Saturday, September 27, 2008

Finding a balance of being

A post called "Shareland" on KenElwood, a blog that I follow regularly, touched on a theme that I've been thinking a lot about lately--the balance between nature and society--or, a bit less abstractly: the balance within each individual between being in nature and being in society.

KenElwood made a good point about extremes: being too much in nature and being too much in society. This is a fascinating dichotomy to explore--though I wonder if, ultimately, it's not a false dichotomy; I think KenElwood is leaning towards this view as well (though I don't presume to speak for him).

Perhaps "false dichotomy" is the wrong phrasing, because I think the dichotomy is real. However, I'm inclined to say that the dichotomy is a recent creation; one that stems from the development of the capitalist socio-economic system. Those who have talked about the extreme of being in society have referred almost exclusively to capitalist society. I'm thinking mostly about the social theorists of the 19th century: Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, to name the big ones. So, "alienation", or "anomie", to use Durkheim's term, seems to be the symptom of being in society that I and others are addressing. What is important to note is that these notions of alienation developed in response to the appearance of labor--the commodification, selling and purchasing of human activity--as a social phenomenon, not as a response to social life itself.

At the other end of this dichotomy is the extreme of nature, which is also, I'm thinking, a creation of modern society. Obviously, nature, as in the natural environment, is not a human creation per se (though there is a growing body of literature in the discipline of Historical Ecology arguing against this), but notions and ideas of nature--of what is and isn't natural--are constructions that vary across cultures. In my home-country of the U.S., nature has become "the wild", "wilderness", a place where humans go, but don't remain; an antithesis to modern society often loaded with moral tones of righteousness, truth, and purity. Of course, this is all very Biblical: the fall from the garden. So, here we see nature as a response to the rise of capitalist society and feelings of alienation. Nature becomes something separate, original, pure, and morally right.

Accordingly, the U.S. has produced a string of writers, poets, artists, and regular folk who have sought to escape the ills of society for a life in nature: John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Edward Abbey, to name a few. Famous for losing himself in the void in my home-state of Utah is Everett Ruess, an artist who disappeared into the red-rocks of the Escalante desert in 1934. Just last night I re-watched Into the Wild, a wonderful movie based on a true story that was told decently by John Krakauer in a book of the same title. Watching the movie brought a rush of emotions because I identify in many ways with the subject, Chris McCandless, who sought to flee into the wild from what he perceived to be a morally corrupt society.

I'm going to spoil the movie and book here, so skip the next paragraph if you don't want to read about what happens.

Chris' story ends tragically when, after wintering in the Alaskan backcountry outside of Fairbanks, he mistakenly eats some poisonous plants and, due to spring runoff, is unable to forge a river and make it to the nearest road. He died alone in a converted city bus that he had been living in. The true tragedy of Chris's story is that, at least the way the movie tells it (it's been a while since I read the book), before his death he understands the folly of his attempt to flee from humanity and yearns to return to the people that have enriched his life. So, a couple of lessons here: the return is as important as the journey--the comfort of coming back just as precious as the rush of setting forth; and humans are social beings that need contact with other people. Chris wrote the following in a book before his death: HAPPINESS IS NOT REAL UNLESS SHARED.

In Chris' case, the reality is that he wasn't as deep in the wild as his imagination had placed him. Apparently he was quite near a road, in an area that hunters frequented. However, for him it was the wild--and in the end it was just a little too far. I'm not trying to criticize or belittle Chris or the any of the numerous other wanderers who have sought out nature or places of wilderness in the landscape. I make these points simply because I too have long pondered these questions and have sought to find a balance between society and nature.

In my university days, like Chris, I increasingly found the larger society troubling and sought solace in mountains and forests. I would spend my weekdays itching for the weekend when I could escape. There would be 2 or 3 days of bliss up in the cool breezes of the hills or down in the stark silences of the desert and then my heart would ache as I made my way back to the city. I began to despise industrial society and yearned only for wilderness; my views also began to radicalize along the lines of Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang and the ideology of Earthfirst! (Un)fortunately I was a lousy eco-saboteur and only got as far as cutting down a sign or two and one meaningless hurling of a rock through the window of a road-grader.

It was only when I came to Japan for the second time in 2002 that a middle way began to emerge. I was teaching English in Matsumoto, Nagano and, like in Utah, my weeks were spent gazing at peaks from my office window, longing to be out among the rocks and trees the, solid earth moving under my feet. It was a rare occasion that I could find a friend disciplined enough to give up a Friday night on the town in order to wake early for a Saturday hike--rarer to find one willing to sacrifice a whole weekend. This irked me to no end, but never kept me from roaming the ridgelines above the Azumino Plain--in fact, I revelled in my solitude. Still, I valued my friendships and enjoyed telling stories of my walks up in the clouds. On weekends, from my high perches I could still hear the chimes ringing in the towns below me. I watched all the activity below me: farmers in their fields, cars crawling like bugs on branches, twists of smoke rising from the valley floor; all of this would have annoyed me to no end in my earlier years, but there in Nagano the activity seemed harmless, benign, and natural. A Gary Snyder passage began to take on deep meaning for me. I can't recall it at the moment, but it's essence was that for all that we humans have done to the earth, our etchings and scratchings are still relatively minute; barely visible in grander scheme of things.

Later, during a backpacking trip in Hokkaido, I vowed to strive for a balance between my being in nature and my being in society. I embraced the return and made it part of the journey--the courage to leave the hills and go back to the dusty world below. As my ramblings denote, I'm probably earning about a C- on my balancing act; anyway, it's a work in progress. I don't know that my scattered words here have conveyed my thoughts appropriately, but after reading KenElwood's post, I felt compelled to write. I particularly liked his suggestion that nature is like other needs (our need for food, water, sleep, human company, etc.), because I feel the need for nature all the time.

Also, like KenElwood says, our modern social system doesn't allow for the balance and so extremes develop. In my opinion, the potential to create this balance is one of the greatest assets rural communities have available to them. KenElwood's idea of creating sharelands is quite novel and I would like to see it develop more. However, as he points out it would also require the restructuring of current socio-economic systems to allow "labor" more time to spend pursuing other activities. Japan's tourism, whether "eco" or otherwise, occurs for the most part in massive flows revolving around the working world's holiday schedule. This has led to the commodification of the natural world to create "nature" that can be conveniently enjoyed at the pace needed to meet the demands of society. However, spending time in nature requires more time--the dust of the working world cannot be sluffed off so easily, nor the intricacies of the natural world discovered so quickly.

There is the potential for balance. I keep struggling for it.


ted said...

I don't know if you've read "Desolation Angels," but Kerouac had a helluva time dealing with his (long sought after) isolation in the wilderness. Had a bit of a breakdown amidst the high peaks, cured only by ample conversation and port wine shared with his pals.

Carmelo Cannarella said...

These are very intriguing issues. I would like just to add to this itneresting discussion some personal considerations. We have a remarkable quantity of information and studies about the human impact over the environment but the impact of this modified environment over the humans is not yet well understood. Humanity modifies environment being simultaneously modified by the environment through a continuing process. What I want to emphasize is that the territory where we live doesn’t passively bear our injuries. The degradation we are producing everyday returns to us with a boomerang effect not only as natural resources’ degradation but also as degradation in the quality of the individual psycho-physical equilibrium, in the quality of the social relations and in the relations between people and space. This is just to highlight the urgent need to ruralize our society and cities in order to regain a new equilibrium and personal global health as everyone can experiment just having a small walk in the countryside. Meybe it is time to get lost in the forest to find yourself...

Taintus said...


Yeah, I have read Desolation Angels--a good read--and an interesting contrast to Kerouac's pre-fire lookout days in Dharma Bums.

Ed Abbey, who I referred to in my post, has a funny quote about Kerouac:

"Jack Kerouac, like a sick refrigerator, worked too hard at keeping cool and died on his mama's lap from alcohol and infantilism."

Taintus said...

I take that back; not a funny quote, and interesting one.

zac said...

These days we are connected physically thanks to the personal car and the aeroplane, and connected virtually thanks to the internet and mobile phones. So I think a big part of our attraction to nature today is as much to get away from being connected as it is to being away from urbanity.

I think being connected brings convenience, but at a cost to local communities. Back in the day you couldn't afford to neglect your local community, but these days you can more easily switch community (via car/plane) if it doesn't suit you, or live in a virtual community.