Taming Henry


Botkin, D. No Man's Garden: Thoreau and a New Vision for Civilization and Nature. 2000 . Island Press , Washington, D.C . 300 pp. $24.95. ISBN 1-55963-465-0 .

Daniel Botkin believes that many environmentalists take too negative a view of the human presence in nature. In his new book, he asks readers to consider the positive possibilities of cities rather than writing them off as cancers on the biosphere, to appreciate semiwild areas close to home, and to recognize the ways conscientious foresters and ecological restorationists can manage nature to enhance biodiversity. His discussion of these issues ranges widely, from Mono Lake to the Maine Woods. Botkin seeks to place these reflections within an overall environmental philosophy, writing in his introduction that his “purpose is to help adjust our approach to living within nature and to integrating civilization and nature, in the hope that both can prosper and persist.” And he enlists environmentalism's patron saint in this project, weaving quotes from and anecdotes about Henry Thoreau throughout the book.

At first glance, the hermit of Walden might seem an unlikely ally for Botkin's project. Yet as Botkin points out, Thoreau valued both nature and culture. At Walden Pond he had Homer by his bedside—in the original Greek—and enjoyed frequent visits from leading writers and thinkers. Furthermore, Thoreau was able learn a tremendous amount about nature and form a strong personal and spiritual attachment to it in the relatively populous and tamed environment of a Boston suburb.

So, Botkin's positive message is plausible and his vehicle for conveying it clever and potentially insightful. Still, despite making scattered interesting points, the book fails in its larger aims, for three main reasons. First, Botkin tends to set up straw men to attack, so as to make his own positions seem more reasonable. Second, his discussions of practical conservation issues often set up false dichotomies, misrepresent opposing views, and fail to specify clearly his own solutions to hard conservation problems. Third, he simplifies and distorts Thoreau's views, thus avoiding the searching discussion of fundamental issues his book promises and Thoreau's books delivered.

An example of the first kind of failure is Botkin's caricature of the philosophy of deep ecology. Deep ecologists, we are told, “reject civilization” ( p. 36) and believe “that people must be placed at the bottom of the moral order” ( p. 241). Deep ecologists support “the suppression of individualism and democracy” ( p. 40) and think “that it is wrong for people to modify and adjust the environment” anywhere, anytime ( p. 227). Who believes any of this? Certainly not Arne Naess, whom Botkin invokes as some sort of bogey man, rather than a careful and rigorous philosopher working toward what Botkin claims should be our main goal: developing a philosophy that combines the best of culture and nature. Botkin might have given us an honest interpretation of Naess's philosophy and specified his differences with him point by point. But deep ecologists are more valuable to him as straw men, appearing at various points with foolish, indefensible views so that whatever view Botkin is presenting will seem more plausible.

A similar failure to directly engage opposing views is shown in Botkin's discussion of practical conservation issues. A good example is his treatment of the proposal of the environmental group RESTORE for a 3.2 million–acre Maine Woods National Park ( pp. 161–173). Botkin clearly dislikes the idea of such a park, but he doesn't say why. He neglects to discuss the poor forestry practices and development pressures that are fragmenting and harming Maine's forests, despite the fact that the park proposal makes sense only as a response to these pressures. He fails to propose his own alternative to the status quo—an unacceptable failure for a conservation biologist. When it comes to discussing the justification for the proposed park, Botkin rejects the view that we should preserve species and ecosystems simply for their own sake or “intrinsic value,” but he provides no clear discussion of this central issue. He seems to believe that we can advocate nature preservation either for anthropocentric or biocentric reasons, but not both. This is clearly a false dichotomy: from Yosemite and Yellowstone onwards, national park supporters have given both. Botkin claims that RESTORE should advocate protection of wild lands for their aesthetic, spiritual, or other benefits to humans, rather than for their intrinsic value. Yet even a cursory glance at the group's literature and website (www. restore.org) shows that such appeals are central to their arguments for the park. Here again, Botkin could have learned something, or at least clarified his own position, by paying attention to what the people he criticized actually said.

Perhaps the book's greatest failure, however, is its treatment of Thoreau. “Rather than seeing species or ecosystems as important in themselves, Thoreau saw nature as important to human creativity, civilization, and culture” ( p. 44), Botkin writes, perpetuating his implausible, exclusive dichotomy. He follows this with the astonishing assertion that “I found little if any discussion in his writings of an intrinsic value of nature independent of the ability of human beings to benefit from it” ( p. 54). The better part of two chapters of Walden are given over to arguing for such intrinsic value and to exploring the resulting ethical demands on us. In the chapter on “Higher Laws,” Thoreau argues for vegetarianism and against hunting, based on the moral considerability of individual sentient animals. And in the chapter on “The Bean-Field,” he considers what part of an intrinsically valuable wild landscape he has a right to appropriate for his own use. Every one of Thoreau's books, and most of his natural history essays, assert the intrinsic value of nature and the need for human restraint in its use.

It is true that Thoreau also talks about the knowledge, sense of history, spiritual connection, and enriched aesthetic experience that contact with wild nature provides to people. But these are additional reasons to preserve wilderness, explore it responsibly, and use it sparingly. Thoreau's recognition of these anthropocentric values does not mean that our interests should always trump the interests of other species or that we should manage all parts of the landscape according to our own needs and desires. He explicitly and repeatedly rejects these positions; they are Botkin's, not Thoreau's.

Botkin also denies that Thoreau valued wilderness, mostly on the basis of his famous description of a difficult excursion climbing Mount Katahdin in 1846. This leaves us wondering why Thoreau returned twice more for extended wilderness trips to Maine or made dozens of mountain climbs throughout New England and New York in the following years. Botkin asserts that Thoreau admired the timber cruisers working the forest near Katahdin and felt “a strong desire to participate in its logging and use” ( p. 117 ). This is contradicted by numerous passages, such as the following from Thoreau's book The Maine Woods (1996: 158–159):

Is it the lumberman then who is the friend and lover of the pine—stands nearest to it and understands its nature best? … No, it is the poet who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand … The pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure. There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men. A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man… Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

This love for wild nature and willingness to rein in human economic activities to preserve it is the cornerstone of Thoreau's environmental ethic. It should be the cornerstone of ours as well. It is his love for wilderness and his appreciation of the threats facing it that prompt Thoreau, a few pages later in The Maine Woods (p. 205), to propose a system of “national preserves … in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be civilized off the face of the earth.” In Maine, Thoreau says, such a preserve would protect the full complement of native species and keep the land wild. For “these are not the artificial forests of an English king—a royal preserve merely. Here prevail no forest laws, but those of nature” (p. 105).

Botkin is right: we need an environmental ethic that celebrates human culture and wild nature and makes a legitimate place for both. We need sustainable forestry and healthy cities and ecological restoration of degraded lands. But we also need to rein in the excessive human appropriation of the biosphere and our desire to control the entire landscape; we need to set aside more wilderness. To make this possible, we need an ethic that insists we consume less. The real Henry Thoreau has a lot to say about what such an ethic demands of us and what it offers in return.