Wilderness Super Heroes

A new friend of mine, fellow Environmental-Historian-in-training, led by example this week, prompting me to a bit of courage.

An email went out recently for “Environmental Historians” to talk at the University’s History Society social event at a local pub.

Said friend (Code Name: Emboldener) mentioned she had signed up to speak and I felt convicted for my avoidance at doing so.  Without her perhaps knowing, she emboldened me to change course.  And I’m thankful to her for that.  I need all the prompting possible to think deeply about my topic and from all angles.

This was a very informal, friendly affair – a good place to start getting used to speaking in front of groups about what I am researching.  Since I’m only 3.5 weeks into my research however, I didn’t have anything all-too-academic to report quite yet.

Instead I spoke about some of the wilderness writers I’ve been reading about for my research, and attacked the presentation from more of a public outreach angle and also just had a little fun with it.

I’m also a nerd, so you know…this kind of mash up (see my presentation script below) comes with the territory…

I’m a first year Environmental History PhD student.  Since I’m only 3-weeks deep into my research, I don’t have much specifics to report yet, but thus far I have been spending a lot of time reading about the historical influence of wilderness writing.  I don’t know if it is because of the recent explosion of Marvel and DC Comic movies, or if I’m just desperate for a distraction…but I have come to see many authors that write about the outdoors as (what I like to call)  Wilderness Super Heroes.  They don’t have super powers per se, but their written words are indeed quite powerful in laying the foundation for environmentalism. 

Speaking of…instead of talking of “environmentalism,” I’ll be speaking of a more focused component of the larger movement  – the preservationist ethic.  The preservationist ethic  is a the mindset aimed to protect plants, animals, and their habitat for the future.

So this evening I’m going to introduce you to 3 Wilderness Super Heroes whose writing has been influential in the shaping of this preservationist ethic:  a Englishman, an American, and A Scottish-American.

First we meet Englishman William Wordsworth.  Wordsworth was an English Romantic poet, who was fiercely dedicated to poetically depicting the landscapes of his beloved Lakes District.  Wordsworth was also fiercely dedicated to protecting this same Lakes District from urban development.  In a series of poems and letters, Wordsworth protested against the extension of a railway planned to go deeper into the region.  His preservationist sentiments can be heard in this line from a poem he wrote in protest of the proposed railway: “…is no nook of English ground secure from rash assault?”   

Wordsworth’s alter ego is Batman.  Much like Batman’s devotion to protect his home of Gotham City, Wordsworth was devoted to protecting his home of the Lakes District.  Each had their own sense of justice – Batman towards fighting crime and Wordsworth towards fighting infrastructure development in pristine landscapes.  

Second, we meet American Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau is most noted for his semi-retreat to a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond in the state of Maine.  There he wrote his book Walden which reported on his life of simplicity and communion with Nature.  Thoreau’s preservationist sentiment is heard throughout his writings, especially in this quote – “We need the tonic of wildness.”

Thoreau’s alter ego is Iron Man. Iron Man is a sort of modern-day knight in technological armor, and Thoreau was a sort anti-conventionality knight in literary armor. Both were a little full of themselves at times, but ultimately were using their innovative armory to help the general public have the means to live more freely.  For Thoreau, this was a freedom to live more simply and intimately with nature. 

Finally we meet Scottish-American John Muir. Muir was born in Scotland (in a town not too far from here) but moved to the United States as a young boy.  Muir fell especially in love with the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the state of California and wrote extensive poetic prose on his time spent in the mountains.  He is noted especially for his protest against the building of the Hetch Hetchy Dam in Yosemite Valley and also for being one of the founding fathers of the US National Park Service.  This year, 2016, celebrates the centennial of the Park Service’s creation.  Muir’s preservationist sentiments bleeds throughout his writing, especially in quotes like this:  “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world.”

Muir’s alter ego is Spider Man.  Much like Spider Man, Muir is well remembered for his uncanny ability to climb things in seemingly impossible circumstances.  He wrote an essay about climbing a pine tree in a rain storm to experience the weather as the tree experienced it.  He also scrambled up the famous Cathedral Peak in Yosemite national park with no ropes and leather-soled shoes.  His spidy-like reflexes never betrayed him on any adventure.   

So, to review our tour of Wilderness Super Heroes, we’ve seen how a Englishman, and American, and a Scottish-American used their written word to promote the preservationist ethic.  These writings have become the scripture of modern preservationists, and might just become words you come to live by too.


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