This article is intermittently childish (‘cows degrade wilderness, so oysters should be able to too!!’), ignorant (nearly all designated wildernesses begin as a ‘potential’ wilderness area) and myopic (if your vision for Alemany Farm was as short-sighted as it is for Drake’s Wilderness, we’d still be using the farm as a dumping ground).
But more importantly, the article ignores the history of ecological wreckage that gave birth to the Wilderness Act. This is a critical oversight, because the Wilderness Act is ultimately an ethical reaction to the sad history of our Nation: every place western civilization reached, it destroyed.
One might quibble with the starkness of this statement, but both classics like A Sand County Almanac and articles like this recognize that too often we denude the lands in which we live—it’s why Leopold advocates for a land ethic, and this article for arable land.
But while Leopold urged us to restrain the rapid and violent change we unleashed on the land, this article urges us to embrace it: because, the article suggests, wilderness is too cumbersome to craft landscapes people actually want to use.
But if you lived when Stegner or Zahniser lived, every civilized or cultivated land you observed was also biologically impoverished. The only apparent way to preserve anything in such a context is to block civilization from establishing a foothold, even a pastoral one.
Moreover, if you believe, as they did, that this planet has value beyond what our taste buds can savor, designating wilderness was an act of humility: a pronouncement that we would refrain from making every speck of this planet a reflection of ourselves.
The ethical rationale for wilderness is ignored in this article, and yet if anything the division of land between us and the rest of life on Earth has become more inequitable since the Wilderness Act was passed. Our pervasive influence makes post-environmentalists, who calculate the value of nature in utilitarian terms, confused and uncertain about wildness. After all, if everywhere you look you see a reflection of yourself, the very idea of ‘nature’ or ‘wild’ can seem antiquated.
But for those who see wilderness as a proxy for a more just and sustainable relationship with other forms and systems of life, the growing influence of our species everywhere causes us to defend wildness resolutely anywhere.
Of course, today is not the 1930s, or even the 1960s. Perhaps we’ve learned to blaze a new path where our arugula grows lush while elk roam free.
But if you blaze it in areas that provide penance or ‘potential’ penance for our inequitable relationship with the land, you are acting solely out of political expediency, not some new paradigm of sustainability. Because it isn’t the wild that is out of whack. It’s an Oakland with hardly an oak in it; it’s a Bay Delta that is 1/3 landfill; it’s the great sand ‘waste’ of San Francisco that is now a great series of avenues (and yet Muni still doesn’t run on time).
It would be justifiable to blaze this new path in these areas, places where we overstepped our bounds. But because those places are occupied by people who will fight you for every inch, and by definition wilderness is not, post-environmentalists see places like Drakes Bay as an expedient place to prove their new path is ‘sustainable.’
But farms that denigrate wilderness—and by extension, our humility—are no more sustainable than ‘organic’ asparagus flown here from Peru or the T-shirt with a bird on it made with sweatshop labor. It’s time for Bay Area urban agriculture aficionados to recognize that sometimes the best and highest way we can use land is to let it make amends for what we’ve done. Even when that land is inside your 50-mile food boundary: because in a country where you can barely get 20 miles from a road, each of us will have to play a role.