For the last few week's I've kept Bill McKibben's essay, Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape:Written November 11, 2009
For the last few week's I've kept Bill McKibben's essay, Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape: Vermont's Champlain Valley and New York's Adirondacks, in my purse, for reading on the subway. This is the first bit of nonfiction that's inspired me to pick up a pencil and underline or notate as I read since I left grad school 6 years ago. I've taken extensive notes on material for work, of course, but this is the first bit of writing in a good long while that inspired me to keep a collection of my thoughts as I read. Which says something for both the depth and compelling vision of McKibben's argument.
Bill McKibben isn't spoken of by the average person, or even the majority of environmentalists, as a hopeful, inspiring guy. He's better known for damning treatises on the inevitability of peak oil and dire warnings against the dangers of genetic engineering -- serious, frightening topics that don't inspire confidence or self-reliance in a reader, particularly when delivered in the part chastise/part rant tone McKibben is fond of. And yet, this piece of writing is powerfully hopeful. Wandering Home is a travel journal, chronicling a hike that McKibben made from Mount Abraham on the eastern edge of Vermont's Champlain Valley to Crane Mountain in the southern Adirondacks. His particular journey takes place within his mind as well as across the valley, across the lake, across the state line, up and down mountains.
We're introduced to people -- characters in the best sense -- whom McKibben has worked and lived with; farmers, Middlebury professors, writers, geologists, birders, trackers, and hunters, some of whom have never left the tiny towns they were born in, others of whom have traveled the world over to find home. We're treated to stories: the first hike McKibben made with his daughter, Sophie, when she was four years old and insisted on taking every step herself; the mad stage coach ride that Theodore Rossevelt took down Route 9N while President McKinley dying, arriving in Buffalo with Adirondack mud on his boots to be sworn in as the 26th President of the United States; the ending and beginning and ending and beginning again of hyper-local "industries" -- grist mills, bee supplies, tourist rafting. There's the requisite disparagement of those who build enormous houses that ruin the ecology of an area, not to mention the view. (I'm guilty of this myself -- 6,000 square-foot city houses being built on tiny lakes surrounded by dwarf white pine look ridiculous, upset every environmental and societal balance, and automatically brand their residents as idiots who don't know the first thing about living well.)
But the best part of the book is the thread of questioning that runs through it -- what does Wilderness look like in a world where we've geomapped and GPSed our way through every secret nook and cranny, where satellite photographs wipe away the illusion of human "discovery"? How do we create, protect, and preserve space where nature -- the flora and fauna required to keep the planet in a state of balance that allows us to survive -- can evolve and develop free from human manipulation and intervention? What does "rewilding" look like? And what is our role -- the role of people and environmentalists -- in making it happen, or allowing it to happen?
If we're going to talk about wilderness ... we have to face the truth that it's a little hard to separate out the natural and the artificial, a little hard to figure out exactly where we're planting our feet. For instance: this afternoon Warren  and I are standing on a little bridge above Dead Creek a few miles south of the waterfowl refuge. "You notice how the water is kind of mocha here?" he asks. "One reason is the clay soils -- the particles can stay in suspension almost forever. And those particles get stirred up all along the creek by carp fanning their tails." But carp are an exotic species, introduced [to Vermont] from afar. So is the mocha color "right"?
...over and over we kept returning to the same kind of philosophical conundrums. It wasn't just carp: Dead Creek was also host to a variety of other exotic and invasive species. "Ooh, water chestnut," said Warren. "We've gotten rid of that on the Lemon Fair River ... but there's still a little population over here in Dead Creek. The nut is an extraordinarily vicious-looking thing, like a caltrop. It gets stuck on the plumage and feet webbing of geese and ducks, they carry it from one body of water to the next." The scrubby meadows and hedgerows around Dead Creek were also filled with plants that, strictly speaking, Shouldn't Be There. Honeysuckle. Wild parsnip... Eurasian buckthorn...
So do you wring your hands over this, rooting for the dogwood and the prickly ash, rooting up the buckthorn? Or do you just decide that nature is whatever it is -- that since the world is in constant flux, there's no real damage that can be done to it? For instance, Warren pointed out a small elm tree. "As you know, they get Dutch elm disease when they're about twenty. But they start producing seed when they're ten. So they have a decade before the fungus starts to shut them down. As a result, we're getting increasing numbers of elm trees that get to be about that big. Not the big umbrella street-lining trees we grew up with. But they have this niche now. They're an understory tree -- that's just what they are now." Are we to mourn the passing of big elms? Celebrate the success of this fungus we helped introduce? Merely marvel at all the different strategems that evolution puts in play?
The problem, of course, is that human beings are invested in this planet. Unlike animals and plants and winds and rain, we have the foresight and understanding of cause and effect to realize that any actions we take will have consequence -- and we have a vested interest in figuring out how to stay here for a few million more years. (Those of us with kids do, anyway.)
What McKibben does with this essay is refrain from laying into his reading audience with a two-by-four, refrain from making a specific must-do list. He admits to his own failings, iterates the excesses that are so blatantly common-sensical that they absolutely must be stopped, and revels in the beauty and the mystery and the possibility of an area where more people are working to create something meaningful and lasting and joyful than are trying to tear it down. He introduces points of debate, he rants a little and then writes on. He talks of balance. He talks of personal happiness and satisfaction, of where and how he's found both. And leaves the reader to seek -- and create -- her own.
I have the great good fortune to have found the place I was supposed to inhabit, a place in whose largeness I can sense the whole world but yet is small enough for me to comprehend. If, when it comes my turn to die, I really do see again that view from Mount Ab[raham], I know it will contain all these things: farm, field, forest, mountain, loon, moose, cow, monarch, pine, hemlock, white oak, shepherd, bee, beekeeper, college, teacher, beaver flow, bakery, brewery, hawk, vineyard, high rock, high summer, deep winter, deep economy. Yes, and cell phone tower and highway and car lot and Burger King. This is part of the real world. But what's rare in that real world and common here, is the chance for completion. For being big sometimes and small at others, in the shadow of the mountains and the shade of the hemlocks.