Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Hard green, soft green

"In wildness is the preservation of the world," wrote Henry David Thoreau in one of his more self-indulgent moments, and environmentalists never tire of quoting him. Into the woods, they urge. That's where we'll find salvation.

"Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps," wrote Thoreau, but he was glad to get back to good old civilized Concord after a sojourn in the Maine woods.

Wallace Kaufman was by for a visit the other day. Back in the late 1960s, inspired by the first great flowering of green politics, Kaufman bought 330 acres of forested land in North Carolina with the idea of creating a whole community of little Waldens, including one for himself.

He built a road into the forest, doing his best to save the fine old trees, then wrote covenants for prospective purchasers that would keep the place wild -- no chemical pesticides or serious tree-cutting, that sort of thing. Soon he was the "mayor of Hippie Town," according to the yuppie folks in nearby Chapel Hill.

On his own corner of the 330 acres, he built a house and settled in. Like Thoreau, he went into the woods "to live deliberately," communing with nature, washing his spirit in the wild -- and he stayed 15 times longer than Thoreau resided at Walden.

Kaufman recounted his experiences in a book called Coming Out of the Woods. It would be a shame to spoil the reading by retelling his adventures. Suffice it to say that green dreams met practical realities, and what came out of the clash was less quaking swamp than quaking principles.

Copperheads in the crawl space, squirrels in the eaves, and deer in the bean patch: Kaufman tried his best to accommodate them all, but found that human and creaturely interests don't always mesh. Then came Hurricane Fran, roaring up his valley and knocking down all those grand old trees he had tried so hard to protect.

"Nature had been no kinder to this forest than God was to Job," he muses in his book. "She would as soon make maggot meat out of a squishy little human being as offer him or her a fine view."

This is the lesson Kaufman drew from his experience: "Nowhere is nature a Garden of Eden. Whenever consciousness dawned in the human brain, our ancestors found themselves in a wilderness. They set about conquering its dangers. They began to reshape it with Eden as their model. They knew, in those days before romantic illusions, that if nature was ever to be a friend to humankind, they would have to command it to be so."

We did not come from Eden, but we can go there, wrote Kaufman. With humility, optimism and restraint, we can devise a world in which humans and the wild achieve some sort of accommodation. Science and technology will be part of the equation. Thoreau had it backwards: In civilization is the preservation of the wild.