Contemplating Middle Ground

IMG_2959The lake that I was contemplating sat in a miniature cirque perched high above the valley floor. From my vantage point on an 11,000’ peak on the other side of the valley, I could not see any way to easily walk to the lake. In front, the green meadow surrounding the aqua pool led to precipitous drops to the valley floor; equally steep cliffs rose behind. Even to get to those challenging scrambles a person would have to wade through miles of forest, most likely filled with down timber. I suspect it has been a very long time since any human has visited that idyllic alpine lake – or for that matter, many of the nearby verdant meadows or grassy ridges perched inaccessibly at the top of treacherous rock faces.

But what I was contemplating was not how to get to that lake, but the exquisite isolation from humanity that it was. More precisely, I was mulling over how that fit with a concept of Middle Ground.

I am currently wrestling with an essay that revolves around that very subject: Middle Ground. In my thinking, Middle Ground is a meeting ground of human and non-human, a place where both people and wild life exist – wild in the sense of species not put there for human use or harvest who live out an undomesticated life. Wendell Berry in his 1987 essay “Preserving Wildness” supports this way of thinking about Middle Ground when he writes of the “recovery of culture and nature,” saying that “In this double recovery which is the recovery of our humanity, is the hope that the domestic and the wild can exist together in lasting harmony.” In contrast, I shrink from environmental historian William Cronon’s statement in “The Trouble with Wilderness” (Environmental History, 1996): “The middle ground is where we actually live. It is where we – all of us, in our different places and ways – make our homes.” No, I do not believe that all of us humans live in Middle Ground. I cannot think of a place like Shanghai with some 24 million people as Middle Ground — or even the sprawl of a small city like Missoula, Montana, population 66,000+ and growing, as Middle Ground. A human conglomeration of millions of people is an extreme, one end of the spectrum.

So what I agree with in Cronon’s paper is the statement that “we need to embrace the full continuum of a natural landscape that is also cultural, in which the city, the suburb, the pastoral, and the wild each has its proper place.” Which means that if Middle Ground is to exist at all, we need to keep the full continuum, including places thoroughly non-human. Otherwise, Middle Ground – a place where people and wild both exist – is no longer Middle. It becomes the far end of the spectrum, on the less-dominated side opposite from Shanghai, the continuum cut off.  Places where humans don’t and never have dominated slip off the map, off the planet – along with all the habitat and spirit and wild they possess.

Yet, it is important to note that even on the wild end of the spectrum where lands approach “untrammeled” by people, even in those remote places, the animals, the plants, the water and air are all affected by human doings. And, it is a management decision – a human choice – to protect lands from development or exploitation, to create Wilderness Areas or other reserves. And so such management decisions must be made, or this becomes purely a lopsided anthropocentric planet.

The papers I’ve quoted by Cronon and Berry were published decades ago, yet their messages are still pertinent today. And I’d like to think a Middle Ground in Berry’s sense of the domestic and the wild sharing space could exist. There are communities making an effort in this direction. I’ve seen it in the Highlands of Scotland (the setting for my essay) where in a recent conversation we agreed that animal husbandry and biodiversity – pastoral life and wild life – can coexist. At the same time, it is nice to look out over a land that never has been dominated by humans and remains as such – there on the far end of the spectrum.

Someday I would like to visit that lake tucked high up into the mountain slopes. I would simply like to sit for a minute by the cold clear water and be in that place. I doubt I will ever go there – mostly because I would rather look at it from the top of that peak across the way and let myself believe that no modern human has ever set foot at that small spot on the planet. But I suspect a lot of mountain goats and bighorn sheep have grazed along the lake’s shore.


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