BEFORE TAKING A BITE of James William Gibson‘s delicious new read, let me set the scene by revisiting a classic of enchantment that’s as fresh and evocative as ever, Thoreau’s Walden:
“We need the tonic of wilderness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”
I think this quote gets at the rather juicy heart of Gibson’s compelling and eminently readable Reenchanted World, published this spring by Metropolitan Books, a cautionary tale for the double aughts that judiciously includes a “Hope Renewed” coda.
GIBSON IS VERY GOOD at setting the scene, delivering tasteful slabs of environmental history, both politically and culturally speaking, from John Muir, Ansel Adams and Rachel Carson to Rick Bass, Julia Butterfly Hill and Whale Rider. With an eclectic selection of quotes and references, he paints a portrait of the great rift between those who believe in all beings living in harmony (kinship with nature) and those who believe in humanity’s dominance over animals and nature in general (e.g., “drill, baby, drill!”). The “culture of enchantment,” and increasingly “reenchantment,” Gibson says, strengthens this first group’s position and can bring others—those on the fence, indifferent or even on the other side—into the camp. Talk about a timely message!
A Reenchanted World covers a wide swath of turbulent ground: it’s more a choice sampler of battles-lines-drawn eco issues that you can further explore on your own, rather than a compendium of exhaustive inquiries into what went, and is going, wrong, who’s to blame and how we can make it right. I think this is a strength, and obviously a very conscious choice by Gibson, as it allows him to show you just what a wide array of opinions and viewpoints regarding nature have been out there, are out there and will be out there in the future; for instance, he considers the battle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Earth First! and the Glen Canyon Dam, Kodiak Island’s Grizzly Sanctuary, Pat Robertson and the environmental “New World Order” (transitioning to the “Left Behind” books), damaging exurban communities, the commercial transformation that has “profaned” Mount Everest and its surrounding area, the flooding of Hetch Hetchy and Gary Snyder’s clarion call in verse, Turtle Island:
The USA slowly lost its mandate
in the middle and later twentieth century
it never gave the mountains and rivers,
All the people turned away from it.
So enough already with the doom and gloom, strife and conflict, epic Manichean showdown between good vs. evil, etc. etc.! Gibson spends the last 30-odd pages showing how people are, under his rubric, “Fighting Back.” He points out how the proposal to open ANWR was defeated and other W-era challenges to the environment have been overturned by growing eco-conscious coalitions. Regarding the religious right, he observes how the Evangelical Environmental Network and National Association of Evangelicals have taken to environmental messaging with agendas such as “What Would Jesus Drive?” and “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” Public advocacy, Gibson reports, is also recording a sizable uptick: he sites the betterment of wetlands, grasslands, urban rivers and harbors, native wildlife and the buzz around biodiversity as prime examples.
Gibson also draws from the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, released in 2005. While its news was hardly a teddy-bear picnic, it did include this phrase of cultural enchantment: “Appreciation of the natural world is an important part of what makes us human.” And driving the point home, Gibson says, “The culture of enchantment is flowering now because it meets a human need for transcendence and connection to the natural world. […] The culture of enchantment has kindled people’s interest in other creatures, helped them empathize with animals, made them want to see lands and oceans preserved. It has opened people’s imaginations, and in doing so it has changed the political climate. The spread of enchantment means that the environmental movement and its allies can now shift their strategy from defense to offense.”
I read this as a wonderful return to Thoreau’s idea of being “refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features,” and an inherent “need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” Bravo, Henry David Thoreau! and bravo, James William Gibson, with A Reenchanted World!