The Worsening Light of the Mind
The Worsening Light of the Mind: Humanities and the Anthropocene
Published in Written River #10
“Those of us working in the humanities are under no obligation to demonstrate that our ideas are anything except that.”
1. Pioneer Myth
When I recall my encounters with strangers in the wilderness, I remember that scene in the movie Jeremiah Johnson when Johnson meets Bear Claw Chris Clapp the grizzly bear hunter for the first time high in the snow covered Rocky Mountains. The scene is memorable, for what are the chances that these two men would happen across each other in all that winter and mountain vastness? Suddenly we awaken to Johnson’s and, consequently, our own isolation as we have willingly followed him into the austerity of the mountains as if under a spell. Though initially tinged with danger, the scene also evokes a sense of relief precisely because old Bear Claw offers some companionship and food for the starving pilgrim Johnson, who says he hasn’t “seen a live man for two months.”
As the scene plays out, the two men talk about what matters: hunting and skinning animals. We get the feeling that there is no reason to talk about anything else: In the wilderness, we are stripped of the inessential, and existence is first and foremost reduced to the pursuit and fulfillment of basic needs, including interacting with friendly “live” people if we are lucky. Perhaps this is why Johnson and Bear Claw—despite their initial ambivalence toward one another—still appear to take such pleasure in each other’s company. Whether socially or materially, the wilderness offers a stark contrast to civilization, which inundates us with people, goods, and services well beyond what is necessary or desirable. In such an environment, it does not take long for most of us to get what we need to survive. And then what? We spend the rest of the time in a state of mindless wanting. No wonder modern life is obsessed with offering us ways to escape it.
Humans are resourceful creatures. We can adjust to solitude just as surely as we can adjust to civilization, but we have our limits. Although Jeremiah Johnson doesn’t ever directly answer the question of why Johnson left civilization, we do know that whatever the circumstances, things must have been pretty damn bad; his character exudes an aura of wounded disillusionment. Thus Johnson is one of several men and women who—in life and in art—trade civilization’s excesses for the life of the romantic loner who returns to the wilderness in search of a more basic existence. What the loner discovers, however, is that wilderness represents a whole new set of challenges for which modern humans are not especially well-prepared.
Two well-known examples of men who have succumbed to this romantic idea of wilderness, what the writer Bruce Berger calls the “myth of the pioneer,” are Timothy Treadwell and Christopher McCandless. Like Johnson, both Treadwell and McCandless turned to the wilderness as a way of escaping their personal demons and the purposelessness of modern life. The real Jeremiah Johnson would live well into his seventies, but Treadwell would be killed and eaten by a grizzly bear at forty-six and McCandless would starve to death at twenty-four. Untimely and violent deaths were just two of their many similarities. They also seemed, finally, to recognize the value of human relationships, a recognition which, ironically, seems harder to come by in civilization.
In the days leading up to his death, McCandless would write in his journal, “Happiness is only real if shared,” and Treadwell revealed himself to his video camera, to the foxes that denned near his camp, and to the grizzly bears themselves as though they were human confidants. Thus the romantic view of wilderness is that it provides an escape from our lives and selves, and for the weekend warrior, maybe it does. But for those who have spent extended periods of time in wild places, free from worldly distraction, the wilderness does not offer an escape from the self so much as it offers a confrontation with it.
2. Trouble in Paradise
Last August I lived for two weeks in Centennial Valley, Montana, where I did my first writer’s residency. A lot happened while I was there, and I saw and felt many things that I both did and did not understand. Although at times I was of two or more minds, physically I was quite comfortable: I stayed in a well-appointed cabin at the Taft-Nicholson Environmental Humanities Education Center (EHEC). Visitors came and went, including a documentary film crew, several staff and faculty members from the University of Utah, and a group of Ph.D. creative writing students and their professor, who were there as part of the U’s creative writing program’s week-long Exaltation in the Valley writer’s retreat.
The valley is also home to the Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge and its headquarters, which is a mere 100 feet away from the center and is led by a deeply knowledgeable, white-haired, and soft-spoken man named Bill West. Although a native of the Ozark Mountains in southwest Missouri, West, who is in his early sixties, has spent twenty-five years of his roughly forty-year career working various land management positions in Montana, including the National Bison Range Complex, Arthur Carhart Wilderness Training Center, and now the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. With degrees in Biology and Agriculture as well as Wildlife Biology, West is known to offer a more scientific view of the area, whereas his humanities counterparts next door engender a more artistic or subjective view of the valley. The hope is that these two agencies will synergize to create the new, twenty-first century environmentalism.
Given the proximity of the refuge headquarters to the EHEC and the EHEC’s commitment to bridging the arts and humanities with the sciences, when I made my first visit to the headquarters to meet Bill West, I assumed I’d be travelling a well-worn path cut by the feet of humanists and scientists alike, all seeking to improve their understanding of one another and of the valley. Who better than biologists to offer insight into the various challenges and workings of the valley ecosystem? And who better than humanists to help translate the at times esoteric story of science? But as far as I could tell, the two agencies had in fact had very little interaction up to the time of my visit.
According to the center’s website, the center’s goal is to use “the humanities to deepen and enliven environmental study.” This bold, ambiguous, and provocative idea is gaining a lot of popularity among humanities scholars and departments across the country. But I’m not so sure that the various scientists who study the environment, including West and his fellow biologists, would see it this way. My guess is that they would argue just the opposite: that, if anything, the goal ought to be to use science to deepen and enliven studies of the humanities. The question is, what do the sciences lack that the humanities possess and vice versa, and what new practices might emerge through their partnership? Clearly each entity represents a dramatically different way of understanding the environment, although it’s unclear as to whether or not each entity contributes equally to that understanding.
Of course one could argue that any attempt to understand and care for the environment is a welcome endeavor, regardless of one’s worldview or method. But given what Roger Scruton calls the humanities’ “methodless sterility,” as a humanist myself, I’ve begun to question exactly what it is that the humanities contribute outside the minds of its purveyors and their respective institutional niches. For what can a humanist tell me about the geology of the Centennial Valley that a geologist can’t? What does a humanist know about the habitat and nesting needs of the trumpeter swan that a wildlife biologist doesn’t know? And whose understanding is in fact deeper?
Over the last fifteen years I have had many conversations with scientists of all kinds and I am undoubtedly the better for it. But I cannot think of a single time when I left one of those conversations feeling as though I had taught them something of real importance, or as though I had given them a tool or idea they could use to increase their understanding of the world. I have long reveled in the subjective free-for-all of my own thoughts, but when I need more than beautiful musings and want to know what is really going on in here or out there, I step outside the humanities’ feedback loop and become a student of the sciences.
We humanists are very skilled when it comes to articulating our untethered feelings and ideas. Through our words we can model new and unusual ways of looking at ourselves and the world. We are experts in word play and meaning. But the notion that words somehow supersede biology and make their own separate reality is a dangerous illusion. I may change my mind about the mountain, but that does not change the mountain. The wind does not say anything to me because the wind does not say. If I sang the ephemeral praises of the sky at sundown I might then imply my mood is awash with twilight. I might even know something about famine and the red pleasure of its absence if I were to hunt, kill, and feast with the wolves, my belly filling as I gaze at the night from behind a mask of blood. Hidden I would be free to do all manner of dark and light things. And with others I could share my attempts at beautiful ideas so that we might divine what binds us. But would I be right to? Every unfounded idea that takes hold in the human mind takes us that much further away from knowing the world and our place within it.
3. The Owl and the Wayside
The longer I was there, the darker it became. As the moon waned each night, a little more of its brightness disappeared, until finally the new moon was engulfed by a rolling black pitch pierced with starlight. The path to my cabin was not well lit, but I had walked it many times on my way back from dinner or from a fireside gathering, rituals that I enjoyed after spending entire days alone writing and then later wandering in the valley or mountains. In that near total dark I would hear what I later learned were the feeding calls of a juvenile great horned owl that had for the past few nights alighted atop the roof of my cabin. At my approach it would fly to a nearby pine tree and, after a few seconds of silence, resume its calling to a silent parent that I assumed was nearby.
The first two times I saw the young owl perched atop my cabin, and despite the fact that it would fly away at my approach, in a moment of delightful irrationality I believed that the owl had chosen to alight there because I was there, and not just because my rooftop likely offered the best place for the hungry owl to receive its feedings. Although at one time in my life my worldview was such that I would not have questioned the veracity of this conclusion, I quickly caught myself entertaining this interesting, amusing, and absurd idea. Strange as it might sound, humans seem especially prone to mystical interpretations of non-human nature, including animal encounters and other natural events.
But when did this behavior originate and why, and what are its implications for us and for the animals we hope to steward and with which we feel we have some mystical connection? Moreover, who really cares if I believe that the great horned owl alighted atop my cabin because of its desire to connect with me? What’s the harm in it? Each of us must answer these questions for ourselves, of course, but apart from whatever I may believe or wish were the case, I know of no evidence to indicate that my mystical interpretation is actually true or correct. To the extent that my interpretation is unfounded, it is wrong, and being wrong has physical and not merely ideological consequences.
By most accounts, we harm ourselves, each other, and the larger world when our claims are wrong. And yet magical and unaccountable thinking continues to be propagated and rewarded throughout society. Indeed, it seems that, at least in certain academic departments, the extent of one’s success depends on one’s ability to practice this type of intellectual sorcery. But therein lies the problem: How do we evaluate magic? With a quorum of magicians? As a writer working in the humanities I know I will be read and rewarded if my work conforms to the conventions of my field, one aspect of which is concocting new ways of thinking, regardless of their actual truth or semblance of truth. But if my work does not conform, the gatekeepers, who themselves have been fed on a steady diet of untested and unproven ideas, will ignore it, even though it may be more truthful or accurate than my conventional work. If this is true, or at all typical of the humanities, can they progress or contribute in ways that are useful to the evidence-based sciences? I think they can, but only to the extent that we humanists are willing and able to ground ourselves outside the humanist paradigm.
Our professional growth and personal survival depends on our having a robust sense of curiosity. Even the most mundane knowledge would not be possible without it. Today our curiosity may be exercised in all sorts of novel ways, including study, travel, and technology that did not exist as recently as three hundred years ago. Does this mean that people living then and long before then had no way of exercising their curiosity and of gaining a deeper understanding of the world? I don’t think so, if only because we make do or we fall by the wayside. But they did have very different tools than those we enjoy presently, and for all their value, those tools were necessarily restrictive, just as today’s tools and technologies have their own limitations. What has not changed is our innate curiosity about the world and our ability to exercise it however we choose.
Soon after my encounter with the great horned owl, I sought out Bill West and asked him what he thought the young owl was doing by calling from atop my cabin. Once I knew the owl was waiting to be fed, I realized that its decision to perch there had nothing to do with me and everything to do with its need to be fed. This may not seem important, but it illustrates a fundamental shift in worldview and, consequently, in my ability to really know this aspect of owl behavior. Interestingly, I felt a tinge of deflation when I learned what was really going on with the owl (What? The owl’s not here to connect with me?), but I would much rather feel the momentary sting of truth than be the life-long victim of falsehood. But this point raises another important question, which is why, when we have access to knowledge that would significantly increase our understanding, are so many of us still more likely to ignore that knowledge and instead offer superficial non-explanations for our experiences? If we are going to advocate for the environment and the myriad species with which we share this planet, we damn well better know what we’re talking about.
As much as I’d like to believe that my quest for knowledge is typical human behavior, I don’t know if the evidence would support that conclusion, which seems odd given the value society places on other forms of knowledge. Next to the value we place on knowing how to make money and acquire material wealth, knowing the meaning of owl calls appears very low on our list of priorities. Society values knowledge as a means to a human end, which is understandable from a strictly biological standpoint. After all, we’ve got to make money to survive. But because the majority of the knowledge we generate is used to advance human interests, we usually don’t spend a lot of time thinking about other things, including other animals, that aren’t directly related to that end.
Our tendency to ignore things that don’t appear to have anything to do with fulfilling our human needs underscores the challenge we face when trying to think about the environment, not as a whole, but as an ecosystem comprised of manifold individual organisms, most of which have no obvious effect on our lives. To this extent they do not, nor have they ever, really mattered in the way that they need to matter to us now. Humanists don’t willingly ignore other species; it’s that most of us have not been trained to see them as anything other than objects we compete with for space, and whose exteriors invite artistic treatment. But how often do we consider the ancient interior lives of other organisms? Rarely are they ever known and rendered with the kind of care and attention they deserve.
A familiar and effective strategy for attracting visitors to wilderness areas is the promise of rejuvenation, inspiration, and, in the case of the Ph.D. creative writing class, exaltation. Even the Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge alludes to this idea by noting that “a soul can get lost in solitude and wildness.” Notwithstanding the various challenges of spending time in the great outdoors, I think most people are attracted to wilderness because they stand a very good chance of being rewarded with any number of good feelings, including those mentioned above. In places like Yosemite and Yellowstone, visitors also support local economies by feeding them dollars, so there’s that benefit as well. But this model is too narrow in its focus and does not challenge us to change our ways and thinking. Despite nature’s many benefits to us, we do precious little to reciprocate, and the current model does little to change that behavior. At least a hundred people visited the center while I was there, and I’m pretty sure they felt better when they left than when they came. And that’s a good thing. But how much time did they spend actively trying to understand what they were experiencing? I know that field biologists spend a great deal of time doing just that. But what about everyone else? What are they doing to give back?
Both the refuge and the center share the goal of promoting environmental awareness so that visitors will take what they’ve learned and use that knowledge to improve their lives no matter where they may live. But the degree to which this happens depends on how well prepared visitors are to engage in a reciprocal exchange with the environment and thereby escape the consumer, “What’s-in-it-for-me” mentality that has come to characterize our species and its interactions with the natural world. This is not going to be easy: hominids evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and our brains are hundreds of millions of years old. We have therefore had a very long time to become set in our ways. The brain is bound by its origins, and it will think in ways it has always thought unless it is trained to do otherwise, but not all training is created equally, particularly when it comes to understanding the world.
In addition to everything else they are and offer, each discipline, whether in the humanities, social sciences, or sciences, represents a unique and arguably self-limiting training ground for understanding the world. As a result, inter-, multi-, cross-, and transdisciplinary thinking has emerged as a way of addressing the inherent insularity of the disciplines. The power of this endeavor lies in the view that each field of inquiry has something unique and important to contribute. This type of holistic thinking is a worthwhile ambition, especially if its premises are compatible with and acknowledge the role that natural selection has played in shaping animal behavior, including our own.
4. Navel and Star Gazing
The darkness in Centennial Valley is so deep and thick it is almost palpable. This illusion is reinforced by the hard darkness of the land, which spreads until it rises into the Gravelly Mountains to the north, the Madisons to the east, and the Centennial Mountains to the south, whose own rocky and wooded contours blend with the vast, airy blackness of the sky. Night mist hangs in the day-golden fields along Odell Creek, a sweet, moist absence that I suck into the trunk, limbs, and branches of my body. When I have walked sightless and alone through those fields at night, I have thought about gravity and those few inches of ground beneath my feet, how if it weren’t for them and the rattle in my lungs I might believe I was of the darkness and not just in it. But why would anyone hope to transcend precisely that which allows us to have these experiences in the first place? Our desire to transcend, to become something other than what we are, clouds our view of ourselves. And if we do not see ourselves clearly, how can we ever hope to see the world clearly?
A week into my stay in the valley a young man named Jason knocked on my cabin door and asked if he could interview me for a documentary he and his crew were making about the valley. I asked him why he’d want to do that and he said because I was the Writer in Residence and I said “Right. Of course.” A couple days later we sat down in my studio and did the interview. By that time in my stay my eyes were opening and I was beginning to feel unmoored. But Jason seemed interested and probed with his questions in the directorial style, and so on I went, sharing every idea that had recently come my way. Once the interview had concluded Jason turned off the camera and we continued swapping stories about our experiences in the valley. I shared my encounter with the owl, which I argued was illustrative of the humanities’ crisis of relevance. I thought Jason would challenge me and tell me I was wrong, but he nodded deeply and grinned knowingly.
The night before my interview, I opened my cabin door and stepped outside where I hoped to hear the calls of the great horned owl and whatever other animal sounds the night might offer. Instead I heard human voices out in the field and then saw the beams of their flashlights sweeping the blackness. Their lights welled beneath them and in that harsh brightness I could see their forms but not their faces. “Who are they and what are they doing out there?” I remember thinking. Only later, when Jason told his story, did I realize that I had seen him and a small group of creative writing students and their professor, who he had led into the field to do some stargazing.
Few activities invite more questions than stargazing. Outer space is so removed from the space we occupy here on Earth that even when we can see it (at night most skies are polluted with light), formulating coherent questions about it is challenging at best. Were it not for the popularization of space and space exploration, who except astronomers would even know where to begin? The creative writers and their professor had some good questions though about stars, planets, and the speed of light. As luck would have it, Jason had just completed a course in physics and was therefore able to answer the group’s questions. “I was three for three,” he said, smiling. “Carl Sagan would have been proud.” This Q & A went on until finally the poetry professor, who apparently preferred ethereal possibilities to definitive answers, plaintively asked Jason, “Is there no mystery left in your life?”
5. Flesh and Letters
Somewhere inside my brain there is an ember for mystery and magical thinking. It’s likely a holdover from an earlier time in my development, from the earliest time to the time I was a child and walked with ghosts to when I became a humanist and surrounded myself with my kind and their ideas. Back then I might have entertained a mystical idea for days, weeks, or even years. Now a mystical idea might have a life-span of one or two minutes, or just as long as it takes me to ask “Why?” or some other question that will likely empower me to know more.
However much I may cherish these moments of magical thinking, ultimately I am much more interested in practicing what Steinbeck and others call non-teleological thinking, which “concerns itself primarily not with what should be, or could be, or might be, but rather with what actually ‘is.’” Because scientists think non-teleologically, they tend to offer a more objective understanding of their subjects, which I find very useful and satisfying. This is why, when I need a reality check, I generally prefer the company of scientists to the company of other humanists. We humanists suffer from our own self-imposed homogenization, which is contrary to progress. This may be especially true when it comes to environmental thinking, which requires a whole new skill set than most humanists possess. Do those of us working in the humanities even think of ourselves as a species? Or are we just flesh and letters?
I hadn’t been in the valley for three days when, having tired of my own mind, I walked over to the Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge headquarters to meet Bill West and get some new perspective. Our meeting would go well. West, who reminds me of a modern day Leopold, is one of the most clear-headed environmental thinkers I’ve ever met, and it turns out we had both been thinking hard about how best to bridge the divide between our disciplines. But this would all come later. First I had to deal with one of West’s colleagues who, when I arrived, stared at me with a vaguely suspicious look on her face.
“May I help you?” she asked from behind a desk at the end of the hall.
“I’m here to see Bill West.” I was a good twenty-five feet away from the woman’s desk, but she didn’t invite me to approach with words or body language, so I kept my distance.
“May I tell him who’s here?” She put her hand on the receiver and looked at me expectantly.
I told her my name and that I was the Writer in Residence next door. Apparently unimpressed with my credentials, without replying she picked up the receiver and dialed West’s extension.
“A Mr. Werner is here to see you. Okay,” she said. She put down the receiver. “He’s on a call and will be with you shortly.”
“Thank you,” I said.
I figured I had a few minutes so I walked around and looked at the various maps and objects displayed throughout the headquarters. Among these objects were various animal skulls and skins—including a fox, coyote, and wolf skin—that had been acquired by various means and were now being used for educational purposes. Each of the objects had their own appeal, but the wolf skin, which was about eight feet long from nose to tail and whose fur was black and lustrous, was especially beautiful. Unlike the coyote and fox skins, which were hanging from the ceiling, the wolf skin was laid atop a table in the hall, where it could be easily admired.
“May I touch this?” I asked the woman at the desk. She seemed a little confused by my question. Was it because other people don’t ever ask to touch the wolf fur? Or was it because she couldn’t understand why I’d want to touch the skin in the first place? Whatever the reason, she made that face that said be my guest, so I dug my hand deep into the wolf’s neck fur and ran it down the length of the skin. I don’t know how wolf fur feels in the wild, but this fur was as soft, fine, and thick as any fur I had ever touched. And the tail was equally soft, but bristly and round as a jar. As I moved back to the wolf’s head and saw the crumpled ears and empty slits where the eyes had been, I was overcome and caught off guard by a profound sense of awe and sadness. In a moment of vulnerability, I turned to the woman seated and told her how I was feeling, although I’m sure my feelings were written all over my face. Her face was flat and devoid of emotion, which added to my distress. How could she not relate to what I was experiencing?
“Haven’t you ever had this kind of experience?” I asked, unfairly perhaps.
If she had any doubts about how she was going to deal with me, the moment I asked her that question those doubts must have vanished because her once vacant face now appeared unmistakably hostile, and I got the feeling she would now drop all pretense of dispassion so far as wolves were concerned. I’m not complaining; although at times mildly unpleasant and confrontational, candid, off-the-record interaction is preferable to the overly cautious, offend-no-one exchanges that often occur between government officials and the public they serve.
“What kind of experience?” she asked. Since I had arrived she had busied herself with papers and unseen things on her desk, but now her hands lay still out in front of her and she stared at me defiantly, like she was ready to go to war. I was beginning to feel like I had brought a knife to a gunfight, and that no matter what I said next would send a salvo of bullets in my direction.
“Emotional?” I said, a bit too timidly.
“With a wolf? Never,” she said.
I was baffled and intrigued, not just because of whatever was going on between me and the wolf skin, but because I couldn’t figure out how this woman—an employee of the refuge—could have such an unsympathetic view of these remarkable animals. She seemed neither humanist nor scientist—the two kinds of people I am used to dealing with the most—so I didn’t know what to make of her. But I was determined to know the mind of this strange creature whose perspective I had not yet encountered in the valley.
“Where did you get it?” I asked as I massaged one of the wolf’s ears just as I would my own dog’s ears back home.
“Here,” she said.
“At the refuge?”
“I don’t understand.”
“A hunter shot it illegally. We confiscated it.”
“Did he go to jail?” I asked, making no attempt to hide my contempt for the hunter.
“No he did not. He paid a fine. End of story.”
I shook my head and said that was too bad. I thought that would be the end of our conversation, but instead the woman launched into a tirade about how the hunter had paid his debt and that wolves are no different than cows or any other animal whose numbers need to be kept in check. “They’re not special,” she said finally. I told her that was an interesting perspective. What really interested me, though, was not what she had said—at that point in our conversation I could have almost predicted it—but how she had said it, with a kind of restrained anger. Maybe she’s right: perhaps the only way we are going to save the wolf is by treating it just like any other animal that lives in a finite and political world, but her anger was so loud it’s all I could hear.
Thinking about it now, I wanted it both ways: I wanted her to be objective, but then I also wanted her to acknowledge the unexplored power that nature and wolves have and have over us. In a way, I suppose that’s what she did, except for her the wolf’s power lay in its ability to inspire hatred instead of the unmitigated love that many others feel for this embattled animal. Dogged hatred and unquestioning love are the same when it comes to how we interact with the environment. Both are blinding. But I don’t see myself on this spectrum. I don’t feel hate or love so much as I feel wonder. I don’t know to what end. How could I or anyone? The Gravelly Mountains rise into the worsening light just as they have for millions of years, and I still have no sense of what the future holds.
Maximilian Werner is the author of four books, including the natural history/memoir Evolved: Chronicles of a Pleistocene Mind and the memoir Gravity Hill. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the University of Utah, where he teaches several courses, including environmental writing and Writing about War.