Many are surprised to hear me speak of the deep beauty to be found in the oak-aspen woodlands of urban Winnipeg. By design and by accident, natural areas big and small have survived both in-fill development and urban sprawl. I love the seven-hundred-acre Assiniboine Forest; people go about their fossil-fueled lives while nature minds her mysterious business right around the corner. But my favorite urban nature preserve is the much smaller Living Prairie Museum, just down the street from the international airport. Bound by commercial properties and flanked by an asphalt bike route, LPM preserves remnant prairie, native woodland, and a measure of wildness.
Nature writers often lament the loss of wild places and the alienation of humans from nature. But we are guilty of many of the sins we condemn. Nature writing is a cultural artifact; the writer selects, embellishes, and interprets personal experience for the purpose of creating a story the reader will buy. We succumb to the desire to mediate nature, to make it pretty and charming. We process and package something raw and free. And we have done this to Henry David Thoreau.
I share a weakness for Thoreau in the company of many nature writers. Maybe we quietly hope that we will gain respectability with a smattering of his quotes taken out of context. But I can honestly say that I heard his words: “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure…” as I sauntered early one morning at Living Prairie Museum. Sometimes a small tract, having endured the rapacious advances of concrete and agriculture, stares back at those who would have their way with her. That morning, walking under oak canopies through thickets of wood rose and saskatoon, nature eyed me suspiciously.
We only quote the parts of Thoreau that suit us. So, as an act of repentance, I will finish the sentence quoted above: “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure—as if we lived on the marrow of koodoos devoured raw.” Not surprisingly, this passage never appears on scenic calendars and is even excluded from some versions of Thoreau’s 1851 essay, “Walking, or the Wild.” Some questions are raised: What kind of wild glance can we not endure, why would Thoreau want this, and what does this have to do with eating the raw bones of African antelope?
The key to understanding Thoreau is to be found in his transcendental philosophy. It is often said that Thoreau, more than anyone, has shaped American attitudes toward nature. It is probably more accurate to say that a misunderstanding of Thoreau has shaped American attitudes; his worldview was more visceral than idyllic. Misunderstood or not, anyone interested in North American attitudes toward nature needs to reckon with Thoreau, and anyone serious about understanding Thoreau needs to reckon with transcendental philosophy.
Thoreau’s transcendentalism—like that of his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson—was concerned with an unmediated experience of nature. (For Emerson, it was “an original relation” to nature.) Unlike other transcendental philosophies, the nineteenth-century American movement did not seek to transcend the material world of nature but to transcend human-imposed conceptual and physical limitations in order to experience it more directly. There is much more to say about Thoreau’s transcendentalism, but Nature is paramount. Wild nature is human nature, the raw material of humanity: “Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society…”
Ours is a civilization that will not endure the glance of that leopard (Panthera thoreauvii?) unless she is tamed. Good landscape design, according to many in that field, “mediates nature and culture.” That approach creates pleasant parks with recreational utility. When budgets allow, nature is designed and managed with mowed lawns and asphalt trails and mediated with interpretive signage that tells us what to admire and find interesting.
This was not Thoreau’s ethic, regardless of how many copies of Walden are sold in nature center gift shops: “When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest woods and, to the citizen, the most dismal, swamp.” He had a similar view of landscape design, preferring a dense yard filled with wild shrubs to fastidious boxwood promenades. Anyone who is against trimmed boxwood is okay by me. That is why I used “Walking” as the basis for my landscape design workshops at LPM—a distinctly Thoreauvian place with “the strength, the marrow, of Nature.”
Upon my arrival at Living Prairie Museum I was met by a vivacious naturalist named Danielle, who had heard that I had been trying to borrow a shovel. Despite my assurances that I required but a wee bit of soil to teach rhizosphere ecology to students who would no doubt ultimately save the planet, she would tolerate no such advances with a shovel or even a trowel. I admired her principled resolve and felt a little ashamed; I was glad that I had a week’s worth of workshops to redeem myself.
Nurtured by bright naturalists with feline tenacity (primarily Danielle and her colleague Kyle), LPM had preserved the marrow of Manitoba. Under slightly suspicious eyes, I convened my sessions and found new friends; the students, many of whom were landscape professionals, had open eyes and wilding minds. Happily, the naturalists soon accepted me into their earthy tribe, proving once again the wisdom of “Walking”: “The wildness of the savage is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good men and lovers meet.”
In the course of our walking (or sauntering, as Thoreau prescribed), raw beauty remained vigilant. Purple thorns guarded fat rose hips. Aspen and dogwood issued red and white advisories. Thickets of saskatoon and hazel were tangled with ambiguities threaded by wrens. Planes roared above, but merlins ruled the sky. Corky oaks rebuffed time and progress but blithely welcomed smudges of yellow warblers. One egotistical crow supervised prairie security by swaggering back and forth on foot while winged cohorts croaked intermittent reports. Bluestem and switch grass dissolved an old homestead with magenta. A huge stone, rubbed smooth and black by bison long gone, clearly intended to stay. The leopard fixed wild eyes on those who would tame her.