightly suspect. I see a lot of this kind of “storying others” in environmental rhetoric– the reduction of Other to less-than-human or less-intelligent/knowing/morally upright/etc.-than-me. Thus my neighbors who built the now infamous trail into Recapture Canyon are drawn in the stories environmental interests tell about them as wholesale villains, destoyers of cultural artifacts and pillagers of natural beauties. They are implied to be liars and even subhuman bastards, insomuch as they fall into that category of folk that Edward Abbey called “bastards” in the quote, “and…I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards,” which quote a member of the Great Old Broads used to position herself against my neighbors and others whose behavior she sees as one of the world’s greatest ills. I can tell other stories about my neighbors that reflect my experience of their kindness, honesty, love of the land, and desire to do the right thing.

    I believe I made it clear that I agree that at first glance and without context Elder Jensen’s rhetorical stance regarding Native Americans looks just like the kind of language that has historically done injury to Native Americans and still does today. But does its resembling that other, dismissive-while-seeming-to-embrace narrative automatically mean that it goes wholly wrong? I can’t really tell from the words we have available.

    I do know that it appears to be at least slightly better than the language about Native Americans I heard last week. I was in a hospital and saw a sign on a plastic container that read, “Please fill out survey’s”. I commented to the white hospital worker I was speaking with that, as an English teacher, I can’t help but be interested in how the apostrophe “s” is entering the language as a marker for the simple plural. The woman replied, “If you see it on signs around here, it’s usually because a Native has done it.”

    The hospital does have a high percentage of Native Americans working there. But as an English teacher and an all-around interested observer, I’ve noticed the apostrophe “s” misused in this way for decades by whites and told to the hospital worker how I’d seen the apostrophe “s” applied to plurals on business signs in (Euro-American dominated) Utah Valley for years. She seemed to surprised to learn that Native Americans cannot be held accountable for all misuses of the apostrophe “s” on public signs. Some degree of bias–whose whole nature cannot be supposed to appear in her single sentence–was painfully apparent in the words she did speak. I believe I can make an argument that it made inferences about her beliefs regarding Native Americans but I’d be careful about going into detail about what inferences it made, or I might be guilty of storying her.

    We can join narratives by offering and accepting and mutually incorporating what is offered. The mechanics of how that might work in a history book, from a podium, or in a court room, are of course open to interpretation, but I feel at this moment like that might be a way to proceed and perhaps escape the rhetorical €œmeeting place between savagery and civilization € that Turner envisioned, and which never works out well for either the native or for nature.

    Some of this expresses thoughts of my own heart, especially the first line. Language is sacred ground–more sacred than how we commonly treat it. Also, human expression has qualities that make it wildly recombinant. Sometimes, people can’t help but be affected by it in ways they aren’t entirely able to control. All the more reason to walk carefully into each other’s linguistic terrain.

    Also, Will, if you haven’t already, you might want to read Barre Toelken’s The Anguish of Snails. He is (last I heard, and in spite of having suffered a very serious stroke) a folklorist at Utah State University. I’ve heard him speak on a couple of occasions. He was married to a Navajo and lived for a time on the reservation as an adopted family member. When he suffered his stroke, his relatives did healing ceremonies for him that he credits with doing more good than his white docs could do. In Anguish of Snails he provides insight into Native American interaction with Euro-Americans that might be just your savory cup of thoughtful tea.


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