Saturday, January 31, 2009

Examining Hawa'ii: More Than Just a Formal Wilderness

As the daughter of a botanist/horticulturist, I’ve always been a little more aware of the flora that surrounds us, both cultivated and ‘wild.’ Even my name, Leilani, Hawaiian for “heavenly flower,” reflects a native culture’s relationship with nature. Growing up in Maui, Hawa’ii and Fayetteville, Arkansas also helped shape the way I view both nature and wilderness, as both states are known for their pristine environments; Arkansas even goes so far as to proclaim itself as “The Natural State.”

In Hawa’ii, the wilderness is not a faraway place, a rain forest was my backyard and mango trees grew outside my front door. The people of Hawa’ii are in a unique position, they live year-round in what most consider to be a “tropical paradise.” The local economy depends on tourism and the maintenance of the white sands and azure waters, so the residents of Hawa’ii must serve as stewards of nature.

(Photos of downtown Lahaina and the Maui Mall in Kahului).

As you could probably tell by the title of this blog, the idea of a “formal wilderness” in Gary Snyder’s introduction to The Practice of the Wild caught my attention because it has traditionally shaped the way most Americans view nature.

Formal wilderness refers to the American (and arguably Western) idea of the wilderness as a harsh extreme—the dryness and heat of the desert or the frozen slopes of mountain ranges. Wilderness, in this view, is impenetrable, uninhabited and pristine. When boundaries are placed on wilderness, in the form of state/federal parks and reserves, it becomes a near mythical place that exists apart from our everyday existence—a place to be both revered and feared. These formal wilderness areas only make up 2 percent of land in the U.S. so what of the other 98 percent? Synder argues against the idea that wilderness can only be found within these prescribed areas; it can be found in our own backyards, and indeed in ourselves; as animals, we are wild.

Throughout history the term “wild” has carried a negative connotation—Snyder describes it as traditionally being associated with “unruliness, disorder and violence” and thus seen as a threat to civilized societies. It’s also defined by what it is not: uninhabited, without cultivation, undomesticated. This human view of the wild reflects a fear of seeming chaos and also the compulsion to organize the natural world by a systematic structure. The formal wilderness then conveniently corrals “the wild” into easily definable boundaries drawn by humans.

Snyder seems to idealize cultures that live in concert with the land (ie Native Americans) and also describes various Eastern religions that emphasize an extreme form of asceticism; to be closer to understanding nature people live outside of established civilization and give up everyday comforts like cooked food and a structured home. So how do we find a middle ground between the formal wilderness and living completely outside of society? Hawa’ii stands as an example of this gray area where the people actually live in this wilderness but also have tamed it in a way that allows for a highway to run alongside the Pacific Ocean. In Hawa’ii what can be considered boundaries between nature and humans come in the form of nets, they cover the rocky sides of cliffs that overlook heavily trafficked roads to prevent the crushing of a car by an rogue boulder; nets also appear 20 feet from shore to apprehend any sharks that might stray too close to swimmers.

(The first photograph I ever took--At the age of 4 I took this shot of a rainbow while standing on the backporch of my 2-story home in Haiku, Maui. The land you see is my backyard and the ocean is just beyond our property.)

While Hawa’ii would be considered more wild than most towns and cities in America, it still struggles to find a balance between preserving its most precious commodity, nature, and providing contemporary amenities like shopping malls and resort hotels to both tourists and residents. The islands are also not what they used to be before the Industrial Revolution, when American companies like Dole cleared the land to plant crops like pineapples and sugar cane. Snyder describes how by the 16th century, many areas of the world became ecologically impoverished—people no longer had personal knowledge of animal behavior and plants, they traded this knowledge of the wild for rhetorical and human management skills that helped them to navigate human society. While being an island chain isolated Hawa’ii and staved off this change a little longer than the rest of the world, it’s inevitable that as a population advances and gets more specialized, that a majority of the people will lose this knowledge of the wild.

In the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, it describes a prevailing idea about human nature and trying to understand it by finding a pure human, this source shifted from the noble savage to a child to a peasant. By finding this unadulterated source, it was thought that we could find the source of our thoughts and impulses and what would constitute a collective consciousness. In present-day Hawa’ii there’s few people that could be considered either a noble savage or peasant, they may live in more wild areas, but they buy their swordfish from the grocery store, rather than fishing it from the sea. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to find any sort of ultimate truth by examining an unadulterated human, even if we were able to find a source.

What lessons can we learn from Hawa’ii? I believe Snyder would approve of how 20 years before the green movement, residents of Hawa’ii were already mindful of the environment—we used cloth bags for our groceries, solar panels topped the roofs of homes and warmed our water and we practiced conservation by taking five-minute showers. Legal measures have been taken by the government to protect air from the smoke and fumes of the sugar cane factories. New construction, especially near beaches and other natural features, has been more restricted and indigenous wildlife enjoy protection.

After reading both articles and examining the culture of Hawa’ii I conclude with this: We need to re-define wilderness or re-examine the way we see it, live in it rather than fence it off, accept our place in the order rather than attempting to re-structure wilderness according to our own needs and ideas of it.

(Photo of the Hana Highway in Maui. Photo by Tom Vadnais.)

1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting post. The Hawaiian Islands are relatively small in comparison to the lower 48. Do you think people take an interest in conservation and preservation because they are aware of how little space they have? If Chicagoans suddenly had to dispose of their waste in Chicago proper, I bet we would change our behaviors very quickly.