Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Philosophy: A New Vision for Old Woods

Something has had men heading for the interior, long before Henry David Thoreau publicly declared “I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness.” And as men of a certain tradition in 19th century America began to make their private pilgrimages public through written and artistic records, their excursions and revelations became canonized.

These meditations contributed to a change in national ideas about the value and fragility of nature and “man’s” place within it.

I understand the importance of reaching back into our histories to understand the cultural touchstones like these that have come to signify certain ideas and ideals, certain styles of thought and ideologies. After all, our histories are our foreground and they mark the path that we took to get here. Yet, from time to time in the midst of what can seem like a tireless reminiscence on the trope of the vigorous and steadfast wayfaring male archetype depicted through art and literature in the wilderness; I can hear a sucking sound like my boot makes when I’ve gone walking in mud season.

Since its creation, advocacy for and against conservation and preservation within the Park boundary has called on these and other similar images to underscore qualities like individuality, independence and virility in the midst of a seemingly untamed and unspoiled country. Guided by certain American philosophers and artists we enter into a stylized landscape, one that was politically manufactured through legislation and philosophically manufactured through the proliferation of 19th century ideals.

When popular literature and art combine to illuminate different parts of the same story, the impact often resonates outside the original medium of paint or narrative and into the larger cultural landscape. In the case of 19th century landscape art and literature, the story that fine art and prose conspire to tell transcends the cultural period and becomes part of one collective identity. Artists and writers who have become signs themselves of this aesthetic, and of a singular set of values, labored under a shared vision of wild America. These artists and scholars illustrated an ideal landscape beyond increasingly industrialized cities, and the legacy of this movement is largely responsible for our 21st century conception of the natural ideal.

Yet, this ideal only represents those who are drawn into its frame. But ours are stories (plural) and histories (as in many) so what would it take to shift the emphasis from one tone of voice to another? When old signifiers dominate a changed contemporary scene, we risk losing our way by walking backwards into the present.

Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Museum

Marianne Patinelli-Dubay is a philosopher, writing and teaching in the Adirondack Park

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Marianne Patinelli-Dubay leads the Environmental Philosophy Program at SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb Campus on the Huntington Wildlife Forest. In addition to teaching and writing, Marianne chairs the Adirondack Chapter of the Society of American Foresters and is an active member of the Forest Stewards Guild.   Please send comments to

15 Responses

  1. Mick says:

    Maybe the old signifiers represent the truth.

    Marianne, do you think men are morally bound to be stewards of the environment?

  2. Paul says:

    This is a very interesting piece. What do you mean by the last sentence?

    I heard a story this morning on NPR about how in West Virginia the number of automobile accidents seems to rise after a televised NASCAR event. It was really about how the media and its coverage of events affects the world. When I read “when popular literature and art combine to illuminate different parts of the same story” I was stuck with the thought that this was the “media” of the time back then.

    I like this sentence as well:

    “These artists and scholars illustrated an ideal landscape beyond increasingly industrialized cities, and the legacy of this movement is largely responsible for our 21st century conception of the natural ideal.”

    This was very true, especially as you learn about history when it comes to the American west and perhaps the same was (and is) true of the east. Often the idealized depiction of the story left out the reality that just off the canvas was the other “story” that was going on. In the west it was things like the struggles that native Americans were going through as their world was being torn apart around them. I suspect there are also other stories just off the “canvas” here in the east.

    Thanks for this post.

  3. Marianne Patinelli-Dubay says:

    Hi Mick and thanks for your note. I worry about cultural markers being taken for Truth. I understand truth to be fluid and as kaleidoscopic and varied as our individual ways of understanding the world.

    And I do think humanity has a moral obligation to protect the environment. I think once we understand the “environment” or the “landscape” as a subject – the same way that we understand each other as “subjects” – then care and obligation comes naturally. (No pun…)

  4. Marianne Patinelli-Dubay says:

    Hi Paul – I see you’ve done a close read, I thank you.

    Writing the last sentence I was thinking about how we might shift our attention from looking back at a world whose social, political and aesthetic boundaries were drawn by a certain group of people — to acknowledge a contemporary world with (no doubt) different contours.

    This new contour would be drawn through a rich variety of voices and imaginations by people who were not invited in centuries past to contribute to what has become our primary regional narrative.

    I’m always thinking that there are many stories about any one subject and that we choose which of those stories to tell, which to rely on for the “truth” that Mick talked about.

    I heard that NPR story too and I thought they should have had more information on the drivers preferences for NASCAR before making connections…but I digress.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    Humans are part of nature. Everything on this planet is a part of nature. Deep in the woods or deep in the heart of Manhattan, you and it are part of nature.

  6. Mick says:

    The following article is about the Beech Bark Disease, and I was interested to hear your views on stewardship as it relates to a current environmental problem.

    In the natural succession forest, the beech will grow to around 8″ diameter, then die. This eliminates important habitat, and basically makes a mess of the forest. In a logging operation, recovery and canopy release, it allows other species to populate, but the stumps sprout, causing a shrub-like underbrush. This is good wildlife habitat, but doesn’t maximize CO2 sequestration, and can reduce the social and economic values. The stumps need to be cut twice, or treated with an herbicide.

    If natural succession is chosen, it won’t be too log before the forests turn to shrublands.

    So how do we walk the tightrope backwards into the present?

  7. Pete Nelson says:

    This will come in a couple parts… word limit…

    This is a challenging and substantial post. The question of truth, how fluid it is and how it is influenced by perspective is as difficult a question in philosophy as one gets.

    I think it is inarguable that our dominant contemporary Adirondack wilderness ideal – both in comment and in practice – is influenced by a 19th-century perspective that has become a paradigm. I also think it is inarguable that this perspective came from a narrow swath of the culture, from a privileged male world view. I think it is valuable and important to call this into question, to suggest that a contemporary perspective cannot simply assume these cultural markers but must have a more diverse, even radical lens.

    What is interesting to me, however, is to plunge into the deeper question as to whether challenging these 19th century paradigms invalidates them; whether truths, as discussed in Mick and Marianne’s exchange, are always fluid and subjective.

    Once, as part of a larger debate about religion and truth, I engaged in an interesting thought experiment with my brother-in-law Ulf, who is a poet and a deep thinker if ever there was one.

    In our thought experiment we stand on the shore of Blue mountain Lake, a spot we both know and revere. It is twilight, stars are out, quiet has fallen. It is a sublime moment. We stand together in silence, each with our own thoughts, each experiencing our own truths about this moment, feeling them and thinking about them with all our being.

    Ulf and I are very different people and indeed our internal narrative about this moment could not possibly be the same. Yet both are true, true to the core for each of us. My truths may be fictions in some larger context (“Blue Mountain Lake is wild,” for example), but it is my truth and at such a moment I weigh my very existence against its importance.

  8. Pete Nelson says:

    In the context of our discussion about religion Ulf and I agreed that it would be abhorrent for one of us to turn to the other at that shore and tell him what the truth was, to violate the sacredness of our internal truth-telling. Thus our problem with religious dogma. This view of internal truth-telling entails subjectivity as I think Marianne means it.

    However, it is not one or the other, is it? ‘All truths are objective’ or ‘All truths are subjective’ is a stark choice if we consider them exclusive in practice. Indeed were Ulf and I to share our truths (rather than imposing them) – and of course we do share them – we would find that we have in common many essential things. We share what we might describe and even be able to name as intrinsic features of a wild place, or of the wild things about it. We share a sense of the ineffable. We find common resonance in the aesthetics of the scene. Surely there are truths about our experience of the wild that are qualities of “wildness” itself and beyond our subjective internal narrative.

    So what are truths about wilderness as “idealized” by 19th century men that are still valid through another lens? Through any lens? What is the power of these intrinsic truths that we would find them such a strong shared experience? When we call into question the dominant interpretation of wilderness as rhapsodized by a Homer Winslow or a Verplanck Colvin, how far do we go?

    These are difficult questions and I think there are cautions. I think of the post-modern deconstructions of Newtonian physics, for example. There is no question that Newtonian physics was developed and shaped by a narrow, biased slice of humanity, white men through and through. Many great thinkers were not invited to the party and that is a terrible thing. But questioning the scientific process that got us to F = ma, for example, and acknowledging bias in the very essence of that process, is not the same matter as questioning the truth of F = ma itself, which is a fool’s errand. Flawed processes and human biases can still get us to truths worth exalting.

    My thinking is that the truths of wilderness may not be as easy to script in formula as the truths of force and acceleration, but they are to be reckoned with as deeply. To see them through all lenses, to be full in the contemporary, if you will, to find that which is beyond our own subjective experience, is all the more beautiful.

  9. Adam says:

    Some very interesting thoughts and vital questions, Pete.
    I’m curious, where did your brother-in-law grow up? What’s his level of education and where was he educated? Where would you place him on the socioeconomic spectrum? What about you? I think these factors have much more to do with your shared truths of “wildness” than their apparent reality. I’ve no doubt you both feel certain things – you note a sense of the ineffable and appreciation for the aesthetics of the scene – but you feel these things because you have learned them, consciously and unconsciously, throughout the course of your life as have I. The same thing goes with your shared understanding of what makes a wild place and your ability to name its salient features. Are you familiar with Pierre Bourdieu? Much of his work deals with just this question of how learned attitudes, dispositions, taste, etc. are internalized by members of societies to the degree that they become self-evident and appear universal. You assume an essential shared understanding of the natural world. I would argue that this shared understanding is actually enculturation (for lack of a better word).
    I think you are correct when you state that an either/or approach to truth is a stark choice. I think that two people from different sides of the planet could stand in a place and agree (putting aside difficulties of shared language and all that entails) that certain physical aspects of it are “true”: the wind is blowing, its raining, there are many trees and large stones. But I think that what these might mean to these individuals could be radically different. So here we have both objective and subjective truths together. For an illustration of how this can play out I recommend Paul Nadasdy’s book Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon. Nadasdy examines cooperative wildlife management in the Yukon, and his analysis shows what can happen when certain seemingly objective truths, in this case the very nature of what an animal is, are taken as being universally self evident and essential.
    I think it is important to take this interrogation of the dominant paradigm of wilderness as far as it will go. Why? Well first, because this paradigm underpins much of the discourse on the Adirondacks, yet, as in the case discussed by Nadasdy, these philosophical, aesthetic and ideological valuations are not universally held. I think that if one spends time systematically talking about this to a broad swath of folks, you will find more than a few who do not share understanding of these essential “truths” of wildness. This discourse also informs policymakers and advocates, so it’s not just navel-gazing: there are real-world implications here. Now, I do not think that a sustained interrogation of this paradigm invalidates it at all, because for some people (I include myself here) it IS true. I share many of the same feelings and valuations you discuss in your Lost Brook Dispatches. However, my training pretty quickly leads me away from the notion that these valuations are somehow essential and shared by all humanity. I see concepts like “wild,” “primeval,” and “wilderness” as inextricably “culture-bound.” That doesn’t mean I think they are bad, or invalid, or lack utility. However, I do think it very important that when discussing these concepts (especially in the context of management or legislation) one needs to always be mindful that these concepts and their attendant valuations are not universal or essential.

  10. Paul says:

    “This new contour would be drawn through a rich variety of voices and imaginations by people who were not invited in centuries past to contribute to what has become our primary regional narrative. ”

    Thanks, I understand. I agree.

  11. Marianne Patinelli-Dubay says:

    Thanks Pete and Adam for continuing the conversation…

  12. Pete Nelson says:

    Once again a few parts due to the word limit…


    Thank you for the thoughtful and informative post. I’m curious about your field, you having referenced your training. My apologies for the length of this; I could see no way to be brief.

    I know an insignificant amount about Bourdieu; I appreciate the sociological basis of his approach as more relevant and more convincing than investigations that stray into philosophy and try to take hold there (Derrida comes to mind). With what little I remember of Bourdieu I think he is on solid ground with the importance of social mileau in aesthetics. You and I might not be in much disagreement on the point you are making.

    However I think there is a grave risk in taking the point too far. That I employ the word ‘essential’ more than a few times in my dispatches is no accident. My view is that my response to the wilderness I experience on the shore of Blue Mountain Lake is not merely a matter of enculturation, as you say – though that is part of the story to be sure. Rather I suggest that there are indeed essential qualities in wilderness that are independent of our individual subjective experience of them. Therefore these qualities are necessarily of great importance.

    At the risk sounding like we’re in Philosophy 101, I think we are blurring multiple lines of philosophical inquiry here, so let me try to be a little more specific. Basically I am saying that I am not an Epistemological Relativist. For want of a better description I would call myself an Epistemological Relationist. I think that neither extreme in the stark distinction between the relativist and the absolutist withstands philosophical muster. I contend that subjective experiences, relative judgments and sensory imperfections can still get us to essential truths about things.

    As a Relationist I am not terribly impressed with facts about objects, so agree with your point that the shared meaning of trees and stones is fraught with difficulty. From Berkely’s destruction of Locke right on through the continuing and fundamental problems with Reference of terms to objects, I am convinced that the fertile ground for truth is grounded in relationships between things, not their objective qualities.

    Whether one is a Relationist or not it seems to me that the idea of essential qualities in this context is hard to deny. It is a little crude to bring up Newton again, but in my calculus (excuse the pun) F = ma is essential even though we can’t really say what mass is and in fact the whole idea of mass-as-object breaks down. Whatever else one might say about F = ma it is essentially true, not subjectively true.

    Note by the way the” essential” is not the same thing as “universal”: F = ma is the former but certainly not the latter. I will leave universals to the absolutists.

  13. Pete Nelson says:

    Part Ii of III…

    As another example of what I’m after consider the ratio expressing the growth rate of the Fibonacci sequence, known as the golden ratio. Of course it has been hyped to the edge of oblivion in The DaVinci Code (can someone please object to that screed instead of my blog post about Sir John Johnson and cannons?) but its remarkable nature remains.

    Suppose you draw a series of rectangles whose length and width express different ratios: say base-to-height of 1 to 1, 1 to 2, 1 to 1.5 and so on. You include a rectangle whose ratio of height to base is proportionate to the golden ratio. You then ask a reasonably large group of observers – say twenty at least – a simple and beautiful question: which shape pleases you the most? Assuming the group is large enough to account for some variety of opinion with statistical significance, the rectangle constructed according to the golden ratio always wins. I do this experiment every semester with my students and have had a different outcome only once in twelve years, and that with a class of seven. Of course the Greeks knew this two thousand years ago and it has been used in architecture and art ever since.

    This outcome astounds me every time. It is no mere trifle of mathematics but a devastating challenge to the idea that aesthetics are purely subjective. There is something essential in that shape. By the way, my classes are a particularly diverse due to the nature of the institution at which I teach and I have seen no hint of difference in outcome related to gender, socioeconomic or cultural factors.

    I can imagine one might object by pointing out that the kinds of truths I posit as essential in these examples are obviously different than the “truths” I might claim exist about wilderness. After all, these examples have precision and are measurable. But I think that is a mistake and the fact that the golden ratio is pleasing is a marker on the way to seeing the error.

    Consider Beethoven played well. This is a harder one for me and certainly an easier one for you if you are going to argue with Bourdieu. Beethoven is the great exemplar of the white Male Western European musical tradition. You can’t get a more much persuasive social milieu than that! Yet I would argue that experience shows that there is something essential in Beethoven played well as opposed to, say, Beethoven played badly or Muzak played perfectly. If we are to say that the difference between Muzak and Beethoven is purely a matter of opinion we are lost. If we are to perhaps grudgingly admit the operative significance of the fact that Beethoven has been deemed by the culture as better – entailing the idea that he won a contest waged over history – but that all opinions about Beethoven and Muzak are equally valuable and perhaps in a different paradigm of cultural dominance Muzak would prevail… well, in my mind we are equally lost, as is all art.

    I take my wilderness as seriously as I take my Beethoven (or my Stevie Wonder, the genius, lest you peg me as an effete snob). I am in search of these essential qualities. I don’t think they are absolute or universal but I think we know them when we experience them and I think they cross cultural boundaries. I see them reflected, indeed revered, in all Native American cultures to which I’ve had any exposure. I see them reflected, if not revered, in Christian parable. I suspect a powerful biological link is operating, this idea given voice to by Jack London and his powerful message of the primitive. I see them reflected in my wife’s response to the woods, in my children and friends, in our Japanese exchange student Chieri, who had never been camping and whose cultural tradition is of entirely different cloth than mine.

  14. Pete Nelson says:

    Part III…

    Here’s the thing though: I wholeheartedly support both Marianne’s and your imperative to challenge the lens (lenses) through which we look at these questions. If I have ever created the impression that I am an apologist for the dominant 19th-century paradigm of the virile, self-sufficient wilderness male, let me disabuse you of that notion. The greater the variety and number of perspectives from which we come at these questions of wilderness – or Beethoven – or mathematical ratios, for that matter – the better, the more richly and fully we will grasp the essential things. And boy oh boy do we need those other perspectives.

    We ought to question all the dominant paradigms. Forget the 19th Century; in my work as a college mathematics teacher I have come square against them time and again. The dominant paradigm for teaching mathematics is white male all the way, make no mistake. I can enumerate the ways in which I have found this to be true. It has taken me years as a teacher to understand this at least a little bit, to help my female students and students of color to excel (most of my students are not white males)and to, for example, ponder pleasing rectangles.

    Yet for whatever humble successes I might have achieved in the classroom, I am highly unqualified to question dominant paradigms by myself, carrying as I do significant gender-related and cultural baggage. Frankly, Adam, I consider most of my truths to be fictions the moment they breach the confines of my internal narrative. Thus is it all the more important to me to try to understand and joyfully partake in what shared truths and essentials there might be. And so, such as wilderness might harbor these beautiful essentials, I write Dispatches from Lost Brook Tract and enter the fray in these discourses.

    I’m going to guess that I just bored the hell out of a lot of people with this. If you prefer to continue the discussion in private, shoot me an email at tearofclouds on gmail.



  15. Adam says:

    Thanks Pete, lots to think about here. I’ll be emailing you a response to spare others further boredom!

    To answer your initial question and make one last point, I’m an anthropologist. I don’t believe there are any essential human truths outside of those that can be proven objectively (like F=ma), only the structuring effects of culture and society. I’ve arrived at this viewpoint through extensive training in my discipline, engagement with a large body of ethnographic literature, and my own experiences working with people whose way of understanding the world is radically different from my own.

    Of course, I would never tell you that your viewpoints are wrong or that you need to change them, but I will do my best to illustrate my own views and why I think this way.