David Oates, Excerpts from “Paradise Wild”

What would it be like to stop mourning for nature?  To live in the natural world, to savor it and cherish it, even to use it, as all living beings must, without feeling that everything was terribly wrong?

This question is the opening sentence of Paradise Wild: Reimagining American Nature by David Oates, an environmental writer and poet.  Our reading for next week will be drawn from this book and include the introduction, a chapter called “Paradise Lost,” and some excerpts, 22 pages in all.  His writing is direct and accessible, but you’ll want to budget some time to consider the ideas he puts forth.

I read this book several years ago and it significantly changed the approach I was taking in my research.  I had been thinking and writing about how deeply Land Art had changed since its inception in the 1960s to the present day and I was referring to this process as the “end of Land Art.”  In this respect I was referring to Arthur Danto’s concept of the “end of art.”  Danto had written a series of essays in which he talked about the change from modern to postmodern art as a type of end — he didn’t mean the term to be understood as the termination of art and artistic practice, but as a way of describing fundamental change.  I had adopted this way of thinking and was working with it when I read Oates’ book.  At the heart of this book (as you’ll see in the reading) is the idea that we need to stop thinking in binary terms (nature as good/human interference as bad, etc.) and that we need to figure out how to live in nature, not separate from it.  In this regard, he wants us to stop relying on the “Eden Myth” or the “Paradise Lost” myth as the story that we use to model our relationship to the natural world.  Its a powerful, but challenging idea.

Given that Americans historically have had a predilection for referring to the North American continent as the “New Eden” and that national parks are places set aside to be preserved as remnants of untouched edenic wilderness (though we know that idea is faulty), I thought that you might find these ideas interesting.  What if we were to “Protect nothing, venerate everything,” as William Ashworth has suggested?  Oates’, who used to be a preservationist, tries to embrace this concept as a new paradigm.  He is critical of the edenic myth of loss and separation that focuses on an underlying belief that humankind is inherently bad and destroys all that it touches.  He seeks to construct a new model that allows us to live in garden (in nature) and does not require that we get get kicked out of it.

Click Here for the reading.

Please note the reading is one pdf document.  There are comment boxes that will help direct you in the reading.  Let me know if you have any questions.

11/5/2012 Update (I sent you this in an email.)

I hope you’ve started reading David Oates for Monday night’s discussion and that you haven’t been confused by how I organized the reading — the introduction, a complete chapter and part of the concluding chapter.  I hope it doesn’t seem too disjointed.

Here are some questions that I’d like you to consider:

  • Specifically, how does Oates make his points?
  • He combines a mixture of personal reflections, discussion of literature and references to what other environmental writers have written.  You may not have read anything quite like this (or, perhaps you have).  How do your respond to this style?  Is it effective?  Problematic?
  • He talks about the Eden Myth/Paradis Lost myth?  What is that
  • Do you think that these myths do affect us (individually or as a society)?
  • Do you agree with Oates that it would be better to give us these myths and try to think about things differently?
  • Regardless as to whether you said “yes” or “no” to the above question,  how would this affect our relationship with nature, in general, and the whole concept of national parks, specifically?
  • Do you have any questions?  Is there anything that was unclear or didn’t make sense to you?



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