The Wild Bunch: A Conversation with Curt Meine and Gavin Van Horn

An acorn propped up by its root, which stills into a green moss-covered slope.

The cover of "Wildness: Relations of People and Place," edited by Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer (University of Chicago Press, 2017).What does it mean to be wild in times of rising global temperatures and rampant social inequality? Is wildness rural or urban? Is it something to be embraced, even cultivated, or feared and rejected as a Western colonialist intellectual construct? Is wildness a revolutionary politics, or something more reformist, even centrist? These are some of the questions at the heart of an important new volume of essays, Wildness: Relations of People and Place, recently published by the University of Chicago Press.

I spoke with Gavin Van Horn, the director of the Cultures of Conservation program at the Center for Humans & Nature who, along with John Hausdoerffer, edited and contributed to Wildness. Curt Meine, conservation biologist, historian, and writer, joined me in the second half of the show to discuss the beautiful essay of his that appears in Wildness. Our discussion ranged widely—from ethics to literary aesthetics, commuting via kayak to Norwegian bachelor famers.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Daegan Miller: I want to begin with a bit of an admission. I became aware of you through Twitter. About a year ago, you posted pictures of kayak-to-work day. I saw what looked like a wilderness river, with green herons and all sorts of other creatures. It turned out to be the Chicago River, and there you were in your kayak with a shirt and tie on. It seemed totally incongruous, totally interesting, and then I read Wildness and it all kind of made sense. So how did you come to edit this book, and why this book?

A man in a blue and green necktie poses for a selfie in the middle of a river with an urban skyline in the background.

The urban kayaker heads to work on the Chicago River. Self portrait by Gavin Van Horn, September, 2016.

Gavin Van Horn: The kayak-to-work day was kind of a lark. It was a fun way of drawing attention to these different corridors we have throughout the city—not just the greenways, but the “blueways” as well. I had purchased an inflatable kayak and started to explore the city as my way of getting to know this place better. The great thing about waterways is that they concentrate life. The Chicago River has been much abused in the past, but it’s on the mend. While it’s still not the best idea to jump in the water, you can float on it. Certainly other species have re-inhabited that waterway. There’s the heron trifecta of great blue herons, black crown night herons, and green herons. There are beavers. And about two weeks ago I saw a mink for the first time. So even rare animals that have been extripated from this area are coming back. The biodiversity of those areas is increasing, and I like that people who are only a few feet away on walking paths, or the road, or even on a highway, have no idea that this concentration of life, all of this energy, is down there.

Part of the reason I wanted to put Wildness together was to draw attention to that. For me, now living in an urban area, it was important to open some eyes to the fact that our urban areas are also multi-species communities and full of wildness, one end of the continuum of wildness. They can be very special places connecting us to the larger community of life and transporting us to other places that are connected along that continuum.

DM: One of the things that distinguishes this book is that there’s not a lot about traditional wilderness. Most of these essays are about cities or farm fields or places that are inhabited by people. You mentioned “the continuum of wildness.” What do you mean by that?

GV: Curt Meine uses that language with a PowerPoint slide showing different landscapes—from a big city out into the hinterlands of a remote mountain holdfast. In between are the suburbs, the exurbs, rural lands, ranching lands. So it follows the spectrum of human density. This is the landscape continuum. All of these things are connected. The country creates the city; the city creates the country. (That’s also an argument William Cronon makes in Nature’s Metropolis.) Though we might be tempted—because of the environmental narratives of the 1960s and 1970s—to think of urban areas as devoid of wildness and meaningful experience in the natural world, nature doesn’t stop at the city limits. It is threaded throughout our densest urban environments. So that continuum is something we wanted to present in the book by laying out different stories across the landscape wherever people are connecting to these larger natural forces.

DM: One of the other things that sets this book apart from other books on wilderness and wildness is that there’s a tremendous diversity. Mistinguette Smith has a wonderful essay on the African American notion of the wild and wilderness. You’ve got a number of people hailing from American Indian backgrounds and Mexican-American backgrounds. Vandana Shiva is a contributor. One of my favorite essays, by Devon G. Peña, comes out with a native/Marxist/anarchist sensibility. But alongside this diversity there’s also a tension in the book, a really productive tension around the definition of wildness. So, what is wildness? As an editor, how do you balance all these views?

GVH: Differentiating between wildness and wilderness is an easy place to start. Wilderness is a place, while wildness is a process. Wildness is usually associated with self will (the etymological roots of the term). But that only takes it so far. I’ll explain it with an example—maybe a silly one, maybe not. Think of an individual acorn. It’s a wild thing. The potential for wildness in that seed is great: it could grow into an oak tree. But an individual oak tree needs the processes of the community to achieve its “oakiness.” It needs sunlight and water and soil microbes and possibly fire to open up and to thrive within a larger system. So, an individual doesn’t find full expression unless the health of the community and the health of the natural areas go hand in hand. Wildness is a process which is a fundamental life force that flows through all things. It can occur across any landscape type and geographical range.

Dozens of tiny trees emerge from acrons sitting atop soil in black plastic planters.

Oak seedlings emerging from acorns at the Greenbelt Native Plant Center on Staten Island, New York. Photo by Kristine Paulus, June 2014.

But it’s also important to emphasize depth in place: wildness as kinship, as a relational quality. We are connected to the natural world deeply, from the microbes in our bodies to the atmosphere. We are kin with other things. One of the essayists in the book, Enrique Salmon, is a Tarahumara Indian from northern Mexico. He’s an ethnobotanist and now teaches in California. One of the terms he uses to describe his people’s understanding of the plants they have relationship to is a “kincentric” landscape. He lives in a world of kin, of relatives, where other beings have agency and subjectivity, and are incorporated into the stories and myths. They’re understood as having mirror relations with certain human phases of life. That encompasses the term wildness for me.

DM: There are many aesthetics on display in the book. You’ve got a bunch of poetry. (It actually starts off a poem by Gary Snyder.) You’ve got a lot of creative nonfiction, some traditional journalism, and it ends with a thought-provoking interview between your co-editor John Hausdoerffer and Roderick Frazier Nash. The only form that I didn’t see was the academic article. Is there some connection between the aesthetics of the book and some notions of wild?

GV: It’s true we didn’t intend to create an academic book about wildness. Storytelling, and encouraging our authors to further elaborate on the personal or emotionally compelling moments showing what wildness means to them, was important to us. So, you’re right: the diversity of approaches does reflect a wrangled, out-of-controlness just beyond the fringes. It’s an encouragement to readers to think about what their instances of wildness are. John Hausdoerffer really wrestles with this in his essay when he visits the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota for their wild rice ceremony. He recognizes that they regard rice as essential to the continuance of their culture, not just for feeding people. Culturally, it matters and is defining the people in some ways. So, he asks, “What is my rice?” For John, who is from Colorado, he decides it is the snow pack on the mountains that forms the melting spring water and feeds all of the valley. His rice is ice. That’s his self-discovery or exploration. His protecting the ice is protecting the wildness of his place. Each of us would do well to think about what our rice, or our ice, is in our place. What is that which is defining the ecology, the natural and the human communities? What keeps them in concert with one another and helps them flourish in the long haul?

A landscape photo of a lake at sunset with yellow-brown reeds sticking up out of the water.

Wild rice growing in Minnesota’s Itasca Lake. Photo by Brett Waley, October 2013.

DM: Your piece, Curt, “The Edge of Anomaly,” describes Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, where the glacier came south and then turned, avoiding the region. You make the argument that the people who who have lived in the Driftless also have had to make a turn. Your whole essay turns on turning, having to go the less obvious route. Is there some hope for you in that?

A man in a blue shirt and black vest holds his fingers to his shoulder while smiling.

Curt Meine. Photo by the Center for the Study of Ethics, April 2013.

Curt Meine: There is. I glad you picked up on that. This layered term, “turning,” is very literal but also very metaphorical. The characteristic sight in the steeper regions of the Driftless is the contours on the land that were instituted starting in the 1930s to address the problems arising with terrible, epic-scale soil erosion. It really required a literal change in the way the farmers and other landowners were using the land. It required turning—a literal turn on the landscape but also a turn of mind and even a turn of the spirit to say that we can’t just go on doing the things that we used to do in straight lines that we thought proper. We have to adjust our life ways, our ways of earning livings, and our appreciating our landscape by looking to the land and listening to the land itself. We had to ask what the land requires of us if we’re going to provide a sustainable way of being here for ourselves, and for all the other living beings and processes in the landscape. So, the people in this region have come to learn how to adapt and listen to the voice of wildness, the inherent quality of the land, the water, the plants and animals—the larger land community that Aldo Leopold spoke of. Here I include not just the modern Americans or the settlers but also the native folks who have their own 12,000-year history of adjusting to this landscape with complications and complexities that we cannot even begin to understand. Part of coming to terms with that wildness and the turning is also about facing our own ignorance.

DM: One of the tensions that I saw in the book is over the notion of control. There are a couple of essays about bio-hacking and perennial grains and bio-mimicry as a way to get industrial processes to perfectly replicate natural processes. Then there is Pena’s Marxist-Anarchist essay praising mutual aid and criticizing hierarchy. It’s all about a lack of control, arguing that it is inefficiency which drives biodiversity. How does control figure into your notion of wildness?

CM: The first thing that comes to mind is the roots of the word wild: the self-willed capacity of wild things. Again, it’s a matter of degrees. That domesticated cow, or your own cat and dog, or the corn plant growing in the 2,000-acre Iowa cornfield—they all have deep evolutionary roots. They have coevolved with communities of plants and animals and people more recently. So, there is a greater degree of self-willedness even in the most domesticated of our modern organisms, or ourselves, even. We tend to think of domestication as controlling, as opposed to coevolving, because we do have, especially in recent decades, greater tools to allow us the illusion of controlling more and more. But to what degree are we in control of anything? We seek to control, but what lesson do we always learn? It backfires on us. It may not be noted right away; it may not backfire in an epic manner. But there are certainly feedbacks in our relationship. If we don’t recognize that reciprocity, it lands us in a pathological situation.

Part of coming to terms with wildness is about facing our own ignorance.

Instead of thinking of the Anthropocene as the crowning achievement of our human tenure on this Earth, we need to understand that we are always crossing thresholds in terms of human impacts on the globe. It’s a cautionary tale. Humility, generosity, and even the realization of uncertainty are the most appropriate human responses we can have. Control is the opposite of generosity. You are involved in a relationship of give and take. Anytime we engage in a relationship with a more wild thing, we are changed in that process, too. Therefore, the question is: in the process of domesticating or “making more human,” what are we doing to ourselves? What are we losing and gaining in that exchange?

DM: If there’s a thinker standing behind this book, it’s Aldo Leopold. I write a lot about Thoreau, who wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” But Thoreau doesn’t show up much in here all. Why Leopold?

CM:  I noted that too. Leopold does suggest himself in a number of these essays. There are a few reasons. He’s a bit more contemporary. There are living people who knew him well and his legacy is embedded in our contemporary institutions and areas of scholarship. And his legacy is, literally, on the landscape. He was a working conservationist, not only a writer and a thinker. He was a practitioner and a pragmatist.

A man holding a bow with a quiver of arrows on his back sits on a rocky outcorop looking down over a expansive vista.

Aldo Leopold looking over the Rio Gavilan region of the northern Sierra Madre. Photo from the U.S. Forest Service, c. 1936.

There’s also the breadth of his legacy. In conservation, we don’t have anyone like Leopold, historically, who combined all the different dimensions of conservation—private lands and public lands, ethics and economics, and education. I could go on and on. But he’s the only figure in our history who has both a wilderness area and a center for sustainable agriculture named after him. He was a key figure in the origins of what we now call sustainable agroecology. That linkage between the wildness and the domesticated, between wilderness and the agriculture—Leopold was the only one who not only wrote, argued, and fought for advances in those areas but also saw the connections between them. He saw them as parts of the same conservation vision. So, it has been a mission of mine over the years to try to deconstruct simplistic views of Leopold. He was not just protecting wild places and wild things. He definitely did that—until the morning he died—but he also worked in a college of agriculture right here in Madison. He struggled with how to integrate the people who worked on the land and how to view the land from an economic standpoint, in order to find a healthy way of living within the land.

He haunts these essays because we are facing the struggle that Leopold pondered over at the end of his life. I am dedicated to demystifying Leopold, bring him down from the pedestal. He struggled with these things (just like we are struggling right now) and he made mistakes along the way. He came to his conclusions, but they were always tentative. He was always reworking them. Especially in the last few years, in his full maturity, you see that generosity emerging in his own writing. That’s the voice you know, in A Sand County Almanac. That gentle and encouraging voice (but with a spine of steel in it). So, in a sense we are catching up to Leopold, since we are trying to work beyond the polarities we are subjected to. In other ways, we are trying to go beyond him because we know so much more about how the world works ecologically. But he invites you into that conversation. Leopold did not see his land ethic as his land ethic. He understood it as a collective product of a culture and now we are enriching it so much more, by drawing on so many more different traditions, ethics, religions, belief systems—indigenous and global. We are all trying to find out ways to understand our ever-changing circumstances. He had some answers for his time. But he encourages us to make space for wildness in our heads, our hearts, and our landscape.

Featured image: An acorn sends its radicle into the soil at Maryland’s Gambrill State Park. Photo by Brian Hefele, October 2010.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission. 

Curt Meine is a conservation biologist, environmental historian, and writer. He is the co-editor, with Keefe Keeley, of the new book The Driftless Reader (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017). He wrote the first book-length biography of Aldo Leopold, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988) as well Correction Lines: Essays on Land, Leopold, and Conservation (Island Press, 2004). He is also the editor of Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Conservation and Ecology (Library of America, 2013) and  Wallace Stegner and the Continental Vision: Essays on Literature, History, and Landscape (Island Press, 1997). He is Senior Fellow with both the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Center for Humans & Nature and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Contact

Daegan Miller is a writer and landscape historian. He received his Ph.D. in American history from Cornell University, and was an A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His work has appeared in a variety of venues, including the American Historical Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3:AM Magazine, and Environmental Humanities. His first book, This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the spring of 2018. His last contribution to Edge Effects was “On Care in Dark Times” (April 2016). Website. Twitter. Contact.

Gavin Van Horn is Director of Cultures of Conservation at the Center for Humans & Nature. He is the co-editor of two volumes, City Creatures: Animal Encounters in Chicago’s Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and the author of the forthcoming book The Channel Coyotes: Otherworlds of the Urban Wild from the University of Chicago Press. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from the University of Florida and a Master of Divinity Degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. Website. TwitterContact.

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