Author John Hausdoerffer: What is the Future of Wilderness?

“Where ‘wilderness’ has become a divisive term in the environmental community, ’wildness’ has great potential to connect disparate branches of environmentalism.” John Hausdoeffer

Author John Hausdoerffer discusses the Future of Wildness and his new book "Wildness: Relations of People and Place".

Co-edited with Gavin Van Horn from the Center for Humans and Nature, Wildness features creative nonfiction essays that explore the spectrum of wildness found in wilderness areas, on working landscapes, and in urban communities.

The book merges culturally diverse voices to delve into the evolution of "wildness," including Hausdoerffer and Van Horn, as well as Gary Snyder, Vandana Shiva, Wes Jackson, Mistinguette Smith, Curt Meine, Julianne Warren, Robert Michael Pyle, Robin Kimmerer, Aaron Abeyta, Winona LaDuke, and Roderick Frazier Nash.

"Where 'wilderness' has become a divisive term in the environmental community," explains Hausdoerffer, "'wildness' has great potential to connect disparate branches of environmentalism.

Emy (00:10):

Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences, and use stories to explore culture, history, and contemporary issues. You can find us on

John (00:32):

We've grown weary of the debate over whether wilderness is a distracting social construct or a vital natural reality.

Emy (00:45):

Hello, I'm Emy diGrappa, and this is What's Your Why? Each week, we bring you stories asking our guests the question why. We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care? And what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities, serving our state for over 45 years. We share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why? (silence)

Emy (01:38):

Our guest today is John Hausdoerffer. Co-editor of a new book called Wildness: Relations of People and Place. Welcome, John.

John (01:47):

Great to be here, thank you.

Emy (01:49):

I've heard quite a bit about your book, and the first thing that came to my mind is to have you give us a definition of what is wildness?

John (02:00):

Yeah, well that's one of the things we're trying to figure out in the book. It's such a broad term. First of all, we wanna make a distinction between wildness and wilderness. Wilderness is very important as a form of zoning on public lands, right, in order to ensure biodiversity, in order to ensure the ability for people to seek spiritual transformation, away from the rat race, right? We have 110 million acres of wilderness that are zoned to keep mechanized vehicles, industrial extraction out. We need wilderness zoned land.

John (02:31):

Wildness, however, is bigger than wilderness. Wilderness is part of wildness, but you can also find wildness on the south side of Chicago. You can also find wil- wildness on a farm. Right, or on a landscape where there are ranchers. Wildness really comes down to a landscape or a being or a community that has its own will. Right? Wild is actually rooted in the word will. So a self willed being, a being that has the capacity for self renewal is a wild being. So we're wild, when we are fully free and autonomous, to shape our own future, right?

John (03:09):

A landscape is wild. Like Yellowstone, with wolves on the land, it's, it has the capacity for self renewal, because it does not need us to constantly manage, say, deer populations right there. Or wild, self willed beings on that land. But it's also important to think about how is a working landscape wild? How is an urban community wild? And that's what we wanted to do with this book, was to get at the whole spectrum of wildness, right, from a wilderness area, across working landscapes, all the way to the extreme of an urban environment.

John (03:40):

Any landscape, being, or community that has its own will is wild.

Emy (03:44):

That is crazy. Because I always think of wild as part of wilderness. Because when I talk about Wyoming, I think of Wyoming being wild. Because it has all these huge, open landscapes and there's only, you know, 500,000 people.

John (03:58):

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, but you know, I would argue that when you look at Wyoming, you also have, you know, a lot of ranching, right. And if you have any ranchers who play with, uh, Alan Savory's method, and that is a method where you're bunching cattle and moving them around to mimic wildlife, when that's done well, it enhances grasslands rather than depleting grasslands. It can become a carbon sink, to address climate change. And so, it's actually possible for human production from the land to actually lead to, say, in this example, healthier grasslands.

John (04:31):

So we can actually produce wildness, even if it's not on a designated wilderness landscape.

Emy (04:38):

Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

John (04:39):

Because we've just added to that land's capacity for self renewal. Those grasslands now are healthier, they can support other species beyond just those cattle. And so we're starting to discover ways in which different land owners, different inhabitants of different kinds of landscapes, are co-creating wildness with the land, even outside of wilderness areas, where we might go backpacking.

Emy (05:03):

So there's another thing that I thought was really important for you to explain. Because it was part of your book. And it is, when you talk about the evolution of wildness. What do you mean by that?

John (05:16):

Yeah that, that can be seen as kind of a controversial phrase. Because when we think of wildness, we tend to think of something pristine, right? It's in a certain state of being. So for, say, for example, one of the essays in here is written by a man named Enrique Solomon, and, and Enrique is a Tarahumaran, Raramuri Indian from Mexico. And the opening line of his essay is very compelling. He says, "There is no word for wild in my language." For him, land is home. Land is homeland. And for Enrique, um, and other critics from the Native American perspective, to call a Native American homeland wilderness, or wild, erases all the ways in which humans have co-created that landscape, right?

John (06:07):

Through gaining intelligence, through trial and error over millennia on that land. It overlooks the way in which humans can actually be a keystone species on the land. Wild has, has evolved in the sense that when William Bradford arrives at Plymouth Plantation in, say, 1620, he looks across the New England forests and calls it a wilderness. When he calls that wilderness, he's overlooking all the intricate forms of land use that were going on that created that landscape.

John (06:37):

Native Americans were clearing forests, in part with fire, so they can move around and travel more easily. They were using slash and burn agriculture. They would sort of slash, and let a tree rot, and then plant food in the stump. If you went over in a helicopter, it would look like a forest. But if you walk through with a Native American expert from a New England tribe, they would show you how they had created hundreds of miles of hedges to drive wildlife into a certain area. And there were more grasses for those wildlife because they had burned there.

John (07:07):

And so originally, wilderness is kind of a colonial term, it's kind of a tool of colonialism. You can call a homeland wilderness, it's no longer stealing it to take it. Because you can argue no one owned it, right? So it started out as a really problematic term. What's beautiful and revolutionary about American intellectual history is, we go from a society that sees the wilderness as a land of Satan and temptation, in a biblical way, all the way to wilderness being, like, our most celebrated landscapes, that bring however many people a year to Jackson and to Yellowstone, right?

Emy (07:43):

Three to four million.

John (07:44):

Yeah, three to four million people a year (laughs) right, come out of a love for wilderness. That's a, that's a revolution in our view of what the land is, and why it has value. So wilderness has really evolved. I'm arguing for a next level of evolution, to go from wilderness to wildness. Because as important as our 110 million acres of wilderness are for biodiversity and human fulfillment, we also need to learn, in my view, how to find and fight for wildness everywhere, not just places like this.

John (08:19):

All right? And so what does it mean to find and fight for wildness in south central Los Angeles?

Emy (08:25):

What would that mean? (laughing) What does that look like? Tell me that.

John (08:28):

(laughs) It's a great question. That's one of the things I've been trying to figure out. One of the authors, uh, in this wildness book is a man named Michael Howard. And he wrote, he co-wrote an essay with a professor in Chicago named Mike Bryson. And Michael Howard is an African American from the Fuller Park neighborhood of Chicago, on the south side of Chicago. And, um, there was part of Fuller Park that was the third worst lead contaminated two acres in America. And Michael Howard cleaned that up, right, facing threats from gang members from both sides, the sort of gang tensions in his neighborhood.

John (09:06):

Shots were fired at his house, because by cleaning that lot up, he was threatening their economy. They needed that as a place to, to hide things, basically.

Emy (09:14):


John (09:14):

In order to operate. Um, he's now restored a prairie there, he's planted a mini forest there. It's called Eden Place. He has programs for kids who, on the south side of Chicago, go and connect with wildness. It's sort of a stepping stone to then taking them on the boundary waters later on, for a full camping trip. But what Michael Howard talks about on the south side of Chicago is that those kids need that stepping stone. In his essay, he talks about how a lot of the cultural narrative of, of many of his African American neighbors is that when they see a forest, they think of family stories, of ancestors being chased by dogs through a forest while trying to escape slavery.

John (09:58):

When they see a tree, he hears family stories of ancestors being hanged in trees. You know, so there's some real cultural trauma in his community that goes with what we would call, I, as a white, privileged male would call, you know, a, a transformative, w- wild landscape, he faces cultural trauma. So for him, he's restoring wildness on the south side, on a physical level, in terms of plant species and animal species that come into the city. But he's also restoring and healing peoples' sense of connection and, and sense of safety in connecting with nature.

John (10:34):

Uh, in south central Los Angeles there's, there's, uh, a man named Ron Finley who has taken up medians, planted gardens. He calls himself a, uh, a gangster gardener, right? And for him, that's bringing wildness back to the city, right? Not just having a monoculture of grass that no one can touch. But having a landscape people can play in, eat, get their hands in the soil. Right? And I think a kind of wildness gets sparked in us, our own renewal, from connecting with, whether it's Michael Howard's prairie on the south side of Chicago, or Ron Finley's garden in south central LA, we have to fight and fight for wildness everywhere.

Emy (11:12):

Do you think there's a lack of people of color that camp and explore the wilderness? Or go to national parks, or hike, bike, do many of those activities?

John (11:24):

That's a great question. And I, you know, I, I can't speak for people with different cultural backgrounds than myself. But what I've learned from this book project, um, is that there are very different cultural views of wilderness. And ev- actually, your qus reminds me of a student I had. Her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. And every Sunday, this grandmother would take my student and her cousins out to the forest. And when this student was a young teenager, she finally asked her grandmother why?

John (11:55):

Her grandmother said, when she was a young girl, being moved from one concentration camp to another, while crossing a steep, forested hill, when the guards looked away, her parents pushed her down the hill into the forest. Down at the bottom of that hill were refugees, a kind of underground, living in the forest, that took her, quickly. It must have been planned out. Uh, of course, we're relying on a secondhand story about a woman's memory from when she was eight, at a traumatic time, and memory can be strange, but that's a powerful story.

John (12:26):

So for that family, the woods is a place of refugee rescue. There's a woman in this book, Wildness, that we just put out, named Mistiguette Smith. Mistiguette Smith runs the Black/Land Project, where she's done thousands of interviews with African Americans about their relationship with the land, and from those interviews, she finds a pattern similar to what Michael Howard found on the south side of Chicago, this sense of historical trauma about, when you bring up a landscape of forest, stories about ancestors being chased by dogs come up. Stories about ancestors hanging from trees come up.

John (13:04):

So it's not just a lack of access, right? It's a, it's a, we have to sort of take on a white supremacist history before we can all together equally connect with wild landscapes, you know? And it troubles me how white, middle class the environmental movement is. I think it's limited it as a movement.

Emy (13:26):

What was your inspiration to write this book? Why did you wanna tell these stories?

John (13:32):

For me, my motivation came from a desire to connect what I see as three disparate corners of the environmental movement. I have been inspired by all three corners, but I've also seen them at odds with each other, and I'd like to see those unified. So the first corner is the wilderness movement.

Emy (13:50):


John (13:50):

Very inspiring. You think about John Muir, in 1913, lost the Hetch Hetchy Valley, in his fight with Gifford Pinchot, dies a year later. Some historians think he dies of a broken heart, from the loss of wilderness. And here we are 104 years later with 110 million acres of wilderness, Muir could've never imagined that. That's a very successful movement. The second corner of this triangle (laughs) is working landscapes. I already talked about moving cattle like wildlife to enhance grasslands.

John (14:20):

We also see people, uh, in the book, there's a man, Wes Jackson, who's figured out how to restore the prairie in a way that's edible and that produces fuel, an incredible vision. So his production of our food and fuel economy, uh, by making food perennial and poly cultural again, that production of food is producing wildness, is producing habitat, is producing soil stability, is producing a carbon sink to address climate change. The third corner is environmental justice.

John (14:51):

Communities, uh, often communities of color, uh, lower class communities who have le- have had, historically had less democratic voice, and less economic choice, that makes their communities the easiest community to [inaudible 00:15:04], right?

Emy (15:05):


John (15:05):

And so I've seen tensions between those corners. In Point Reyes, one of the chapters in here is about Point Reyes, California. There is a multi-generational sustainable oyster farm, a favorite of San Francisco foodies, that was displaced in order to create a wilderness area. So there's tension between working landscapes and wilderness, right?

Emy (15:25):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

John (15:26):

In the late '60s ...

Emy (15:27):


John (15:27):

... Caesar Chavez, United Farm Workers, in pushing against DDT, reached out to the Sierra Club and they said, "That's not really an environmental issue." Right? As recently as a decade ago, the Sierra Club's board, there was a push for an anti-immigration voices to dominate the Sierra Club board, and, and to make protection of land tied to keeping immigrants out.

Emy (15:48):

Oh interesting.

John (15:48):

So it's, yes, there's your tension between environmental justice and a wilderness vision. And so what motivated me to write this book, or to edit this book, and to bring these voices together, was a hope that we could find a unifying idea, that would create solidarity between a wilderness, working landscape, and environmental justice movements. I think that would be a pretty unstoppable force, in terms of creating healthy and just landscapes.

Emy (16:14):

Wow, I'd love to hear a, a couple words out of your book, from some of your different authors.

John (16:20):

So ...

Emy (16:21):

That contributed.

John (16:22):

Yeah, I'd love to share. Actually, I, I'd love to share based on that, that, uh, triangle I was just talking about, right?

Emy (16:27):


John (16:27):


Emy (16:28):

Yes, absolutely.

John (16:28):

Because we do. We have wilderness voices in here, like the poet Robert Michael Pyle, we have the great historian Rod Frazier Nash. We have environmental justice thinkers like Devanna Pena, and Vandana Shiva, and, uh, we have working landscape thinkers like Wes Jackson and, and Courtney White. Yeah, let me share something from Robert Frazier Nash. If that's okay.

Emy (16:47):

Okay. That'd be great.

John (16:48):

Yeah. Some of your listeners might be familiar with his classic from the '60s, Wilderness and the American Mind. In which he argued what I was talking about before, that the great revolution in American intellectual history is from fearing wilderness to celebrating it and playing in it. I had met Rod one day at the base of Crested Butte Ski Area. Um, Rod has an inviting smile. Easing my concerns. We sit and look outside as the blizzard finally arrives. We begin with a concern we share, that we have grown weary of the debate over whether wilderness is a distracting social construct, or a vital natural reality.

John (17:30):

Rod reminds me that the word wild comes from the word will. And that something wild is something that has will. "John," he explains, "When you break a horse, what is broken? His will. Haven't we, as a species, substituted our will for that of many wild creatures? Even when our cultivation is well intended." Rod pauses while I try to imagine the moment a horse is broken. And then he shares his admiration for a 1963 essay by Wilderness Act architect Zahniser.

John (18:03):

Zahniser asked us, us, to decide whether we will become gardeners or guardians on this earth. Gardeners still need to control. Gardeners still need to substitute their will for that of many wild creatures. I decided then that I was a guardian of the will of other species. And that's Dr. Nash talking about his decision, a life forming decision he had made, you know, 50 years earlier, and what drove his dedication to the wilderness idea, for his career.

Emy (18:34):

That was beautiful.

John (18:35):

Well he's, you know, that's just him talking. You know? Uh, at the age of 78, he still skis, uh, steep chutes at Crested Butte. He's run the Grand Canyon 72 times. You know, he's just, you can feel his passion, in, in those words, right?

Emy (18:49):

Right, yeah.

John (18:50):

Yeah one of the really important essays in here is by Vandana Shiva, who's an activist from India, who works with farmers who've been displaced from the land. And in, when I asked her what wildness was, and working with farmers, 250,000 farmers have taken their lives in 25 years in India. She had this to say, "When I talk about the infinite creative energy of the universe, I am talking about Gaia's self organizing energy. The creative human energy to work and to produce, to organize and to transform. In India and around the world, this human energy has helped cultivate the self organizing energy of the world. In particular, the creativity, innovation, and decision making power of women has significantly driven the world's biodiversity.

John (19:35):

The majority of the 80,000 plant species that humans have cultivated have emerged from these self organizing, living energies of women. In other words, if we're going to redefine wildness, we have to simultaneously redefine humans as co-creators of wealth with nature. We both rely on and co-create wildness when our living energies work with those of the earth. 15 miles beyond Gangotri is Gomukh, a glacier formed like the snout of a cow that gives rise to the Ganges. The Gomukh Glacier, which is 24 kilometers in length, and six to eight kilometers in width, is receding at a rate of five meters per year.

John (20:13):

The receding glacier of the Ganges, the lifeline for millions of people in the Gangetic plan, has serious consequences for the future of India. We need to generate and multiply the renewable energy of ecology and sharing, of solidarity, and compassion, to counter destructive energy of greed that's creating scarcity at every level. Scarcity of work, scarcity of happiness, scarcity of security, scarcity of freedom, and even scarcity of the future. Either we can let the process of destruction, disintegration and extermination continue unchallenged, or we can unleash our creative and wild energies to make systemic change and reclaim our future as a species as part of the earth family."

John (21:00):

And I think that for her, there are two things at stake, right? One is the land's wildness, and for her, she includes diversity of plants that we have co-created throughout the history of agriculture, particularly women, she says. But secondly, our wildness is at stake. Right? Our creativity, and solving problems is at stake here. It's a test of our wildness and, and creating solutions.

Emy (21:24):

Have you re- is she from India? Is that what you said?

John (21:27):

She's from India. Yeah, she's from the base of the Himalayas, in India.

Emy (21:31):


John (21:31):

I visited her there at her farm.

Emy (21:33):

You did?

John (21:34):

Yeah, when I was at Gangotri Glacier, up, um, at the base of Shivling Peak, which is 24,000 feet, it looks like the Grand Teton. Um, there was a man from Shinai, India, who was a lawyer, and he spoke English, and he came up to me and he was kinda broken up. You could tell, there was something, he was upset. And I asked him if he was okay, and he sai- he looked at the glacier and said, "It doesn't look like a cow's snout anymore." And so going back to their origin stories, that glacier looked like, you know, a cow is sacred in India, right? It looked like a cow's snout. The water coming out is white, it looks like the mother's milk of that cow, right?

Emy (22:13):


John (22:13):

And he said yeah, it, it's receded enough, it doesn't look like a cow's snout anymore. So this is not just about ...

Emy (22:19):

How sad.

John (22:19):

... loss of wildlife, right, or drought, or, you know, soil instability, or a threat to civilization, this is also a spiritual crisis.

Emy (22:29):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

John (22:29):

Um, and that's what I'm hoping, you know, this wildness idea can get us beyond our fight for wilderness to have us see and fight for wildness everywhere. You know, at Gangotri Glacier, on Vandana Shiva's farm, here in Jackson, where Michael Howard lives on the south side of Chicago, and have that fight joined together.

Emy (22:45):

I wish you well in that. I love that. Thank you so much, John.

John (22:49):

Thank you, I appreciate your time.

Emy (22:51):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why? A production of Think WY, Wyoming Humanities. This has been executive producer Emy diGrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information, go to (silence)