The Art of Wildness

The quote, from Henry David Thoreau, often goes: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Turns out Thoreau had been misheard. The real line is: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Our guest Jedediah Purdy, author of After Nature, says Thoreauvian wildness is exactly what our post-natural world requires. Purdy likes a new term, the anthropocene, to describe a geological age of our own making — one in which no place is untouched by human activity. And so, Purdy says, this new age needs a new program, beyond the Paris mandates, the carbon offsets, and clean-tech investments. More urgently, we need a radically different sensibility.


In other words, we should learn to listen better — cultivate a deeper, more direct way of understanding ourselves and the landscape, toward a more participatory, more global politics. As Purdy says, “We’ve got to create that circuit between inside and outside in this wrecked world that we’ve made, if we’re going to be moved to participate in its healing and its improvement and its change.”

Along with John Luther Adams, the minimalist composer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Become Ocean, and Janet Echelman, the world-renowned sculptor and urban designer, we’re re-imagining the environmental crisis in the wake of the accord in Paris. The economists had their turn. Now we’re asking: What would the artists do?

enviro artLeft: scale models of Janet Echelman’s artwork at her studio in Brookline. Right: Chris with John Luther Adams outside John’s apartment in Harlem.

Music From The Show: John Luther Adams

  • Illimaq (with Glenn Kotche) (2015)

Special thanks to Veronica Barron for her readings from Thoreau’s journal. Thanks also to Anne Callahan. Feature image, of Janet Echelman’s “As If It Were Already Here,” a temporary installation over the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, by Michael J. Lutch.


Guest List
John Luther Adams
composer and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music
Jedediah Purdy
professor of law at Duke and author, most recently of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene
Janet Echelman
Boston-based artist, sculptor, and recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship. Her TED talk is called "Taking Imagination Seriously."
Reading List
In Defense of Thoreau
Jedediah Purdy
Henry David Thoreau

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  • Cambridge Forecast


    Remember the famous naturalist John Muir’s

    “Who publishes the sheet-music of
    the winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines?”

    and Muir’s deep meditativeness:

    “The clearest way into the Universe is
    through a forest wilderness.”

    – John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir,
    (1938), page 313.

    This charming ROS program also reminded me
    of the whole tradition of “deep ecology”

    and the Gaia Hypothesis.

    1.“The phrase “deep ecology” was
    coined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss
    in 1973.[4] Næss
    rejected the idea that beings can be ranked according to their relative value.
    For example, judgments on whether an animal has an eternal soul, whether it uses reason or whether
    it has consciousness (or indeed higher consciousness) have all been used to
    justify the ranking of the human animal as superior to other animals. Næss states that
    from an ecological point of view “the right of all forms [of life] to live
    is a universal right which cannot be quantified. No single species of living
    being has more of this particular right to live and unfold than any other

    This metaphysical
    idea is elucidated in Warwick Fox’s claim that humanity and all other beings
    are “aspects of a single unfolding reality”.[5] As
    such Deep Ecology would support the view of Aldo
    Leopold in his book A Sand County Almanac that humans are
    “plain members of the biotic community”. They also would support
    Leopold’s “Land Ethic”: “a thing is right when it tends
    to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic
    community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Daniel Quinn in Ishmael
    showed that an anthropocentric myth underlies our current view of the world.[6]

    Deep ecology offers a philosophical basis
    for environmental advocacy which may, in turn, guide human activity against
    perceived self-destruction. Deep ecology and environmentalism
    hold that the science of ecology shows that ecosystems
    can absorb only limited change by humans or other dissonant influences. Further,
    both hold that the actions of modern civilization threaten global ecological
    well-being. Ecologists have described change and stability in ecological
    systems in various ways, including homeostasis,
    dynamic equilibrium, and “flux of
    Regardless of which model is most accurate, environmentalists[citation
    needed] contend that massive human economic activity has
    pushed the biosphere
    far from its “natural” state through reduction of biodiversity, climate
    change, and other influences. As a consequence, civilization is causing mass
    extinction, at a rate of between 100 species a day, or possibly 140,000
    species per year, a rate that is 10,000 times the background rate of


    2. “The Gaia hypothesis, also known as Gaia
    theory or Gaia principle, proposes that organisms
    interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating,
    system that helps to maintain the conditions for life on the planet.
    Topics of interest include how the biosphere
    and the evolution
    of life forms affect the stability of global
    temperature, ocean salinity, oxygen in the atmosphere and other
    environmental variables that affect the habitability of Earth.

    The hypothesis was formulated by the
    chemist James Lovelock and co-developed by the microbiologist
    Margulis in the 1970s. The hypothesis was initially criticized for being teleological
    and contradicting principles of natural
    selection, but later refinements resulted in ideas framed by the Gaia
    hypothesis being used in fields such as Earth system science, biogeochemistry,
    ecology, and the emerging subject of geophysiology.
    Nevertheless, the Gaia hypothesis continues to attract criticism, and today
    some scientists consider it to be only weakly supported by, or at odds with,
    the available evidence. In 2006, the Geological Society of London awarded
    Lovelock the Wollaston Medal in part for his work on the Gaia


    You should go back and enjoy Christoper
    Lydon’s luminous/numinous sessions with the naturalist Bernd Heinrich:

    Lastly: I assume that the movie “Into the
    Wild” is a tragic version of naturalism:

    “Into the Wild is a 2007 American biographical
    drama survival film written and directed by Sean Penn.
    It is an adaptation of the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name by Jon
    Krakauer based on the travels of Christopher McCandless across North
    America and his life spent in the Alaskan wilderness
    in the early 1990s.”


    I have not seen this movie and therefore
    cannot delve into it nor have I read the relevant Wallace Stegner books. One
    also thinks of the novelist Peter Matthiessen, co-founder of the “Paris Review,”
    who died in 2014.

    Richard Melson

  • Per Hedfors

    The whole idea of “post-Natural” is sick, sorry to say! Please, come to insight of being part of Nature. I can explain if there is interest.
    Per Hedfors
    Landscape architect (AgrD)

  • What we needed is exactly what John Todd started @ 40 years ago at the Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod and again with the PEI Ark.

    Why didn’t we go in that direction?
    You can’t create wealth without wasteful exploitation and what is so great about wealth?
    Social status – as long as humans crave social status, there cannot be a substantive change in direction.

    John Todd
    Sun, Wind and Wood
    The film highlights one such project named the Ark. Using natural systems only, this bio-shelter ingeniously provides housing, heat, food and electricity for an entire family.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The contemporary classic “The Song of the Earth” by Jonathan Bate published by Harvard University 2002 explores “ecopoetics” and “ecopoeisis.”

    The surround sound of nature gives us meaning and pace:

    “metre itself-a quiet but persistent music, a recurring cycle, a heartbeat-is an answering to
    nature’s own rhythms, an echoing of the song of the earth itself.”

    This book by Bate is a manifesto for the urgency of ‘ecopoetics’:

    Chapters are as follows: 1.Going, Going 2. The State of Nature
    3. A Voice for Ariel 4. Major Weather 5. The Picturesque Environment 6. Nests,
    Shell, Landmarks 7. Poets, Apes and Other Animals 8. The Place of Poetry 9.
    What are Poets For?

    ‘Major Weather’ in some quite startling and original ways, charts the influence of climate on
    writing . The centre piece of the chapter is a reading of Keat’s ‘Ode to Autumn’ as a ‘weather poem’, resembling ‘a well-regulated ecosystem’:

    “As Bate observes, Wordsworth and Coleridge published their seminal
    “Lyrical Ballads” in the same year that Thomas Malthus sounded his (premature)
    warnings of overpopulation. Likewise, he notes how changed global weather
    patterns resulting from a volcanic eruption could inspire both Byron’s
    “Darkness” and Keats’s “To Autumn.” Amplifying on his astute readings of these poets, as well as Austen, Bishop, Hardy, Larkin and Stevens, Bate formulates his own idea of “ecopoesis,” a poetics of human habitation within nature, instead of pastoralism’s facade. Poetry, in
    effect, imagines locally and inspires globally for Bate.”


    This resonates with Alex Ross piece highlighted as part of this ROS show.

    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    Such a pleasure to listen to this show ( I am on my third go-around). It does all begin with listening and taking the time. We rush so much of our lives “getting and spending” and working. This is the lesson of Thoreau. Mr. Purdy was excellent. The music sounds like bird wings in flight as the image of the Wood Thrush comes with it’s transporting sound. That sound transported me to a much calmer place so many years ago and then again. It was a background sound at the time but imprinted nevertheless. So blueberry picking in the Catskill mountains in high summer comes to mind when the moment was a lot more important.

    Thank you.

    Best Wishes for 2016

    • Potter

      Birdsong is a wonder. Now the forest is pretty silent, the songbirds have left or they are gone for good. You can still hear the chickadees, finches and sparrows plus the squirrel arguing, perhaps with a stray cat below. But in summer the songbirds high in the trees really give a sense of the lay of the land below, the echoes and reverberations. Slowing climate change does build down to individuals changing and it starts with valuing what we have now still.

      Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, great lyrics