Listening among the Constellations

wilderness 3 webI’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy. I could sit here all day and type lines I love, but if I was going to type just one, it would probably be this one:

‘The horse raised its head above the skyline to listen among the constellations.’

I like to raise my head above the skyline to listen among the constellations also. I have found numerous ways: sleeping out, dawn surfing, night walking, solitary hiking, mountain climbing, psychadelics, meditation.

There are times when I ask myself why I seek altered states of consciousness with such dedication. When I’m stuck halfway up a mountain, for example, frozen with fear. Or when I’m paddling out in December under a darkening sky, hailstones hammering my face. Or when I can’t remember how many more drops of acid I took because I thought it wasn’t working.

It’s partly to wake myself up. There’s no FOMO that hits me harder than lying in bed through a midsummer dawn. The relief of being awake is worth every ounce of hardship. The acceptance of things as they are – bigger, wider, deeper. The chance to give up the ghost of control over the unfathomable mystery of life.

‘We still and always want waking’ wrote Annie Dillard. ‘We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.’

Wild places are crucial as spaces where waking up can take place. The concept of untrammeled, unsponsored land, even if it exists only in our heads, is a healthy retort to the sleepy hubris of humanity. Personally, I find the knowledge that there are places in this world that do not conform to the laws of mankind immensely comforting.

This is why I am worried about something. There seems to be a growing trend for cashing in on the cool capital of nature in order to sell oneself on social media.

Some environmentalists argue that by applying market values to the natural world we are likely to have more success in protecting it. George Monbiot called this the Natural Capital Agenda, and if you think it’s a good idea (as I used to) then take a look at the transcript of a lecture he gave at the University of Sheffield in July 2014. He neatly sums up the root of my disquiet:

‘…in the majority of cases, efforts to price the natural world are complete and utter gobbledygook. And the reason why they are complete and utter gobbledygook is that they are dealing with values which are non-commensurable.’

This is why I get anxious when I see another trendy film of a far-flung surf spot being used by a ‘cold water surf company’ to hawk T-shirts. It’s why I worry when I see images of ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ exploited by London-based digital self-marketeers as the latest aspirational tool in the hateful culture of envy that is Facecrack. I worry even more because I don’t think the perpetrators know what they’re doing. Tricky to express the whispering of the constellations in 140 characters. And taking selfies of yourself being by yourself surely defeats the purpose. I think they’re missing the point.

‘True solitude is found in the wild places’ wrote Wendell Berry, ‘where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.’

Cashing in on the cool capital of nature is not harmless, still less a positive way to protect the environment. It desecrates it. The wild places, by definition, cannot be marketed. Things that end up in the market have been trapped, tamed, claimed and branded. They are for sale. No longer free.

Tread carefully. Take nothing. Wilderness is for life, not just for capital.

 

2 thoughts on “Listening among the Constellations

  1. Daniel Crockett

    What I think you miss, critically, is that nature needs to become a focus of people’s lives once more. Not in a transactional way, but in the manner of a sense as important as touch and taste. Without that, the wild places that you (and I) covet so much will die, simple as that. We are in the middle of a mass extinction because most people have zero knowledge of how we sit within a system. They are so divorced, their connection with nature is so broken, that they live their entire lives unknowing and unfeeling, with a purely anthropocentric point of view. They do not even see the horror in this. For children, this is the greatest crime we could wreak against the world, for a whole generation grows up with no knowledge of what they are missing.

    This is the situation at hand and what we need is change, and self-nourishing though it is, that does not come from twiddling our thumbs in mighty solitude. I like this article, but it’s a weary narrative: nature is mine, leave it alone and unspoiled. Our cultural stories regarding nature need to evolve beyond that – so that it becomes something close to every human, not just those privileged enough to commune with it. It should never be bought and sold – should it be marketed is a different question entirely? I’m all for the transformative influence of the wild, but I believe that is something fought on the front lines – which include London and social media. Wendell Berry also said:

    These affections are leaving the world
    Like the colours of extinct birds
    Like the songs of a dead language

    That is the problem here, but it is not one solved through personal communion with wilderness. Lord know, I’ve tried.

    Reply
    1. catrina Post author

      Hi Dan,

      Good to hear from you. I’m sure we could talk on the subject all night, but here’s a quick first response. Hope you’re well. Lot of animals and mud here. Totally loving it though.

      What I think you miss, critically, is that nature needs to become a focus of people’s lives once more.

      I certainly wouldn’t argue against this!

      Not in a transactional way, but in the manner of a sense as important as touch and taste. Without that, the wild places that you (and I) covet so much will die, simple as that.

      I think humans will die first.
      My point is that wild places are important precisely because they teach a different set of values. The values we live by are killing us.

      We are in the middle of a mass extinction because most people have zero knowledge of how we sit within a system.

      Totally agree.

      They are so divorced, their connection with nature is so broken, that they live their entire lives unknowing and unfeeling, with a purely anthropocentric point of view.

      Exactly why I think it’s important to avoid imposing human systems on wild places.

      They do not even see the horror in this. For children, this is the greatest crime we could wreak against the world, for a whole generation grows up with no knowledge of what they are missing.

      Quite agree.

      This is the situation at hand and what we need is change, and self-nourishing though it is, that does not come from twiddling our thumbs in mighty solitude.

      Again, I agree. I’m not saying we shouldn’t share our experience of wild places with art and books and music and whatever, with as many people as possible. I’m all for that. I just think it needs to be done with a lot of respect and the minimum of ego. I think it’s probably our intention that matters. Are we sharing or showing off?

      I like this article, but it’s a weary narrative: nature is mine, leave it alone and unspoiled.

      I failed if that’s how you read it and I’m sorry for that. The kind of appropriation of the wilderness I’m talking about is an assault on psychological space. As Naomi Klein said – ‘the eternal urge for escape has never enjoyed such niche marketing.’ I’m saying the exact opposite to what you understood (I take full responsibility for not being clear). I’m saying nature is everybody’s, to interpret in a billion different ways, and that’s why it feels threatening when its used for branding, as if it’s being reduced – claimed. A kind of metaphorical enclosure.

      Our cultural stories regarding nature need to evolve beyond that – so that it becomes something close to every human, not just those privileged enough to commune with it.

      Well, exactly.

      It should never be bought and sold – should it be marketed is a different question entirely?

      I’m more talking about using nature to market other things – in a kind of aspirational, elitist way. I’m not really talking about marketing nature. I think that’s a different subject.

      I’m all for the transformative influence of the wild, but I believe that is something fought on the front lines – which include London and social media.

      I think you’re probably right about London. Social media is tricky. I find it very tempting to flex my ego. Again, are we sharing (generating connection) or showing off (generating alienation). That’s what I’m trying to do anyway. Share, share, share. But don’t imply ownership.

      Wendell Berry also said:

      These affections are leaving the world
      Like the colours of extinct birds
      Like the songs of a dead language

      That is the problem here, but it is not one solved through personal communion with wilderness.

      I think personal communion is a pretty good place to start.

      Lord know, I’ve tried.
      Keep trying?

      And if you need a break from London, you are welcome to come and stay anytime. Lots of rooms and beds and geese and peacocks and horses and other manifestations of life.

      X

      Reply

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