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Rethinking the Rhetoric of Wilderness

October 7, 2017

The time has come for us to rethink the Chesapeake. Why and how should we do such rethinking?

Both Wendell Berry (“Preserving Wildness”) and William Cronon (“The Trouble with Wilderness”) make an argument for rethinking wilderness form the perspective of a “middle” ground. This is the middle between the extreme positions that all is human culture and all is nonhuman nature. The problem with those extremes, both argue, is that it denies the indivisibility of the human and the natural. Instead, Berry urges us to look to the interchange of “the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins” (529). Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” one could argue, previews this vision toward a human-nature harmony in its ethical outlook: a thing is right when it preserves the stability  (nature)) and the beauty (culture) of “the biotic community.”

Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. 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.

Berry’s idea of natural-cultural diversity, and its absence, in the monocultures of farming and housing that characterize much of how we live today, seems vividly evident in a photo essay in the New York Times Magazine. It’s about the blooming of McMansions in former rice fields in China. The images illuminate the sort of cultural and natural hybridity that these writers have in mind, the ways the cultural (in this case, human homes) are intertwined with the natural. Berry in his essays reminds us of this consistently when he describes his essays as “cultural and agricultural.” The problem all three thinkers are worrying: when this intertwining is viewed or manipulated as exclusively cultural (Berry’s monocultural) or exclusively natural (Cronon’s wilderness mythology of the sublime and the frontier).

As you head further into the nature and the culture of the Chesapeake Watershed, and particularly as you head into the “margins” and edges of this region, take these arguments about the rhetoric of wilderness with you. Is there a wilderness mythology of the Chesapeake of the sort Cronon identifies at large in the history of American environmental thinking? Do you encounter the sort of extremes of nature and culture that Berry worries about? Can you find, at the same time, a livable margin and middle ground?

We can also learn from, and continue to explore, a rhetorical perspective that both Berry and Cronon  not only argue for, but also enact in their writings. An effective rhetorical perspective also seeks a middle ground, the place where humans live, as Berry reminds us. This is a view of rhetoric as fundamentally an act and art of cooperation. But this “middle ground” should not be misconstrued as refusing to take a position or the inability to stand one’s ground. This is not, as I understand these authors, a matter of indifference (whatever?!) or the kind of false argumentation that we find often on cable television: you have your position and are entitled to be wrong.

Rather, these essays, as they develop an ethical and aesthetic perspective that challenges us to rethink our definitions of wilderness, do so through a rhetorical perspective that challenges us, and challenges themselves, to rethink our and their own positions. A rhetorical strategy that can help us think about this, and help you put it to work in your projects this semester, is Counterargument. We will talk more about it in coming classes. You can think of it as a strategy in which controversy, something you are focusing on extensively this semester, is engaged dynamically rather than statically. When we engage in counterargument, we show that our own argument and claims, our own position that we are developing and proposing, itself participates in the controversy that we are discussing and responding to. This is what makes our position arguable, and therefore worth listening to. An argument is, fundamentally, a response to a problem with a given or conventional or established way of understanding something that the rhetor (the person doing the arguing) puts forth. Even more basically, a thesis or statement of an argument always has its counterargument wrapped up in it. In this way, an effective argument uses counterargument to solve for pattern, rather than merely solve a problem that it, ironically, adds to by neglecting its larger contexts. Those larger contexts include the very real and necessary possibility that I, the person making the argument, could be wrong to the extent that I can’t present or even see the whole picture.

Berry’s (and following him, Cronon’s) “middle ground” is where we can find what he calls “proper relation,” proper limits, proportion. The adjective “proper” is one of Berry’s keywords. Consider the word’s etymology: that which is particular, specific, owing to the self. I would suggest that “proper” is also a key to our three perspectives. Ethical perspective: where we seek proper relation to others; Rhetorical perspective: where we seek proper balance and limits in our expression; Aesthetic perspective: where we seek proportion, proper balance or harmony in sight, sound, taste.

For some further reading on this rhetorical concept of Counterargument (a strategy for achieving proper balance), I recommend this brief discussion from Harvard’s Writing Center. Think about bringing counterargument into your next Stalking. Think about the ways your own positions on the Chesapeake Bay might begin to sound or think like Cronon’s: The time has come to rethink…


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