Crossing the Threshold: The Ecological Road into Mordor

Great stories become symbols as they are encountered again and again by successive generations, as they are read in the context of currently unfolding lives. Stories become a part of the ecology in which they are told, participating in shaping the cultural landscape and being reshaped by it as well. Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare—these are but a few of the authors whose stories have withstood the slow wearing and reshaping of the passing river of time; they are narratives that have become changing symbols for those who have taken them up in their own time. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, principally his Lord of the Rings epic, has been called by several scholars a myth for our time, a symbol of the age in which we live. As one Tolkien scholar writes, The Lord of the Rings is a tale that “will bear the mind’s handling, and it is a book that acquires an individual patina in each mind that takes it up, like a much-caressed pocket stone or piece of wood.”[1] Such is the gift of a story written not as prescriptive allegory, but rather as what Tolkien preferred to see as “history, true or feigned, with its various applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”[2] It is the flexible applicability of Tolkien’s narrative that allows it to be adapted and molded according to the needs and desires of the generations encountering it, providing a symbolic foil to the world in which it is being retold.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

Tolkien began writing his mythology during a time of rapid transformation in Europe, as he witnessed increasing industrialization overwhelm the rural landscape of his native England. His stories carry much of the melancholy rendered by this loss of ecological beauty, and seem to plant seeds of warning for upcoming generations as more and more of the Earth’s landscapes are being turned to solely human uses. The ecological awareness at the heart of Tolkien’s world may contribute to its particular applicability to the current time period in which we face massive anthropogenic ecological destruction. Methods of engagement with the ecological crisis are innumerably diverse, a reflection of the broad scale of the problems with which the Earth community is challenged. Philosophical approaches to ecology and environmentalism have sought different means of engaging with the very concept of nature, as well as the dualisms created between human and nature, self and other, subject and object, that have contributed to making the Earth crisis what it is. Can Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth provide a symbolic mirror for some of these approaches, from ecofeminism, to dark ecology, to process ethics? By bringing such frameworks into dialogue with narrative, can new concepts be born through their interminglings and diversions?

This study of Middle-Earth as an ecological foil will go in several different directions, although they will all address overlapping issues related to how concepts of unity and difference play significant roles in the human relationship to the Earth. I will be using Tolkien’s narrative in two ways: on the one hand, by looking at it from the outside to see how it might change the engagement of the reader—as a participant in an imaginal world—with the primary world in which she lives; and on the other hand, by diving into the world itself and studying the characters directly as examples of individuals engaging in different ways with their own world. I will first explore the role art plays in shaping the human relationship with the Earth, seeing how art can both cultivate a sense of identity with the natural world, but also how it can give a clearer view of the diversity and inherent difference in that world. Crossing the threshold and entering into Middle-Earth itself we can continue exploring themes of identity and difference, remoteness and entanglement, duality and unity, by bringing such thinkers as Timothy Morton, Val Plumwood, Pierre Hadot, Slavov Zizek, and Alfred North Whitehead into dialogue with Tolkien’s work.

Imaginal worlds and the stories which take place within them can provide what Tolkien calls a “recovery,” a “regaining of a clear view.”[3] He goes on to elaborate what such a clear view can offer, saying:

I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.[4]

Although he mentions not wanting to involve himself with the philosophers, for the purpose of this essay I will be drawing Tolkien’s narratives into philosophical dialogue. The ecophenomenologist Neil Evernden offers a complementary, although somewhat reoriented, view to Tolkien’s on the role that art and the humanities can play in ecology: quoting Northrop Frye to make his point, Evernden says, “the goal of art is to ‘recapture, in full consciousness, that original lost sense of identity with our surroundings, where there is nothing outside the mind of man, or something identical with the mind of man.’”[5] Evernden’s perspective dissolves the boundary between the human and the natural world, whereas Tolkien’s sharpens awareness that there is a surrounding world that cannot be possessed by the human. Both perspectives, however, lead to a reorientation of values in which the natural world cannot become forgotten or taken for granted. They both call forth a sense of wonder.

The French philosopher Pierre Hadot points towards how art can create continuity between humanity and nature, offering another perspective for regaining the clear view of which Tolkien speaks:

If . . . people consider themselves a part of nature because art is already present in it, there will no longer be opposition between nature and art; instead, human art, especially in its aesthetic aspect, will be in a sense the prolongation of nature, and then there will no longer be any relation of dominance between nature and mankind.[6]

Art offers to the spectator the possibility of becoming a participant, to engage at a personal level with the subject as portrayed by the work of art. The human subject can no longer encounter the other in the art as solely objective for, as Evernden writes, “The artist makes the world personal—known, loved, feared, or whatever, but not neutral.”[7] For Tolkien, art is what gives to the creations of the imagination “the inner consistency of reality”[8] that allows both the designer and spectator to enter into the created world. We have the possibility of entering fully into a world such as Tolkien’s and seeing its applicability to our own world, which is what makes it such a potent symbol for our own actions.

Entering into Middle-Earth we find ourselves in the Shire, the quiet, sheltered landscape inhabited by Hobbits. The Shire is insolated from the outside world, its inhabitants peacefully oblivious to the wider world, its borders guarded unbeknownst to the Hobbits by human Rangers of the North. The Lord of the Rings can be seen as a literary example and metaphor of overcoming the dualism between self and other, human and nature, and subject and object. It tells the story of how four Hobbits leave their isolated world—and also world view—of the Shire to journey into the diverse landscapes of Middle-Earth and encounter the many peoples shaped by those lands. They realize they are but one small part of a larger, diverse ecology of beings. As Morton writes in his book Ecology Without Nature,

The strangeness of Middle-Earth, its permeation with others and their worlds, is summed up in the metaphor of the road, which becomes an emblem for narrative. The road comes right up to your front door. To step into it is to cross a threshold between inside and outside.[9]

Morton is quite critical of Tolkien, seeing Middle-Earth as an “elaborate attempt to craft a piece of kitsch,” a closed world where “however strange or threatening our journey, it will always be familiar” because “it has all been planned out in advance.”[10] This criticism is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what Tolkien describes the very aim of fantasy to be, to free things ‘from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.’ Is this an indication that Tolkien has failed in his project, or rather that Morton is misreading what it is that Tolkien is attempting to do? Morton begins his analysis of Middle-Earth by saying,

The Shire . . . depicts the world-bubble as an organic village. Tolkien narrates the victory of the suburbanite, the “little person,” embedded in a tamed yet natural-seeming environment. Nestled into the horizon as they are in their burrows, the wider world of global politics is blissfully unavailable to them.[11]

In many ways this is a true characterization of the Shire at the start of the tale. There is an idyllic pastoralism to the Shire that is cherished by many of Tolkien’s readers, but it is also a realm of sheltered innocence as Morton points out, a Paradise before the Fall. However, by substituting this image of the Shire for the whole of Middle-Earth, Morton misses an essential aspect of the narrative: the Hobbits must depart from the Shire and encounter the strangeness and diversity of the larger world. The Hobbits, who may start out as ‘little suburbanites,’ cannot accomplish the tasks asked of them without first being transformed through the suffering and awakening that comes from walking every step of their journey. To return to Morton’s quote about the Road, once the ‘threshold between inside and outside’ has been crossed, the traveler cannot return to his former innocence. It is a shift in world view. The Hobbits can never return to the solipsistic world that existed prior to that crossing. This is an essential move that is also being asked of the human species in our own time; to cross out of our anthropocentric world view to encounter the great and imperiled diversity of the wider world.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

While the Hobbits’ journey can serve as a metaphor for the journey the human species is being called to take—to awaken to the crisis at hand and leave our anthropocentric world view—The Lord of the Rings can be read symbolically from another perspective in which different characters represent alternative approaches to the natural world that have been taken by humanity over the course of history. These differing approaches have been laid out by Pierre Hadot in his “essay on the history of the idea of nature,” The Veil of Isis. Using mythic terms, these are what Hadot calls the Orphic and Promethean attitudes:

Orpheus thus penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.[12]

The three primary methods of the Promethean attitude, according to Hadot, are experimentation, mechanics, and magic, each of which seek to manipulate nature for some specific end. In Middle-Earth the Promethean approach is used by the Dark Lord Sauron, and later by the wizard Saruman, as they each seek to employ technology to gain power and dominion over others. Hadot writes of the Promethean attitude: “Man will seek, through technology, to affirm his power, domination, and rights over nature.”[13] As Treebeard says of Saruman, “He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”[14] Saruman’s drive for power is a mere shadow and an echo of Sauron’s: the emblematic symbol of the power of technology in The Lord of the Rings is of course the One Ring itself, a device or machine that takes away the free will of those who use it.

Hadot’s consideration of magic as an aspect of the Promethean attitude is quite similar to Tolkien’s own views on magic, although this might not be expected with a first glance at his works. Tolkien differentiates between magic and enchantment, seeing magic as the technological manipulations of the Enemy, while enchantment is the exquisite creations of peoples such as the Elves. Tolkien writes in one of his letters that “the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference”[15] between magic and enchantment. He goes on to say, “Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete . . . . its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”[16] Elvish enchantment might be seen as an example of Hadot’s Orphic approach to nature, with its focus on poetry, music, art, holistic science, myth and contemplation.

The Orphic attitude holds the belief that “if nature has hidden certain things, then it had good reasons to hide them.”[17] It is an approach that seeks to come to understanding through contemplating the whole, without reducing it into simplistic parts. This is illustrated by the difference between the two Istari, or wizards, Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. In his bid for power, Saruman has renounced his rank as White Wizard rather to become Saruman of Many Colors. He mocks the symbol represented by his former color, proclaiming:

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said [Gandalf]. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”[18]

Saruman has moved from being one of the Wise, those who bring an Orphic approach to all they undertake, to a dark Promethean figure seeking domination, power, and control over others.

The attitudes Sauron and Saruman take towards the lands and peoples of Middle-Earth can be better understood through the ecofeminist Val Plumwood’s model of anthropocentrism, which she recognizes as the dominant human culture’s relationship with nature. Her language is particularly appropriate for mapping onto The Lord of the Rings because she refers to the dualism between One and Other as played out in this form of hegemonic centrism. In this symbolic mapping, the One represents the centralized power of the Lord of the One Ring, while the Other represents the diversity of the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth and their multiplicity of cultures and landscapes. Plumwood’s anthropocentric model demonstrates the ways in which the One approaches the Other, particularly through means of homogenization, backgrounding, incorporation or assimilation, and instrumentalism. A breakdown of these terms follows, each of which can be seen in the way Tolkien’s dark powers seek to dominate and control the peoples of Middle-Earth:

• Homogenization – “The model promotes insensitivity to the marvelous diversity of nature, since differences in nature are attended to only if they are likely to contribute in some obvious way to human welfare.”[19]

• Backgrounding – “Nature is represented as inessential and massively denied as the unconsidered background to technological society.”[20]

• Incorporation (Assimilation) – “The intricate order of nature is perceived as disorder, as unreason, to be replaced where possible by human order in development, an assimilating project of colonisation.”[21]

• Instrumentalism – “In anthropocentric culture, nature’s agency and independence of ends are denied, subsumed in or remade to coincide with human interests, which are thought to be the source of all value in the world. Mechanistic worldviews especially deny nature any form of agency of its own.”[22]

Sauron seeks to turn all of Middle-Earth to his own devices, by reducing the great diversity of the land’s peoples to mere tributes and instruments. The power of the One Ring is that it can bring all beings, even the land itself, under its dominion: “One Ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.”[23] Sauron’s darkness is homogenous, erasing all difference, backgrounding all who do not fit his plans, and incorporating and using as instruments those who do.

The key actions to the three great victories accomplished by the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth are carried out by characters or races that have been forgotten or backgrounded in just the way Plumwood describes: Sauron is overthrown by the actions of Frodo and Sam, two small Hobbits of a race he considered too unimportant to account for in his schemes; Saruman is defeated by the Ents whom he dismissed as mere myth; and the Witch-King of Angmar is overthrown by the shieldmaiden Eowyn, whose coming was concealed by the patriarchal language that referred to her entire race as Men—leaving the arrogant Lord of the Nazgûl to be defeated at the hands of a woman. As Elrond says at the Council held in Rivendell that decides the fate of the Ring, “This quest must be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”[24]

There are, of course, flaws with Tolkien’s work that a perspective such as Plumwood’s would be quick to point out. For example, it is a largely androcentric work, with the majority of the characters being male. It also has a Eurocentric focus, as Middle-Earth was intended by Tolkien to be set in Europe, although in an imaginary time: “The theatre of my tale is this earth,” Tolkien wrote in one letter, “the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.”[25] Critics such as Morton point out that “For Tolkien, dwarves, elves, hobbits, and talking eagles are welcome others, but swarthy ‘southern’ or ‘eastern’ men are not.”[26] Although I do not want to discount these valid criticisms, I will point out some subtleties that emerge in the text that complexify Morton’s simple rendering of good and evil in Tolkien’s world.

For example, when Sam witnesses the violent death of a Southron man he finds himself contemplating what the character of this man might have been in life.

He was glad he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.[27]

In this moment I believe Tolkien is asking the reader to contemplate the same: to not take the presentation of the other at face value, but rather to look deeper. He is bringing moral complexity into a story that has often been initially perceived to present a Manichean vision of evil and good. Often the struggle between good and evil takes place within a single person, as can be seen emblematically in Frodo and Sméagol’s internal struggles with their own potential for evil, and even Gandalf and Aragorn’s wrestling with the corrupting influence of power. “Nothing is evil in the beginning,” Elrond says. “Even Sauron was not so.”[28]

One’s actions, and not one’s inherent being, are what turn a person evil in Tolkien’s world. The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, writes on the nature of evil and its root in inhibiting, either through violence or neglect, the potential for beauty in the world. For Whitehead, the evil of violence “lies in the loss to the social environment.”[29] He also writes,

Evil in itself leads to the world losing forms of attainment in which that evil manifests itself . . . . Thus evil promotes its own elimination by destruction, or degradation, or by elevation. But in its own nature it is unstable.[30]

An example of this can be seen at times throughout The Lord of the Rings when the Orcs, acting as evil minions doing the bidding of Sauron or Saruman, turn on each other during a dispute and often end up killing one another in their anger—often eliminating a danger otherwise needing to be faced by the protagonists. As Brian Henning writes, “Whitehead’s insight is that violence and force tend to be self-defeating in that they undermine the very social structures that make them possible.”[31] Another case is Saruman, who cuts the trees of Fangorn to feed his fires, allowing him to raise an industrial army. Without doing this harm, which is what makes him evil to begin with, he would not have triggered the anger of the Ents, leading to his defeat. Finally, a more abstract illustration of how evil undermines itself can be seen in Sauron. Gandalf says of Sauron that “the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”[32] Sauron’s desire for power, which is what initially corrupts him and turns him evil, is also that which is his undoing, for it blinds him to the moral will of others, resulting in his utter demise.

One must be careful of the way in which one relates to the actions of evil in the world. Creating a dualism between oneself and what one sees as evil can lead to what Hegel, from the perspective of Morton, called the Beautiful Soul. Morton writes, “The Beautiful Soul suffers from seeing reality as an evil thing ‘over yonder.’ Is this not precisely the attitude of many forms of environmentalism?”[33] He goes on to say,

It’s that the gaze that constitutes the world as a thing ‘over yonder,’ is evil as such. The environmental fundamentalism that sees the world as an essential, living Earth that must be saved from evil, viral humans is the very type of the Beautiful Soul’s evil gaze.[34]

The evil of the Beautiful Soul’s gaze is only evil when one remains at a remove from what one perceives as evil out in the world. So long as it remains a distant gaze, evil can flourish in the world. “How do we truly exit from the Beautiful Soul?” Morton asks. “By taking responsibility for our attitude, for our gaze. On the ground this looks like forgiveness. We are fully responsible for the present environmental catastrophe, simply because we are aware of it.”[35] The burden of the One Ring is that Frodo must take responsibility for it once he is aware that the world is imperiled by it. It is his task to take responsibility for the Ring, and the longer he is in possession of it the more he is corrupted by its power. “The only way is in and down. . .” as Morton says.[36] Frodo and Sam not only go down into the heart of Mordor, they also face the capacity for evil in themselves. Indeed, Frodo must take responsibility for his inability to destroy the Ring, but in doing so he also must forgive himself, for only in his failure was the task actually able to be accomplished.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

The approach of going ‘in and down’ is what Morton has called dark ecology. “Dark ecology is melancholic: melancholy is the Earth’s humour, and the residuum of our unbreakable psychic connection to our mother’s body, which stands metonymically for our connection with all life forms.”[37] There is a melancholy too that is inherent to the heart of The Lord of the Rings. With the destruction of the One Ring, the Three Rings of the Elves are also stripped of their power, and all that was wrought with them in symbiotic harmony with beauty of the Earth begins to fade and pass away. Interconnection is at the heart of this story, the power of good intrinsically interwoven and even dependent on the power of evil, and vice versa. Destroying the One Ring is choosing to lose the great beauty created by the Elves to allow the greater beauty of a free Middle-Earth to flourish. It is a moral decision according to Henning’s kalogenic ethics of creativity, but it is a tragic, a melancholic decision as well. The Lord of the Rings concludes with a sense of bittersweet mourning, the mourning of all that has passed, the mourning of the end of an age.

In reference to the ecological crisis, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes on what hope we have for the future:

We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, the catastrophe will take place, it is our destiny—and, then, on the background of this acceptance, we should mobilize ourselves to perform the act that will change destiny itself by inserting a new possibility into the past.[38]

In many ways the future of Middle-Earth is also doomed, poised on the edge of ruin. Late in the story Pippin asks Gandalf:

“Tell me,” he said, “is there any hope? For Frodo, I mean; or at least mostly for Frodo.”

Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. “There never was much hope,” he answered. “Just a fool’s hope.”[39]

‘On the background of this acceptance,’ as Zizek has said, we must then make our decision, the melancholic choice that leads us ‘in and down’ into the darkness of the world, a darkness mirrored potentially in each of us as well, whose very success leads to mourning. When Frodo first learns that he is in possession of the One Ring, that it is his responsibility to face the darkness head on, he confides to Gandalf:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who come to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[40]


Works Cited

Evernden, Neil. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978).

Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Henning, Brian G. The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

–––––. “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul.” Collapse 6 (2010): 265-293.

Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. 

–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Religion in the Making. Edited by Judith A. Jones. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Nature and Its Discontents.” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 37-72.


[1] Peter Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), xii.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 5.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[4] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 77.

[5] Northrop Frye, qtd. in Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 99.

[6] Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 92.

[7] Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 100.

[8] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 68.

[9] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 98.

[10] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 98.

[11] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 97.

[12] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.

[13] Ibid, 92.

[14] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, II, iv, 76.

[15] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 146.

[16] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 146.

[17] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 91.

[18] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 272.

[19] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 107.

[20] Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 108.

[21] Ibid, 109.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 59.

[24] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[25] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 239.

[26] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 99.

[27] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, IV, iv, 269.

[28] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 281.

[29] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, ed. Judith A. Jones, (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996), 97.

[30] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 96.

[31] Brian G. Henning, The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 114.

[32] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[33] Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 287-288.

[34] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 290.

[35] Ibid, 291.

[36] Ibid, 293.

[37] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.

[38] Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 68.

[39] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, V, iv, 88.

[40] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 60.

Darkness, Duality, and the Call for Enmeshed Solidarity

Dark Ecology

When confronted with crisis, one must ask what it is that is in crisis. When it comes to what has been termed the environmental—or ecological—crisis, this question of what is in crisis immediately complexifies. The crisis itself may be that we cannot simply apply a homogenous label to what is unfolding everywhere around, before, and even inside of us. If there is a crisis of nature, and humans are causing it, then knowing what nature and humanity are, what their relationship is, and if they can even be distinguished or differentiated from each other, is crucial to the survival of countless species, including our own, and the ecosystems which these species constitute.

Certain contemporary ecological thinkers have challenged the barrier—constructed by dominant aspects of Western civilization—between the concepts of nature and humanity with a variety of different approaches. These challenges come in the form of Val Plumwood’s ecofeminism, Timothy Morton’s dark ecology, Slavoj Zizek’s ideas of interdependence and the barrier of Included and Excluded, Neil Evernden’s concepts of ecological interrelatedness, and Holmes Rolston’s response to the deconstruction of ecological terminology, among many others. Each of these approaches seeks to address and break down the dualism held between subject and object, primarily as maintained in the separation of humanity from nature.

Val Plumwood’s ecofeminist approach, as encapsulated in her book Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, uses methods of analogy to read one system of thought into another to think through enculturated dualisms between male/female, rational/emotional, Self/Other, subject/object, and of course, human/nature. She addresses the problems of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, systemic remoteness, and hegemonic centrism at multiple levels as embodied not only by dominant rationalistic approaches but also by a variety of ecological perspectives, from animal rights advocacy to deep ecology. Plumwood sees humanity as being faced with “two historic tasks that arise from the rationalist hyper-separation of human identity from nature: they can be summed up as the tasks of (re)situating humans in ecological terms and non-humans in ethical terms.”[1] Her primary prescriptive approach is to shift from an attitude of identity with that which is termed Other, to an attitude of solidarity. She also emphasizes the need to recognize the agency of the Other, instead of only the intrinsic value of the Other.

Holmes Rolston addresses the idea of agency in relationship to value as well when he writes, “The world is full of eyes, legs, wings, antennae, mouths, webs and eggs, all being used in the defence of life. Is it consistent to say that animals defend lives they do not value?”[2] He goes on to say,

The organism is an axiological, though not a moral, system. So the tree grows, reproduces, repairs its wounds and resists death. A life is defended for what it is in itself, without necessary further contributory reference. Every organism has a good-of-its-kind, it defends its own kind as a good kind.[3]

Both Rolston and Plumwood are focusing on the issue of ‘resituating. . . non-humans in ethical terms,’ with an understanding that agency indicates the rights of the Other while also affirming their inherent differences from humanity. Rights need not arise from similarity to the human, as this is a form of anthropocentrism that merely pushes the boundary of duality further from the sphere of the human species.

A tension exists between affirming difference while challenging duality in the various approaches of these five ecological thinkers. As Neil Evernden points out, “Ecology begins as a normal, reductionist science, but to its own surprise it winds up denying the subject-object relationship upon which science rests.”[4] Timothy Morton affirms this when he writes, “‘Nature’ dissolves when we look directly at it, into assemblages of behaviours, congeries of organs without bodies.”[5] Both Morton and Slavoj Zizek argue that the ecological crisis ought to be addressed by abolishing the concept of “Nature” as an external environment radically other to the human. One must, in Zizek’s words, “ the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded,” rather than simply “fight for the environment.”[6] Rolston, on the other hand, accepts the use of the term “nature” but only after addressing the difference of nature as concept or framework and nature as real beings: “‘Nature,’ if a category we have constructed, has real members, that is, things that got there on their own in this world-container, and remain there independently of our vocabulary.”[7]

For Evernden the solution lies in art, aesthetics, and the humanities. He quotes Northrop Frye in saying “the goal of art is to ‘recapture, in full consciousness, that original lost sense of identity with our surroundings, where there is nothing outside the mind of man, or something identical with the mind of man.’”[8] For Plumwood, aspects of this approach might be problematic, primarily the idea of ‘identity with our surroundings’ rather than solidarity and communication with those beings outside the human species. Yet Plumwood also accepts the ambiguity and imperfection inherent to developing effective models of communication with non-humans. She writes,

The problems of representing another culture’s or another species communication however pale before the enormity of failing to represent them at all, or of representing them as non-communicative and non-intentional beings. This is an incomparably greater failing.[9]

This acceptance of the ambiguity and even the mess of ecological engagement are also present in Morton and Zizek’s thought. Morton writes, “Ecological thinking—what I call the ecological thought—is precisely this ‘humiliating’ descent, towards what is rather abstractly called ‘the Earth.’”[10] Zizek, who draws significantly from Morton, looks to the necessarily externalized slums produced by the capitalist system to highlight the dualism of Included and Excluded, and at the overlap of nature and industrial civilization in a state of “common decay”[11] to break down the conception of an insolated humanity and an “impenetrable inhuman nature.”[12] These ideas are at the core of Morton’s “dark ecology,” which “realizes that we are hopelessly entangled in the mesh.”[13]

To say that Plumwood, Morton, Zizek, Evernden, and Rolston agree with one another would be a severe misinterpretation of each of their projects. However, they do stand on some common ground with one another as they pose challenges to current systems of dualistic, anthropocentric, hegemonic thinking. While there may not be a common identity between these ecological thinkers, there does appear to be, in Plumwood’s terms, a solidarity between their challenges to ecological philosophy and the concept of nature.

Works Cited

Evernden, Neil. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978).

Morton, Timothy. “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul.” Collapse 6 (2010): 265-293.

Rolston, Holmes. “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” in The Philosophy of the Environment, edited by T.D.J. Chappell, 38-63. Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997.

Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Nature and Its Discontents.” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 37-72.

[1] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 8-9.

[2] Holmes Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” in The Philosophy of the Environment, ed. T.D.J. Chappell (Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997), 60.

[3] Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” 61.

[4] Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 93.

[5] Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 285.

[6] Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 45.

[7] Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” 43.

[8] Northrop Frye, qtd. in Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 99.

[9] Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 60-61.

[10] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 265.

[11] Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” 63.

[12] Ibid, 50.

[13] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.

The Great Mosaic: California’s Wilderness Garden


This is not the wilderness. The crisp leaves rattle overhead as squirrels jump from branch to branch. The wind and sun alike are filtered through the dry, prickly foliage causing the reflective leaves to sparkle like the ruffled surface of a lake. Spiderwebs catch the westering light, near invisible threads stretching seemingly to nowhere. It is here that I encounter my subject, the tree who will be my emissary of Nature, a representative on behalf of landscape, ecosystem, Earth: Quercus chrysolepus, the canyon live oak, one of many oak species native to the California climate. I cannot presume to know this tree, but I will attempt to inquire, to observe, to learn, perhaps to better understand the land that generated us both.

Canyon Live OakThis oak is not in the wilderness. We have both grown up in the city of San Francisco. This particular Quercus lives within the Botanical Gardens of Golden Gate Park, in the California Native Plant section. It lives in an enclosed space surrounded by a human constructed city, a place that is artificial yet natural at the same time. This park is tended and cared for by human hands, not for food, clothing, or shelter, but as a place of beauty. This tree is not growing in the wilderness, but it is still a tree, it is still nature. Perhaps it is better to conduct this inquiry within the bounds of a city park, a place where human and non-human ecosystems coincide, where boundaries are less clear and the symbiotic role of the human in these micro-ecosystems is more apparent than in the places that have been designated pristine wilderness.

The live oak I sit beneath is several feet wide at the base of its trunk with seven thick boughs extending radially outward, branching again and again until they end in thin twigs clothed in the distinctively pointed, dull green leaves that characterize California’s oaks. Many brown leaves litter the wide, mossy paving stones and the small, fern-covered slope beneath its spreading branches. It is a chilly November day, and both the fallen leaves and the temperature bring to mind that autumn is well underway. The rough, cracked bark of the ochre branches are spotted with sea-foam green lichen. Toward the base of the trunk, nailed into the wood, hangs a small, black, metal sign printed with the words: Fagaceae, Quercus chrysolepus, Canyon Live Oak, Western North America.

Spreading out around the oak is a gardened landscape containing many of California’s native plant species. Within the enclosure of this park is likely a better representation of the plant species growing on the West Coast of North America before European settlement than anywhere else in California. It is a reproduction and preservation of the past, guarded and tended to remain in such a state. Paths wind between dense clusters of chaparral—which means “short, woody vegetation” in Spanish—that are comprised of manzanita, buck brush, chamise, nude buckwheat, scrub oak, mountain mahogany, toyon, California coffeeberry, and silk tassel bush. Around and beneath the denser patches of chaparral are herbs and flowers: matilija poppies, red maids, farewell-to-spring, melic grass, gilia, chia, and clover.[1] Although the composition of the plants reflects an ecosystem prior to European contact, the contemporary common names clearly do not.

Timothy Morton writes in his book Ecology Without Nature that “We discover how nature always slips out of reach in the very act of grasping it.”[2] As I sit beneath this live oak tree writing of the play of golden light across the waxy leaves of the chaparral, I am actually distancing myself from nature. The more I describe the landscape, the deeper I go into the writing and the further I depart from where I am situated in this moment.[3] Nature slips away as it is turned into written words, making what is tangible and alive transform into a piece of art, something that is no longer nature. This paradox may be worth keeping in mind as I enquire further into the nature of nature, the nature of the human being, and the boundaries that may or may not exist between us.Native California Garden

I have titled this essay “The Great Mosaic” for several reasons: the name refers to the diverse ecological microclimates of the landmass named California, as well as to the mosaics created by symbiotic human interaction with that landscape; but it also refers to the method of writing I am exploring in this piece. I will attempt to create a mosaic of language, forming puzzle pieces of nature writing, scientific and ecological study, and philosophical and historical inquiry that will fit together with the same diversity, incongruity, and complexity as the landscapes that inspired these words.


It is becoming increasingly evident that human beings are rampantly destroying the ecosystems of the Earth. A primary reason for such destruction seems to be part of the Western world view as developed and inherited from the European tradition: a perceived dualism between the human and all other non-human entities, the latter often termed nature. If one is to address this dualism one needs to understand not only how it came to be, but also why it is a problem. Many, although certainly not all, environmentalists work on behalf of nature without actually addressing the underlying foundations of why they do their work, acting from a sense of reverence and love for an intrinsically valuable and good environment that must be saved from the marring touch of human hands. For this kind of environmentalist, the environment is defined as “that form of nature that is vulnerable to human-made devastation and disaster.”[4] The work such environmentalists do should not in any way be disregarded or dismissed. It is important work not to be taken lightly or for granted. What I hope to address is the world view behind their actions. Their work may ultimately be futile unless we can have a clearer understanding of the role of the human being, not as an alien destroyer of the natural world, but as a fundamental part of Earth’s ecosystems, a species that shapes and inhabits its ecological niche like all other species.


“Scientific findings indicate that virtually every part of the globe, from the boreal forests to the humid tropics, has been inhabited, modified, or managed throughout our human past.”[5] As is clear in this quote from Arturo Gomez-Pompa and Andrea Kaus’s article “Taming the Wilderness Myth,” the idea of wilderness as a pristine, untouched landscape is increasingly being exposed—through the writings of William Cronon, M. Kat Anderson, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, James Fairhead, Melissa Leach, and many others—as an idealized myth of the Western psyche. Timothy Morton takes this perspective a step further by calling for not only a human practice of ecology without the idea of wilderness, but without even the concept of nature. The idea of nature will have to “wither away” for an “ecological” human state to be able to exist.[6] He writes that “in all its confusing, ideological intensity, nature ironically impedes a proper relationship with the earth and its life-forms, which would, of course, include ethics and science.”[7]

Cronon writes in his essay “The Trouble With Wilderness” that wilderness does not exist apart from the human, it is rather an entirely human construction.

Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it 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’s a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.[8]

This is not to say that the land itself is shaped exclusively by human hands—indeed, quite the contrary—but rather that the human is a species interacting with the natural environment in ways that shape it like every other species that participates with that land.


The landscapes of California provide a clear example of ecosystems that have been preserved under the guise of untouched wilderness in some of the world’s most famous and majestic national parks. Far from being untouched, however, these ecosystems were formed in relationship to human inhabitants over thousands of years, and some species may even have become dependent on a symbiotic relationship with humans. Therefore, I will be concentrating specifically on the various oak species indigenous to California, to understand the role they play in their ecosystems, their relationships to humans, as well as to ecosystem disturbance, to fire, and to the virulent pathogen that causes sudden oak death which is now devastating oak populations across the state.

California is a richly diverse landscape supporting between 5,800 and 6,300 plant species that grow in a wide variety of ecosystem communities, making it one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots.[9] California’s microclimates range from deserts to salt and freshwater marshes, coastal prairie, valley grasslands, shrublands, riparian and foothill woodlands, and coastal redwood, lower montane, and evergreen forests.[10] The state has been called by some “the great mosaic.”[11] The wealth of species diversity can be seen in the example of the coastal prairie grassland, in which the average of 22.6 plant species per square meter is higher than in any other grassland in the North America.[12]

There are nine major kinds of chaparral ecosystem in California, each defined by the dominant species in its community. The variety I was observing in San Francisco’s Botanical Gardens was the ceanothus chaparral, characterized by its abundance of buck brush (Ceanothus cuneatus).[13] Different oak species grow among this kind of chaparral, predominantly scrub oak (Quercus dumosa), a shorter, more shrub-like oak than the Quercus chrysolepus under which I was sitting.[14] Unlike the scrub oaks, canyon live oaks grow primarily in California’s moist ravines and canyons and can live to be three hundred years old. Foothill woodland ecosystems, which cover some three million acres of California land, are dominated by oak species. In the drier inland regions the endemic blue oak (Quercus douglasii) grows in stands from the Sacramento Valley to Los Angeles County. Often the blue oak grows in mixed stands along with valley oak (Quercus lobata), interior live oak (Quercus wislizenii), coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia), and gray and foothill pine (Pinus sabiniana); blue oak also grows among chaparral species and even in pure stands solely comprised of Quercus douglasii.[15]

The largest species of California oak are the valley oaks, christened “monarchs of the soil” because of their enormous size. Their shade provides a nourishing microclimate rich with a diversity of understory species.[16] In the northern coastal regions of California the dominant oak species are California black oak and Oregon oak; further south coastal live oaks are the dominant species. Unlike the valley oak, live oaks have little to no undergrowth, giving their stands the look of well-tended parks.[17] Indeed, California has been compared not only to a park but also to a flower garden, or as John Muir named it “the Pacific land of flowers.”[18] While this concept of California as a park or garden may have seemed unusual to arriving Europeans who believed they were entering a pristine wilderness area, it actually was the case that they were entering a garden of sorts, a landscape that had been developing in symbiosis with the hundreds of indigenous tribes living in the area over the previous 12,000 to 13,500 years.[19]


No country in the world was as well supplied by Nature, with food for man, as California, when first discovered by the Spaniards. Every one of its early visitors have left records to this effect—they all found its hills, valleys and plains filled with elk, deer, hares, rabbits, quail, and other animals fit for food; its rivers and lakes swarming with salmon, trout, and other fish, their beds and banks covered with mussels, clams, and other edible mollusca; the rocks on its sea shores crowded with seal and otter; and its forests full of trees and plants, bearing acorns, nuts, seeds and berries.[20]

This evocative excerpt from Titus Fey Cronise’s book The Natural Wealth of California, published in 1868, provides a delectable image of a veritable Garden of Eden ripe for the taking. Yet Cronise makes no mention of the thousands of people whose lifestyles were thoroughly integrated into this wealthy landscape, who had coaxed forth such abundance through cultural practices that cultivated the land not as an intensive farm but as an extended wild garden.

California’s high species diversity was matched by its diversity of indigenous peoples. Indeed, Fikret Berkes has written of correlations worldwide between cultural diversity and biodiversity, likely caused by human “disturbance” and rotational use of the land.[21] Some 500 to 600 tribes lived in California, with each tribe spread over multiple villages.[22] Estimates of California’s indigenous human population at the time of European contact ranges from 133,000 to 705,000 people, with the most widely accepted estimate at around 310,000.[23] The tribes that lived in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was sitting beneath the canyon live oak, were the Ohlone, Coast Miwok, and Pomo, among others.

Juan José Warner, a European traveler in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1830s, noted with some wonder that such large indigenous populations could thrive on land that was apparently not cultivated.[24] Yet what he did not see were the subsistence activities carried out by these different tribes that were a form of cultivation and conservation, a coaxing of abundance from the natural processes of the land. Native Californians gathered, hunted, fished, and quarried stone for tools.[25] The acorns of the canyon live oak were used by the Pomo to relieve coughs and sore throats. The oak stands and prairies provided ingredients for acorn bread, wild grass seed cakes, and a variety of edible bulbs. Indigenous peoples lit fires on the land that could burn through chaparral and other woody vegetation to open up pathways and restart the cycle of regenerative plant growth that provides new vegetable matter and attracts grazing herds.[26] Fire is critical to the California landscape and many plant species have developed both a resistance and dependence on it for their lifecycles to continue. The same acre of land burned about once every ten to fifteen years before European contact, and fire has been crucial in shaping at least three quarters of California’s flora.[27]


Ecosystem resilience is defined as how much disturbance a system can take before it is fundamentally altered and becomes a new kind of ecosystem.[28] The four stages of ecosystem recovery after disturbance begin with the reorganization phase, in which the ecosystem is renewed, seeds open and begin to germinate; followed by the exploitative phase, in which pioneer species compete and colonize the landscape with rapid plant growth; the next is the conservation phase, during which growth slows and larger, perennial species dominate; the fourth phase is ecological disturbance, or the creative destruction phase, which begins the cycle anew. It is the phase of creative destruction that is activated by such activities as routine burning of the land. Such a disturbance releases what Lance Gunderson calls “accumulated ecological capital,” such as nutrients and dormant seeds, that can now germinate and grow into new plants.[29]

Another type of ecosystem disturbance can come in the form of insect or pathogen invasion.[30] Like fire, insects and pathogens can lead to a creative destruction phase but, also like a fire that burns too hot or for too long, such invasions can cause irreparable damage, pushing an ecosystem to the brink of collapse. An example of such an invasive pathogen is Phytophthora ramorum, which has been the cause of sudden oak death for thousands of oaks across California and Oregon. Thus far it is unknown which stands of oak trees will be infected or exactly how the disease is spread, but research has been conducted to locate the most susceptible parts of oak forests. The species of oak that have been most devastated are coastal live oaks (Quercus agrifoli), black oaks (Quercus kelloggi), and tanoaks (Lithocarpus densifloru).[31] It appears that the trees at highest risk for infection are those at the edge of forest clusters, those growing near stands of bay laurels, and also those in close proximity to hiking and biking trails.[32]

The pathogen can colonize several other species of plant without actually killing them, such as the California rhododendron, huckleberry, madrone, California buckeye, big leaf maple, and manzanita.[33] Many of these species grow in the understory of oak stands and only carry the pathogen on their leaves while the main stem of the plants remain uninfected. The disease can pass easily from this understory foliage to their terminal hosts, the oaks, during rain and wind storms.[34] Mortality of oaks is highest at the edge of forest stands where the presence of pathogen-colonized undergrowth is most prevalent.[35]

Lee Klinger, a scientist who has closely studied sudden oak death, has found a correlation between abundance of moss and lichens on oaks and diseased and weakened trees. The mosses and lichens contribute to acidification of the soil, which is detrimental to the health of the trees and often kills their fine root systems.[36] Klinger suggests that the compromised health of the oaks, due to acidification and lichen growth, are making the trees more susceptible to Phytophthora ramorum, aiding the spread of sudden oak death.

Studies conducted on sudden oak death throughout Northern California have indicated that Phytophthora ramorum infecting oaks is far less prevalent in areas that have been recently burned.[37] Interestingly, the presence of lichens and mosses are also greatly reduced in frequently burned forest stands.[38] Although three quarters of California’s vegetation, including oaks, are fire-adapted species, the frequency of fire is dramatically different than during the time before European settlement. The U.S. Forest Service suppresses most forest fires, and as a result large quantities of undergrowth and lichens can build up that once were regularly burned away. It is quite likely that fire suppression has played a major role in the spread of sudden oak death.

Many of the indigenous tribes of California had symbiotic relationships with the oak trees growing near them. They often tended to the trees by burning brush and undergrowth from beneath the oak, thus improving the fertility of the soil and suppressing pests or diseases that might be detrimental. The soil fertility was also enhanced through working seashell and bone fragments into the soil, and mulching with seaweed.[39] Klinger writes,

In my holistic view, the problem of sudden oak death is ultimately related to the profound ecological shift of the oak forests in California brought about by a fundamental change in management practices associated with white settlement of the lands. The oak forests that, for centuries, were tended by native people were suddenly abandoned.[40]

Klinger treats oak trees today with a holistic medicinal approach which aims not to treat sudden oak death, or eradicate Phytophthora ramorum, but to support the trees’ health so they are more resistant to pathogens.[41] He scrubs the moss and lichens from the trees to reduce acidification, then fertilizes the soil surrounding the oaks, essentially mimicking the effects of fire.[42] He is stepping in to fulfill an ecological niche critical to California’s oak-dominant landscapes that was once filled by a species often not considered to be an integral part of nature: the human being.


Over a relatively brief period of time touching three centuries from the 18th to the 20th, the concept of wilderness shifted from a place of evil and desolation to the sublime cathedral of pristine perfection wrought by the hand of God. Romanticism and the Enlightenment were the two primary catalysts of this profound shift. Before this transformative period, as Cronon writes, “To be a wilderness then was to be ‘deserted,’ ‘savage,’ ‘desolate,’ ‘barren’—in short, a ‘waste,’ the word’s nearest synonym.”[43] Yet by the year 1862 Henry David Thoreau would be declaring “In Wildness is the preservation of the World,”[44] and just seven years later John Muir, upon his arrival in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, said “No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine.”[45]

The two sources that led to such a reverence for the concept of pristine, wild nature, according to Cronon, were the ideas of the Sublime, and of the Frontier. The Sublime comes to us through European Romanticism, whereas the Frontier is truly a concept of Americanism.[46] Cronon writes,

Indeed, it is not too much to say that the modern environmental movement is itself a grandchild of Romanticism and post-frontier ideology, which is why it is no accident that so much environmentalist discourse takes its bearings from the wilderness these intellectual movements helped create.[47]

Romantic thought is what birthed the concept of Nature that Morton finds so problematic. “The ‘thing’ we call nature becomes, in the Romantic period and afterward, a way of healing what modern society has damaged.”[48]

In both contrast and complement to Morton, Berkes traces the origins of the concept of nature, as an external environment, to post-Enlightenment thought and the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, spirit and matter, man and nature (I use the term “man” instead of the gender-inclusive “human” here purposefully).[49] Thoreau wrote a beautiful passage in The Maine Woods which captures both this Romantic notion of sublime awe and the Enlightenment dualism of man and nature:

It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and drear and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there… It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever,—to be a dwelling of man, we say,—so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. (My italics.) [50]

Nature, for Thoreau, is a place of sublime, terrifying beauty. It is a place where spirit and matter are able to be conjoined, an overcoming of the Cartesian dualism, but it can only be so if nature does not include the human. Nature is, as Morton writes, “a transcendental term in a material mask.”[51] The grand cathedrals of the natural world, for the Romantics and American conservationists, were places where the lone individual might have the chance to encounter the might of God.[52] This is, of course, not an experience unique to Euro-Americans; for example, the indigenous tribes living near the Arctic glaciers understood that the glaciers had a powerful sentience and would respond to human behavior.[53] The sacred in nature is certainly not isolated to the European tradition. However, it seems the idea of an untouched sacred wilderness, with a complete lack of human presence, is less common worldwide.

Morton makes a strong case against revering such a conception of Nature: “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman.”[54] He is clear though that he is not advocating for no environmentalism—or what he prefers to call “ecology” as this term encompasses so much more—but rather he is suggesting an “ecology to come,” an ecology of the future.[55] Many environmentalists are trying to preserve what they see as pristine wilderness, particularly places of supreme natural beauty or biodiversity.[56] But the problem with privileging such sublime locations of grandeur is that we choose to value some parts of the Earth over other, perhaps more humble, places, or endangered species over more “common” plants and animals.[57] New dualisms are created between wilderness and the garden, the park, or even our human dwellings.

The other source of the American notion of wilderness, besides the Romantic Sublime, is the American Frontier. As Euro-American settlers moved ever westward across the North American continent the idea of the frontier became a way to reconnect with one’s primitive origins, to experience what it meant to be a true American. As settlers reached the West Coast they shared a sense of loss, a lament for the “free land” that had been available to them.[58] But this is the heart of the problem of wilderness, or nature, and of the frontier: there never was free land. This land had been occupied and shaped by and with the thousands of tribes that had been living here for millennia.


Both the movement of the frontier and the movement to preserve national parks were, and still are, acts of violence against the indigenous people who belonged to this land. As national parks were emptied of their inhabitants it created the illusion for tourists that they were visiting, “raw nature,”[59] land as fresh and pristine as God first created it.[60] Activities that helped shape the land and ecosystems, such as hunting, gathering, and burning, have been made illegal in many, although not all, parks, and are now labeled arson and poaching.[61] The 1964 U.S. Wilderness Act defines wilderness as a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”[62] Cronon points out that the ideal of a natural landscape unworked by human hands can only be the fantasy of those who have never had to make their living from the land.

Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the Romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land… If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not.[63]

Wilderness, from such a perspective, is imagined to be an escape from history, from our human past.[64] We can enter the wilderness and leave behind our personal and collective histories, forgetting the violences committed so no trace might be left of the human being on these isolated preservations of nature. Yet any study of environmental history, which is an emerging branch of ecology, will show how human interaction has shaped nearly every landscape on Earth.[65]

Forests worldwide that were once thought to be pristine, for example, are actually the result of ecosystem resilience developed directly through human disturbance over thousands of years.[66] Forest islands amid the African savanna, once thought be the remains of an original primal forest, are now understood to have been brought forth from the grasslands and maintained through human care and nourishment.[67] By studying the environmental history of the landscape, Fairhead and Leach were able to see how the distribution of these forest islands follow the distribution of past and present village settlements.[68] Human interaction and engagement with the landscape in ways that are integrative and not domineering, have been shown in numerous cases to increase biodiversity and maintain resilient ecosystems.[69] A different example of this comes from India, where grazing water buffalo in Keoladeo maintained the biodiverse wetlands that otherwise would secede to less abundant grasslands.[70] Ecosystem resilience is defined by a system’s keystone species; perhaps the human is also a keystone species in many landscapes, able to build resilience and diversity if we can keep our own activities in check, within a threshold of sustainability.[71]


The indigenous cultures that were able to cultivate such abundance in relationship to the California landscape over 13,000 years developed many social and cultural narratives, guidelines, and taboos for engaging with the land. Common terms used for this engagement have been “keeping the land,” “caring for the country,” or “taking care of the land.”[72] As Berkes defines it, tradition ecological knowledge is about moral and ethical human-ecological relations.[73] Cruikshank writes, “Narratives underscore the social content of the world and the importance of taking personal responsibility for changes in that world.”[74] This is a great contrast to the notion of pristine wilderness erased of any signs of our human past. In indigenous California nearly every place was named, even seemingly unimportant locations, usually for the subsistence activity carried out there.[75] The landscape was more than just a container for human knowledge though; it carries the memories of all past events, it is a mnemonic of social relations and responsibility.[76] The poet Gary Snyder writes, “In the old ways, flora and fauna and landforms are part of the culture.”[77]

Of course, being part of an indigenous culture, or possessing the knowledge of such a culture, is no guarantee that one will have a sustainable relationship with the Earth.[78] Not all indigenous cultures have consistently treated the land they live on well, and many examples exist of those who failed or did not survive.[79] But this does not mean there are not powerful lessons to learn from many of these cultural groups. It is true that the Earth must be conserved from the ravages of industrialism and greed, but not by the violent methods used to preserve the national parks of the United States. Such preservation is a form of embalming, a moment frozen in time, an erasure of the dynamic life forces that allow the Earth to be resilient and regenerative. It is a slow but eventual death knell, a false tilling of the soil to preserve a moment long gone, that does not allow new birth to take place. If the planet is divided solely into wild places and places domesticated for development neither will truly flourish to their full potential. Engagement of all species is required. If land is to be conserved, the human beings who shaped that ecosystem should be treated as a continual, integral part of that landscape as well.[80]

In her book Friction, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes of “anthropogenic” landscapes, landscapes that are co-created with their human inhabitants, forming places that are neither domesticated nor wild.[81] For true conservation of the Earth, a form of conservation that includes human beings, to flourish it must rise up in the gaps, between the dualism of nature and human, like an acorn buried beneath a concrete sidewalk that eventually pushes up between the seemingly impenetrable slabs on either side. But the tender shoot will grow strong in its liminal space, forging a new path where none seemed to exist before, eventually emerging as a sturdy, powerful oak tree.


The leaves whisper, drier even than when I first sat beneath this tree in mid-autumn. Winter has nearly set in; the branches are cold to the touch. The tree has changed little itself during this shift of the seasons, only its leaves have faded from dusty green to a crunchy brown. Yet I see this canyon live oak with new eyes now. Are the mosses and lichens growing up its branches weakening its health? Ferns grow right up to the base of the tree, and I know no fire will sweep through this park to clear the underbrush.

As I gaze west through the branches the sunlight streams through with the rich, deep golden glow so characteristic of the days around the winter solstice. In between the branches pale, white-winged insects flutter, their wings like an ethereal gauze in the sunset. There is no denying that the scene is magical. This sense of ecological wonder is a form of magic created between the human being and all other species we humble ourselves to approach in communion. The magic of this moment is one ignited specifically between myself, the dancing insects, and this truly majestic oak tree.

As I walk away from the oak, meandering through the winding paths in between the chaparral, I realize that this particular canyon live oak has something that many oaks in California once had, but no longer do. It has human caretakers, caretakers who will clear the underbrush and mosses away by hand, and who will nourish the soil so that the oak remains healthy. This oak is neither domesticated nor wild, but growing in the gap, the liminal space of a human-shaped park, thriving between the streets of San Francisco.


Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.

Berkes, Fikret. Sacred Ecology. New York, NY: Routledge. 2012.

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by William Cronon, 69-90. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co, 1995. Accessed November 12, 2012.

Cruikshank, Julie. “Glaciers and Climate Change: Perspectives from Oral Tradition.” Arctic 54 No. 4 (2001): 377-393.

Fairhead, James and Melissa Leach. Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Gomez-Pompa, Arturo and Andrea Kaus. “Taming the Wilderness Myth.” BioScience. 42 No. 4 (1992): 271-279. Accessed November 13, 2012.   

Gunderson, Lance H. “Ecological Resilience—In Theory and Application.” Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 31 (2000): 425-439.

Kelly, Maggi and Ross K. Meentemeyer. “Landscape Dynamics of the Spread of Sudden Oak Death.” Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing. 68 No. 10 (2002): 1001-1009. Accessed October 16,             2012.

Klinger, Lee F. “A Holistic Approach to Mitigating Pathogenic Effects on Trees.” Paper presented at the Treework Environmental Practice Seminar XII, Trees, Roots, Fungi, Soil: Below-ground Ecosystem & Implications for Tree Health, at the Natural Museum Cardiff, Cardiff, UK, November, 13, 2008. Accessed December 18, 2012.

Moritz, Max A. and Dennis C. Odion. “Examining the Relationship Between Fire History and Sudden Oak Death Patterns: A Case Study in Sonoma County.” Paper presented at the Sudden Oak Death Second Science Symposium: The State of Our Knowledge, Monterey, California, January 18-21, 2005. Accessed December 18, 2012.   

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1988.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

[1] M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 30.

[2] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 19.

[3] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 30.

[4] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 123.

[5]Arturo Gomez-Pompa and Andrea Kaus, “Taming the Wilderness Myth,” BioScience 42, no. 4 (1992): 273, accessed November 13, 2012,

[6] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 1.

[7] Ibid, 2.

[8] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co, 1995), 1, accessed November 12, 2012,

[9] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 25.

[10] Ibid, 26-34.

[11] Ibid, 26.

[12] Ibid, 28.

[13] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 30.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 32.

[16] Ibid, 31.

[17] Ibid, 32.

[18] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 15.

[19] Ibid, 37.

[20] Titus Fey Cronise, qtd. in Anderson, Tending the Wild, 13.

[21] Fikret Berkes, Sacred Ecology (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 44.

[22] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 35.

[23] Ibid, 34.

[24] Ibid, 37-38.

[25] Ibid, 38.

[26] Fikret Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 89.

[27] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 17.

[28] Lance H. Gunderson, “Ecological Resilience—In Theory and Application,” Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 31 (2000): 426.

[29] Gunderson, “Ecological Resilience,” 430.

[30] Gunderson, “Ecological Resilience,” 430.

[31] Maggi Kelly and Ross K. Meentemeyer, “Landscape Dynamics of the Spread of Sudden Oak Death,” Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing 68 no. 10 (2002): 1001, accessed October 16, 2012,

[32] Kelly and Meentemeyer, “Landscape Dynamics of the Spread of Sudden Oak Death,” 1005.

[33] Ibid, 1001.

[34] Ibid, 1002.

[35] Kelly and Meentemeyer, “Landscape Dynamics of the Spread of Sudden Oak Death,” 1006.

[36] Lee F. Klinger, “A Holistic Approach to Mitigating Pathogenic Effects on Trees” (paper presented at the Treework Environmental Practice Seminar XII, Trees, Roots, Fungi, Soil: Below-ground Ecosystem & Implications for Tree Health, at the Natural Museum Cardiff, Cardiff, UK, November, 13, 2008), 3, accessed December 18, 2012.

[37] Max A. Moritz and Dennis C. Odion, “Examining the Relationship Between Fire History and Sudden Oak Death Patterns: A Case Study in Sonoma County” (paper presented at the Sudden Oak Death Second Science Symposium: The State of Our Knowledge, Monterey, California, January 18-21, 2005), 173, accessed December 18, 2012.

[38] Klinger, “A Holistic Approach,” 4.

[39] Klinger, “A Holistic Approach,” 5.

[40] Ibid, 6.

[41] Ibid, 2.

[42] Ibid, 1.

[43] Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 2.

[44] Henry David Thoreau, qtd in Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 2, 19.

[45] John Muir, qtd in Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 3.

[46] Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 3.

[47] Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 3-4.

[48] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 22.

[49] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 51.

[50] Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1988), 93.

[51] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 14.

[52] Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 4.

[53] Julie Cruikshank, “Glaciers and Climate Change: Perspectives from Oral Tradition,” Arctic 54 no. 4 (2001): 387-388.

[54] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 5.

[55] Ibid, 6.

[56] Ibid, 9.

[57] Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” 16.

[58] Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” 7.

[59] Cruikshank, “Glaciers and Climate Change,” 390.

[60] Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” 9.

[61] Ibid, 10.

[62] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 249.

[63] Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” 11,

[64] Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” 10.

[65] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 30.

[66] Ibid, 79-80.

[67] James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 78-83.

[68] Fairhead and Leach, Misreading the African Landscape, 90.

[69] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 44.

[70] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 43.

[71] Gunderson, “Ecological Resilience,” 431.

[72] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 40.

[73] Ibid, 11, 19.

[74] Cruikshank, “Glaciers and Climate Change,” 391.

[75] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 38.

[76] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 6.

[77] Gary Snyder, qtd. in Anderson, Tending the Wild, 39.

[78] Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 78.

[79] Ibid, 241.

[80] Ibid, 252.

[81] Tsing, Friction, 174.

The Lone Bald Eagle

My friends who Matt and I stayed with in Whately, Massachusetts are wildlife rehabilitators, which means that whenever someone in their area finds a wounded creature or abandoned baby animal it is brought to them for care and feeding until the animal is able to be released into the wild to survive on its own. While our friends care for hundreds of baby rabbits, squirrels, mice, and songbirds over the course of the season, we were able to distantly interact with just a few, but it was a special experience indeed. Matt and I were each able to feed a cherry to two orphaned baby squirrels, who are at this age about the size of chipmunks and only have skinny tufts on their tails, unlike the full-grown fluffy adornment that they will some day grow into. We would not be able to handle any animals that had been in rehabilitative care, but since the squirrels were just arriving we could have some contact with these delightful little beings, and they were comforted in their transition by our care.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

From a distance we were also able to see a wounded kingfisher, likely hit by a car, who adored eating minnows caught for her from the stream; one of two fledgling starlings in their care; a baby meadow jumping mouse; and a beautiful baby hawk whose soft down was being exchanged for adult feathers. Although we had the shortest glimpse of the hawk, who was not to become accustomed to human contact, it was like looking at a miniature version of majesty, a young prince who, if he survives, will one day hunt the skies.

My dear friends who do this work, a mother and her daughter, are like real life Snow Whites who truly work magic to heal these creatures. When we arrived the day before, the mother, who I have known since I was four years old, was wearing a full length white summer dress and crooning to one of the birds in her care. A perfect Snow White indeed.

After fresh corn fritters and fruit smoothies, coconut balls and a swift chiropractic treatment, Matt and I knew we would have to depart this haven of nurturance and love to continue our journey, despite having to pass up a dip in the nearby Fairy Pond. Every visit leaves more to be desired, and a laying out of new plans for future visits we hope some day to make. Our route to Matt’s older brother’s home in New Jersey led us through Connecticut and New York State, passing within sight of Manhattan before turning into Livingston, New Jersey. For the entirety of the 193 mile trip I felt myself caught up in a daze, unable to focus too much on the road, but rather looking more at the mottled clouds of the sky and the thick green foliage of a New England summer. The dynamic clouds suddenly broke open and a downpour of rain splashed over the road in pink and blue reflections. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the rain dried up and retreated, leaving no trace of the brief deluge.

Traffic condensed more and more thickly as we neared New York City and the leafy branches overhanging the road gave way to the urban tangle of steel, wires, crumbling brick stamped with curling painted letters from 1930s advertisements for Coca Cola and soda crackers. Perhaps because it is so hideous, it is easy to romanticize the graffiti, the stains, the gray rivers choked with steel bridges, giving rise to a vision like Rent, with youth and creativity bursting forth from the pressure cooker of poverty, hunger, disease, crowds, and pure strains of human emotion and love. Above it all, the pastel clouds were rent with blades of sunlight piercing to earth, looking like prayer posters of God speaking to the decrepit masses below. As Matt said, maybe it’s the Divine apologizing for the Industrial Revolution.

Matt and I spent the night with Matt’s brother, his wife, and two young children in a nearby New Jersey suburb, the kind of suburb with rolling lawns, a pool in every backyard, and belts of trees between the streets to help dampen the sound of city traffic from the surrounding highways. We were a fifteen minute drive from the heart of Manhattan. Our overnight stay was brief though, because we had to make the 635 mile journey back to Cincinnati, and we were on the road by 9:00 am. While there has still been warm summer weather, the unbearable temperatures we experienced last week seem to be receding, and we have been enjoying days in the low 80° range.

Our route from New Jersey to Cincinnati crossed the great width of Pennsylvania, which had similar topography to upstate New York: wooded mountains spaced widely apart which afforded expansive views before descending into new farmland valleys. This terrain and that of the prior day reminded me of a trip I took four years ago, when I biked with a friend from Mount Holyoke College to Philadelphia over eight days. On that journey we biked from Massachusetts through Connecticut, crossed the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, ran along the edge of the Delaware Water Gap, and finally arrived in Philadelphia, where my second-hand bike, incidentally, was stolen. Meanwhile, back on this road trip, I recognized signs for different landmarks that I had seen at a much slower pace four years ago.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Matt’s and my discussion came to the difference between environment and ecology, and our need to understand our embeddedness in the environment, as a part of an ecosystem, to be able to make the psychological leap required to address the current ecological crisis. I began reading Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth the other night, which presents the statistics of the effects of global warming currently taking place. This is no longer a discussion of what might happen, but what is happening. The new question is, how will we cope with the changes? How can we prevent them from being even worse than they are? These are the questions that are essential, that I feel the need to devote my life to understanding.

We listened to several lectures by Timothy Morton on just this topic, in which he addresses the question of what nature is. It is not something that is “out there” but rather something we are, and something of which we are a part. Where do we see nature? If nature is not the forests, streams, and mountains that we pass by the roadside, is it also the road itself, and us and the cars upon it? Morton addresses the issue that global warming is so difficult to face because it is so huge, yet still able to be quantified. It is a problem the size of the Earth, but not bigger. We are trapped inside it. We are inside a womb that we have poisoned, and we cannot blame anyone besides ourselves for its toxicity. It is humiliating. And as Morton points out, the word “humiliating” comes from the word “humus,” meaning soil. To be humiliated is to come closer to the Earth. In our humiliation we must come closer to the Earth to learn how to be born out of our womb and into a cleaner world of our own making. But we must go through the birth canal first.

As we were hearing Morton’s words and I was having these thoughts, a bird passed overhead that I have never seen in this country: a bald eagle. While I have seen dozens of eagles in British Columbia I had never before seen one in the country that claims it as its national bird, as its symbol. What does it mean that we can barely keep our own symbol alive in supposedly the most powerful country in the world? What does it mean that I just saw one overhead? Perhaps, both literally and figuratively, to survive the constriction of the ecological crisis we have to become wildlife rehabilitators, just like my friends in New England.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

In the late afternoon we passed into the stethoscope of West Virginia, a narrow section wedged between Pennsylvania and Ohio. The valleys and rivers became steeper and more plunging, and traffic slowed as we crossed a green metal bridge over the Ohio River. Not long after this crossing we saw smoke rising out of the woods to the left of the road, possibly a forest fire due to the nationwide droughts this summer. A couple hours later, as we were honing in on Cincinnati, the fiery orb of the sun could be seen setting, a vermillion star blazing through a rose and tangerine sky.