Wilderness, Good Oak, And Moby Dick

In Chapter Three of The Unsettling of America, “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Agriculture,” Wendell Berry pointedly defends the primacy of “wilderness” within the conservation movement in America.

What has to be acknowledged at the outset is that wilderness conservation is important and that it has a place in any conservation program, just as the wilderness has its place in human memory and culture.  It seems likely to me that the concern for wilderness must stand at the apex of the conservation effort, just as it probably must stand at the apex of consciousness in any decent culture.  (29)

However, he admits that only a small portion of “wilderness” will be persereved free of human influence.  What of the rest of nature?  Berry calls for a “kindly use” which brings together land and people.  The type of land use he finds most in need of consideration is that of the farm.  In this, he is echoed by the renowned conservationist and brilliant writer Aldo Leopold in his essay “Good Oak” in  A Sand County Almanac.


There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm.  One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.  To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.  To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside.  If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the week end in town astride a radiator.  (8)

In one of the most compelling and intelligent books I have ever read, The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature, William Jordan writes of Leopold:


Leopold developed a philosophy that accorded moral value not only to other species, but also to inanimate features of the landscape such as mountains and rivers, to natural processes such as the cycling of water and nutrients through ecosystems and, on a longer time scale, to the formation of new species through natural selection.  Eventually this culminated in his “land ethic,” a formulation of responsibility to the environment grounded in an appeal to four values: the integrity and stability of the land community, its beauty, and–centrally–community, and the land conceived as a community of organisms.

Rejecting simplistic systems of value at either end of environmental thinking, he wrote on a wide range of issues, from agriculture and game management to wilderness preservation, outdoor recreation, and the esthetic value of natural landscapes, dealing with them in ways that balanced ecological and economic considerations against higher values such as beauty and community.  (30)

Jordan considers why Leopold’s land ethic has failed to take hold and improve the state of wilderness and finds it in the underpinning moral valuation of nature and human beings.

Here we come to the root of all so-called environmental problems, and also to the reason for the inability of environmentalism to deal with them effectively. This reason, we now see, lies not in the greed or alienation or technology or institutions or prejudice or the invention of artificial categories of thought, all of which have always been part of human experience.  It lies rather in a structural flaw in the very foundations of environmental thought–in an idea of nature that has dominated environmental thinking of a century and a half.  This is the idea, traceable to the biblical account of creation, in which shame, trouble, and badness are introduced into the creation peculiarly late and as a result of a human failing, the idea that nature itself is innocent and therefore morally discontinuous form human beings, whose lapse introduced shame, trouble, and evil into creation.  (40)

In part, Jordan turns to the great whale in American Literature for an answer.

Herman Melville, in his great pastoral Moby Dick, offers an alternative in a fable of the exploration of nature and the wild in which the protagonist is not alone but is a member of a ship’s crew working–not playing or visiting–in what was essentially a factory, dealing with the vagaries and ambiguities of life in an actual community.  

If environmentalism is to succeed at its central task of providing the basis for a healthy relationship between ourselves and the rest of nature, it must, as Melville’s Ishmael does, confront the difficult, emotionally challenging aspects of such relationships.  (44)

Jordan’s response focuses on ecological restoration which includes breaking down the idea of an “all-inclusive self,” realizing there are others and becoming aware of them.  This also includes becoming aware of the land, of all the organisms that make up the community in which we belong.  The second is working with the landscape in a way that does not compromise its value, and allows us to enter into a dialogue with it.  Consider all that Wendell Berry, Sir Albert Howard, Michale Pollan, Joel Salatin, Eliot Coleman, and Dan Barber write about becoming aware of the soil, how the earth is constantly telling us about its condition and what to do if we know how to pay attention and work with it, instead of against it by using pesticides.  Third, the idea of a gift, the notion in Homeric literature of offering a gift to a guest, of offering food immediately upon a guest’s entrance without question about who or what they are, just immediately providing sustenance.  The gift here in environmental terms would be a “restored ecosystem and in the greater understanding and increased self-awareness that the act of restoration, properly conducted, contributes to the landscape and that constitutes its distinctively human element (52).” Fourth the replacing of ambiguity with art, religion and ritual, which grounds us in a behavior and perception constantly valuing community, nature and work.

Wendell Berry ends his third chapter with a consideration of where “agribusiness” policies have brought us.

We are eating thoughtlessly, as no other society has ever been able to do.  We are eating–drawing out lives out of our land–thoughtlessly.  If we study carefully the implications of that, we will see that the agricultural crisis is not merely a matter of supply and demand to be remedied by some change of government policy or some technological “breakthrough.”  It is a crisis of culture.  (38)



Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.

William Jordan III, The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation.

Moby Dick Illustration by Ricardo Martinez.



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