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Wildhood is kinship of the wild in all people, places, and things.

On Henberg's (1994) Character Thesis in Callicott & Nelson (1998)


Welcome the wild.

On Henberg's (1994) Character Thesis in Callicott & Nelson (1998)

Mark Douglas

It may or may not be well known that wilderness is a paradoxical matter. Henberg likens it to a "hot potato" (Henberg, p. 500). He highlights the notions that first, wilderness is a human idea and secondly, wilderness areas themselves are taken care of through practices commonly called wilderness management. Managing the wild is an exercise in oxymoronic intelligence.

Henberg foregrounds the overflow of wilderness images that seem to sit just under the nose. "The phrase 'wilderness as' comes naturally to our lips: wilderness as a wasteland, as a gymnasium, as a playground, as a prison, and as a pharmacy--to name but a few of the images defended in wilderness literature" (1994, p. 501). 

Following his hot potato juggling, Henberg settles upon "proving ground" as his preferred wilderness image or metaphor in order to document "that the received wilderness idea bears a special connection to American character" (1994, p. 502). Wallace Stegner, generally considered the patron saint of writing on the American West (as characterized in Wrenched, a film I recommend to anybody wondering about decentralized Wilderness stewardship). Stegner tells us that wilderness "was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed" (1961, p. 97). 

Therefore the three indicative features of the character thesis include
1) American leadership in stewardship exemplified in world's first National Park and National Wilderness Preservation Systems;
2) the global resonance of the wilderness idea evidenced in worldwide wilderness protection efforts;
3) the "manifold echoes of good character--honesty, self-reliance, and simplification of wants, to name but a few" (Henberg, 1994, p. 502).

So the story goes that America and Americans haven't always cared for wilderness. Hendgren (1994) cites de Tocqueville's summation of American insensibility "to the wonders of inanimate nature... till [the wonders] fall beneath the hatchet" (1960, p. 335). But the fact that public opinion has shifted in regard to a topic is by no means any reason to discourage adherents to the character thesis. Henberg reminds us that public and personal reversal of fortune and opinion is just one way character gets forged. 

Probably the most passionate strike blown against wilderness is its whitewashing. American Indians like Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux saw reciprocity not wildness on the landscape's horizon. Likewise, the wilderness story may not resonate with black folks and other historically disenfranchised elements of the American citizenry. 

A third challenge to the character thesis would level wilderness as merely an unhelpful patriarchal remnant of male dominance, aggression, and overall efforts to subjugate and optimize natural resources with no otherwise redeemable personal or public benefit and relevance. The task then is to celebrate wilderness, wildness, and the wild in their resilience to charges of ideological  waffling, ethnic exclusivity, and irrelevance.

Perhaps wilderness isn't all it's cracked up to be. And maybe its cracks and flaws are integral to its function. Henberg gives us another powerful American image and, some may say, resource. The Liberty Bell instantiates the ideal of liberty. It has strong public resonance despite blemish. It strikes a chord in the heart of Americans. The Liberty Bell, like wilderness, is something that generates concordance, heartfelt resonance. Henberg calls it a ring "of innocently faithful self-conception" (1994, p. 504). The reason we keep the bell is analogous with reasons for Keeping the Wild (Wuerthner, Crist, & Butler, 2014).

The Liberty Bell is cracked but it still works. And granted, the ideal of liberty has not fully informed the lives of all Americans. The fabric of society remains tattered and many folks find themselves on the fringes. The constraints and obstacles to liberty are part of the story but it's not the whole story. Similarly, wilderness is a troubled idea but the "Trouble with Wilderness" (Cronon, 1998) is not the whole story either. Wilderness and the Liberty Bell do their work in our collective imaginaries. Wilderness is symbolic, but it's not merely a symbol or image. As image, it's as much poetic as it is narrative. What do poetic images do? Before answering that question, let's clarify the Liberty Bell comparison. Anyone politically discouraged may be asked, "Given the struggle of liberty in society and culture today, is there any point in keeping a symbolic resource like the Bell?" Henberg stresses the "positive power of ideals" and their "non rational, even ritualistic" force. His point is that the pure ideals and concepts like liberty and freedom need material manifestations "and their emotive associations" (1994, p. 505).

So wilderness is a manifestation of ideals and emotional associations. It does poetic work as well. A poetic image can elicit reverberation or resonance in people that ripples through “our understanding, including those reaches of understanding that are somehow pre-discursive and noncognitive.... The image presents an intuition: an immediate grasping of something that is presented with poetic vividness” (Van Manen, 2014, p. 261). Wilderness lets Americans intuitively and vividly grasp a story that we the people recollect now and then and again and again in ways that remind us what we're up to.

Adherence to the character thesis is an act of faith rather than reason. "Reason alone is incompetent to penetrate and sufficiently articulate the mysteries of wild nature" (Henberg, 1994, p. 505). Henberg uses the rest of his essay to substantiate his argument for wilderness as narrative. He closes praising wilderness narratives as "stories of wonder, of kinship with other living beings, and of richness and fecundity from a prodigal source" (p. 510). This narrative emphasis has begun to be taken up by National Park Service wilderness stewards. Wilderness narratives serve as building blocks in the Wilderness Character framework (NPS, 2014). And yet I want to end by highlighting the weakness of narrative. 

For their part, the National Park Service (2014) encourages the development of Wilderness Character Narratives to describe “what is unique and special about the wilderness” (p. 145). These narratives are “a way to embrace and describe things that staff and visitors feel yet are typically ignored in formal park planning processes” (p. 145). These are helpful additions that enhance institutional understanding of wilderness. However, they're likely inadequate in their ability to convey how wilderness meanings pervade and effervesce in life. The Park Service suggests conducting a workshop to produce the narrative. But if our interests lie in everyday life, a single workshop or the classically structured interview format “does not provide respondents with a robust enough set of narrative resources that they can productively work through and recount the detailed patterns of their everyday life-worlds” (Latham, 2004, p. 123). This means it’s necessary “to consider extending the basic premise of an interview into a more extended relationship, and using other media in addition to conversation” (p. 123). The participatory approach and methodology I propose extends the relationship and aims to reveal the ways wilderness meanings arise in people's everyday lives.