The Essence of the Wild

by Jack Turner
Early Spring 2001

Twelve years ago, while walking the Paria River in Utah, a virus invaded the lining of my heart. Within hours I was paralyzed with pain, unable to breathe. I assumed, wrongly, that I was suffering a heart attack and didn't have long to live. I stretched out at the edge of the river and composed my will on the back of a book of matches - there wasn't much to say. It was dusk. The moon rose over red cliffs, a canyon wren sang its melancholic song and an army of mosquitoes descended to feed on my face. I had no repellent, and in any case I was in too much pain to apply it so I let them feast. Then the bats arrived, so many they seemed to fill the sky. They came closer. As my eyes followed them in helpless terror, they began to eat the mosquitoes around my face. Then came that sublime moment of connection we all seek: A furry wing lightly brushed my face.

A bit later, cooler air descended the canyon. The mosquitoes and the bats disappeared. I was left with the moon, the now faintly lit cliffs, and the thought that the wild world is so beautiful that if I lived I would do nothing but enjoy its beauty. I thought of lines from an old English gravestone, "The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power, the shapes of things, their colours, lights, and shades; these I saw. Look ye also while life lasts."

At the same time, I realized, felt, the harmonious order about me - a heart pumped blood, viruses multiplied, mosquitoes and bats pursued their destinies, the moon rose, all independent of me and my all-too-human desires. This was the world honored by ancient cultures, the world the Greeks called Cosmos, the world the old Chinese sages called the Tao, the world Henry David Thoreau referred to when he wrote his most famous phrase: "In wildness is the preservation of the world." This world is a gift from innumerable beings laboring over billions of years; an evolutionary, open-ended, spontaneous experiment with absolutely no one in control.
That this world is delaminating before our eyes is not news. We know about clearcutting, species loss, toxic waste and ozone depletion - each year the list grows longer and the harmony diminishes.

But in the last decades of the 20th century a more insidious disharmony became apparent. Its roots lay in agriculture, in the genetic manipulations of farming and husbandry that altered the genetic structure of species according to our desires. For 10,000 years such manipulations were limited to a relatively small number of plants and animals, but recently we have farmed more and more of the wild: salmon grown in tanks, elk raised on ranches. However, despite the best efforts of the agriculturists there was a limit: Kinship restricted what could be created.

With the advent of the new genetic technologies, that limit has been transgressed. Now we can move genes from bacteria to corn, put a pesticide-resistant gene into a cottonwood tree, transfer human genes to tobacco plants, or splice jellyfish genes into mice and make them glow a perfect jellyfish green. Now Chinese scientists work to clone pandas and Australian scientists try to reconstruct the extinct Tasmanian tiger.

Because of the anthropocentrism of our culture we worry most about the genetic manipulation of our food, but that is only the beginning of our newfound control over nature. There already exist transgenic Douglas fir, cottonwoods, salmon and mice, in addition to transgenic food crops.

Increasingly, commerce controls evolution and the future world may consist of the most profitable life forms, for the transgenic salmon must survive the rigors of the market, not the rigors of its river and the sea. Like all new technologies, some possibilities, however commercial, are seductive: a revolution in the practice of medicine, cures for cancer, elimination of terrifying childhood diseases. Perhaps we can engineer a transgenic rainbow trout immune to whirling disease, or with nanotechnology we can devise carbon-based robots to vacuum toxins from streams, devour kudzu and eliminate smog. But as we all know, new technologies always - always - have unintended consequences.

When we mess with the building blocks of our world we should proceed with modesty and caution. The physicists who perfected nuclear weapons were very intelligent people, yet they took 40 years to see the perils of nuclear winter.

And there is another, deeper concern. Deeper, I think, than risk and extinction. What is lost in this new, engineered world? When a wild horse is tamed we say it is broken - what is broken is its spirit. The loss is a loss of autonomy, of freedom. What is at stake with the advent of the new genetic technologies is the radical domestication of the planet, the loss of a self-generated autonomous world, the world of wild salmon no less than the world of wild children.

Now more than ever we need to meditate on Thoreau's famous saying, articulate more clearly its meaning, fight more courageously for its recognition. That requires both intellectual inquiry and a renewed dedication to merge our lives with the wild and spirited, to run wild rivers, ride out wild storms, eat wild animals and plants, suffer viruses and mosquitoes. If we fail in this enterprise we will be increasingly subjected to an engineered, dumbed-down, homogenized, domesticated world where the forms of life are the parlor games of nerds, and biology is Orwell's "Big Brother."

About the Author

Jack Turner taught philosophy at the University of Illinois before making the upward career move to mountain guide. Jack is currently guiding for the Exum School of Mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park. He is the author of a collection of essays, The Abstract Wild, and a memoir, Teewinot: A Year in the Teton Range