A few months after I met writer Jack Turner in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to talk with him about wildness, wilderness, solitude, and the roots of Western civilization’s environmentally destructive tendencies, he sent me an e-mail with the subject line “Griz.” Attached were two photos: The first showed a pair of bears beside a picnic table half buried in snow. The second was taken through a smudged window, on the other side of which one bear stood on its hind legs, its nose all but pressed to the glass. “Grizzlies at the cabin,” the e-mail read. “So I’m not going anywhere for a few days.”
This was hardly Turner’s first encounter with a wild bear. Since 1978 he has lived at the foot of the Tetons, one of North America’s most dramatic mountain ranges, usually in cabins without electricity or running water. A retired mountain guide, he believes that to really love a place, one must forge an intimate, bodily relationship with it, and that to do so in this day and age is an “achievement.” One cabin in which he lived, a twelve-by-twenty-foot plywood shack located inside Grand Teton National Park, could be reached during the winter months only by skiing or snowshoeing four miles from the nearest plowed road. Temperatures sometimes dropped to 40 below. Weeks passed without a visit to town. He says the years he spent there with his wife, Dana, and dog, Rio, were the best of his life.
Raised in Washington, D.C., and Southern California, Turner grew up in a family of outdoorsmen. His grandfather was the co-owner of a hunting-and-fishing camp in northern Pennsylvania, and his father hunted and fished year-round. Turner got an undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Colorado and went on to study Chinese and philosophy at Stanford and Cornell. Soon after, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Illinois in Chicago, but he was less comfortable in the halls of academia than he was wandering the backcountry. He’d become obsessed with rock climbing in the early 1960s, and by the middle of that decade he was partnering with some of the best climbers in the U.S. on difficult routes in Yosemite National Park and Colorado. He loved climbing more than philosophy, so he quit being a professor. The mountains were calling, and he trusted their voice.
Now seventy-two years old, Turner has spent more time outdoors in pursuit of wildness and wilderness than anybody else you’re likely to meet. For forty-two years he worked for Exum Mountain Guides, a company based in Wyoming, leading clients up the 13,776-foot Grand Teton and neighboring peaks. He has climbed the Grand Teton roughly four hundred times and participated in more than forty treks and expeditions to Pakistan, India, China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Peru. In his free time he’s backpacked, canoed, fished, bird-watched, and camped — often alone and always without a GPS — all across North America. Friends of mine who live in Jackson Hole tell me they occasionally run across Turner when they’re out hiking. One saw him on the side of a steep ridge, meditating on a flat rock among wildflowers. Another saw him crawling around in the snow at his wife’s feet with a magnifying glass, talking excitedly.
Turner is the author of three books of nonfiction: Travels in the Greater Yellowstone; The Abstract Wild; and Teewinot: A Year in the Teton Range. In all three he weaves personal anecdotes from the field with philosophical arguments, quotations from Chinese poets and Buddhist masters, and natural-history lessons. He is the recipient of a Whiting Foundation Writer’s Award, and his work is currently taught in more than fifty college environmental-studies programs. He’s been a visiting scholar at the University of Utah, but these days he turns down most offers to lecture and teach, preferring to stay near his home and its surroundings.
When I first contacted Turner about an interview, I had a fantasy of skiing through fluffy powder to reach his cabin, then sitting all day by the woodstove, my socks drying as we talked. As it turned out, the Sunday afternoon in February when we met was a busy one — Turner had houseguests — and he’d arranged for us to conduct the interview at a friend’s law office in downtown Jackson Hole. We settled into a conference room with a glossy black table, black leather swivel chairs, and flat-screen monitors on the walls. For a mountain man, Turner looked oddly at ease, which is a testament to his adaptability. He moves back and forth nimbly between subjects and worlds, from Zen poetry, to ocean acidification, to iPads.
Tall and strong, with a bald head and a trim white beard, Turner has a commanding presence. Frequently over the course of our three-hour conversation, he got fired up about a topic and leaned in close, stabbing his finger against the table. Yet he also struck me as wise and kind. He’d brought a bag of clementines with him, but we never paused to snack on them.
Tonino: When you were growing up in Washington, D.C., your father took you to visit the many museums in the city. I understand that the Freer Gallery of Asian Art was your favorite.
Turner: Yes, it was. The entrance to the Freer Gallery was flanked by two temple guardians, fierce creatures carved out of whole tree trunks, with huge forearms and fists and fangs. They’re probably ten or twelve feet tall, but I was seven years old, so to me it was as if they were thirty feet high. I’m still impressed by them. I also loved the ink paintings of guys in little huts in the mountains playing the lute or practicing calligraphy. My family lived in an apartment above a freeway at the time, and I always thought those paintings of Taoist or Chan recluses sitting beside waterfalls depicted an ideal life.
When I was ten, our family moved to Southern California, where I spent my teenage years. I became a surfer and a lifeguard. I went hunting. As an eighteen-year-old I got into rock climbing. But the Freer Gallery is central to it all. I was fundamentally affected by that early exposure to Asian art and its love of nature. Later I studied Chinese poetry as an undergraduate, then Chinese linguistics at Cornell. These encounters at a young age can have profound effects. As the Buddhists say: “What happens upstream floats downstream.”
Tonino: You ended up teaching in Chicago, but you left after several years. What prompted that?
Turner: In the mid-1970s I was an assistant philosophy professor at the University of Illinois. I was about thirty years old. I was very unhappy. One day I went to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sneak some meat to the snow leopards, as I did on occasion. It was a crappy day, cloudy and dim and snowing, and I thought to myself: I’m as trapped as these wild cats. I decided that I didn’t want to live my life working indoors. Since then, I’ve worked inside — a forty-hour-a-week, punch-the-time-clock type of job — for only two and a half years total. The rest of the time I’ve been working outside or writing in my cabin.
Tonino: Your feeling of being caged reminds me of the last line in Lew Welch’s “Chicago Poem,” written, I believe, while he was working in advertising. He says of over-development: “Maybe / a small part of it will die if I’m not around / feeding it anymore.”
Turner: There was a massive shift in the 1950s and 1960s, a fierce reaction to modern American life that had begun much earlier with Thoreau. Many people of that time — Lew Welch, Edward Abbey, Doug Peacock, Gary Snyder, the translator Red Pine, and others — bailed, as I did, from programs in good schools or from distinguished careers. A lot of these people, including me, found their way to Asia and got involved in Eastern religion and literature. I traveled there in 1974, and by then the hippie trail from Istanbul across the continent had been humming for ten years. People with nothing more than a day pack would head off for three, four, five years to wander the world. All of this had a profound influence on American culture in ways we don’t even understand yet.
Tonino: What happened during your first trip to Asia?
Turner: My friend Allen Steck, an American climber, was one of the founders and owners of Mountain Travel, now Mountain Travel Sobeck. I wrote to him saying I wanted to go to the Karakoram mountain range [along the borders of China, India, and Pakistan] and visit K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, to take photographs. He wrote back saying he couldn’t pay me anything, but he was leading a trip there in the summer, and I could go as his assistant if I wanted to. I accepted.
It was to be a five-week trek to K2 with 125 porters and 18 clients. We flew in on a military-transport aircraft; there were no roads. Then Allen became ill and had to leave, which meant I was now leading the trek. It was a crash course in Himalayan expeditions.
When I got out a month later, a letter from Allen and a pile of blank traveler’s checks were waiting for me. The letter said I could use the money to scout northern Pakistan and the Hindu Kush mountain range and try to put together a few more treks. I went back north with my liaison officer and another friend to explore the Hindu Kush. There were no banks, no telephones, no telegraphs, no doctors, no roads. I didn’t get out until mid-September. It was one of the most wonderful periods of my life. After that, I told the philosophy department at the University of Illinois to take me off the tenure track.
Tonino: Were there pivotal moments or experiences during those first expeditions that shaped your relationship with wilderness and the wild?
Turner: I think that anybody who goes into a wild place like that for the first time is simply stunned, not only by the land but by the differences in lifestyle. The average per capita income in Baltistan [a region in northern Pakistan] at the time of my first visit was seventy-three dollars a year. I quickly learned that Western ways of classifying people according to education and career are meaningless. There are brilliant people who can’t read. There are ways of living that don’t have anything to do with our way of living. People in the Hindu Kush knew virtually nothing of the U.S., nothing of our ways of life, and their own ways of life were thousands of years old. And there was the marvelous unfamiliar wildlife, too. I saw markhor and ibex and blue sheep and snow-leopard tracks. You simply cannot imagine the wildness of the place, the animals, the humans. Years later I led the first trek to the north side of K2. There is no place on earth wilder than the Karakoram.
Tonino: What exactly do you mean by “wild”?
Turner: I mean something that is self-willed, autonomous, self-organized. Basically it’s the opposite of controlled.
You can see wildness in the movement of glaciers, or you can track it in star-forming regions in the Orion Nebula. Wildness is everywhere. It starts with microscopic particles, and it goes more than 13 billion light-years into the cosmos. It’s in the soil and in the air, it’s on our hands, it’s in our immune systems, it’s in our lungs — where there are two thousand bacteria per square centimeter! In a certain respect, much of what we consider us is in fact not us. We breathe, and wildness comes in. We don’t control it.
Tonino: You’ve called wildness “an endangered experience.” What do you mean by that? If we’re steeped in wildness, is it just a matter of perception?
Turner: It has to do with scale. On one scale you’ve got the Orion Nebula, which is twenty-six light-years across and two thousand times the mass of the sun. At the other extreme is the scale of quantum physics and subatomic particles, zooplankton and proteins. The scale that Henry David Thoreau and the American conservation movement focus on is that of voles and coral reefs and redwoods and whales. We’re particularly interested in wildness at that scale — and for good reason — but that scale doesn’t include all wildness. And here’s the problem: nowadays very few people directly experience voles, coral reefs, redwoods, and whales. You can live in San Francisco, ride a Google bus to work, stare at a screen, come home, stare at a screen, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’ve asked my environmental-studies students how much time each day, on average, they spend in contact with raw wild nature. Thirty minutes, they say. And what are they doing then? Walking between classes. They’ve told me they look at a screen eight to twelve hours a day, on average. These kids have not spent much time hiking in remote areas. They don’t have much personal experience with wild creatures. They also don’t have much experience with isolation. These days parents can hardly get their children to participate in an outdoor program, such as a backpacking trip, because it will cut them off from Facebook for two weeks.
At Exum Mountain Guides Climbing School we forbid our students to bring music into the Tetons. They hate not having music. They don’t want to be alone. They are hive creatures now, far more so than generations past, fiercely attached to their social network, which is a large part of their identity.
I’m part of the amateur astronomy community here in Jackson Hole. Our club has more and more trouble getting young people to come out in the dark — the cold, scary dark — and look at stars. They want to watch the night sky through video cameras. They want to use computers to connect to a telescope in Chile. They want to look at the stars on a screen. But the immediate, raw experience of being out in the dark, of being in the ocean with sharks, of seeing a bear, is far different from any simulation on a screen.
If you don’t have contact with a wild place, a wild animal, or a wild process — and I mean experiential, bodily contact — then why would you ever vote for conservation and environmental measures? That’s a long-term problem for the American conservation movement. Sure, there are still Sierra Club trips and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and families who cherish the outdoors, but in terms of a general population trend, it doesn’t look good. In Japan they have a word for people who won’t leave their rooms: hikikomori. It’s estimated that there are up to a million such people in Japan! This doesn’t bode well for the natural world, let alone the quality of these people’s lives. I fear there will come a day when people won’t understand the writing of Thoreau and John Muir. It will be unintelligible to them. They just won’t get it.
Tonino: I’ve heard scientists speak of “shifting-baseline syndrome.” If all the glaciers melt, then the new normal is a world without glaciers. In that case, when Muir writes about glaciers in Alaska — and his reverence for them — it’ll seem obscure and confusing.
Turner: Fishery biologists also use that term with respect to salmon populations. There’s historical data tracking the decline of salmon populations down to nearly zero. Now, when the salmon “come back” in response to conservation efforts, people celebrate: “We have X number of salmon now! Look how incredibly successful we are! My God, the fishing is fantastic!” Well, fine, but the salmon-population numbers are a minute fraction of what they were a hundred years ago, and that was a fraction of what they’d been a hundred years before that.
The shifting baselines have to do with our expectations. A famous mountain-climbing saying is: “Expectation is the mother of the fuckup.” If you expect something, you may well become blind to what’s actually going on. Take the famous gorilla-on-the-basketball-court experiment: Psychologists ask a group of spectators to count the number of times the ball is bounced by one team. These spectators are Type A people, competitive and committed to doing a good, accurate job. The game starts, and the spectators are counting the bounces. Meanwhile a guy in a gorilla costume comes onto the court, strolls around, and leaves. After the game is over, the psychologists ask the spectators: How many bounces? And then they ask: What about the gorilla? This experiment has been repeated multiple times, and the spectators always have the same response: What gorilla? What we expect, what we’re focused on, our background, and our traditions all radically affect our experience of what is “normal.” Right now most humans are blind to climate change and species loss — the new normal.
Sometimes people from New Jersey come to Jackson Hole after making a lot of money in the stock market. They say, “Jeez, this is the most beautiful place in the world.” I’ll explain that the Snake River hasn’t had a natural flow in nearly a hundred years because it’s been dammed, and that hurt the insect population, and now we don’t have any salmon flies anymore. Locals used to describe them as blizzards — blizzards of salmon flies. And the lack of salmon flies has in turn impacted the size and health of the fish population, and that’s had a cascading effect on other animal populations. It’s the difference between a healthy place and a pretty place. But these people just look at me and say, “I’m not going to complain. It sure beats Hoboken.” That’s their baseline.
Tonino: You’ve written: “We believe we make contact with the wild, but this is an illusion. In both the national parks and wilderness areas, we accept a reduced category of experience, a semblance of wild nature, a fake, and no one complains.”
Turner: Three years ago I gave a talk in Yosemite, and the area around the visitor center was as crowded as anywhere I’ve ever been other than Calcutta. It was literally shoulder to shoulder. People arrive at the park in cars, they wander around in the areas they’ve been funneled to, they look at something without knowing what they’re seeing — maybe a ranger tries to explain it, maybe they read a description — and then they get back in their cars and drive away. Most visitors to Grand Teton National Park never leave their vehicles. Nature is a movie that goes by outside the car window. There’s absolutely no intimacy with it. Intimacy always has to do with the body. It has to do with what you see, what you hear, what you smell, what you touch, what you taste. It’s like sex: you can’t have it abstractly. And you certainly can’t have intimacy with what’s going by the window of a moving car. At best what you’ve experienced is scenery through a window, which is really not much different from looking at a screen. You can’t smell a bear through a television. You can’t look a moose in the eye and know it’s looking right back at you. You certainly don’t have to worry about a moose hurting you.
In my youth I did a lot of skin diving. One time I was ten feet underwater by some undulating eelgrass, and suddenly it opened to reveal a five-foot shark against the sand. That does something to your nervous system. It’s the same when you come across a bear in the wild. And you can have these experiences with people, too. I once ran into a sadhu [a Hindu holy man] way up in the Himalayas. It was sleeting and snowing heavily. He had a long beard and wore nothing but a loincloth. His eyes were huge! I said hello. He nodded. I pointed to the camera on my chest, indicating that I’d like to take a photo of him. He politely asked me not to in perfect English. I replied by saying something incredibly stupid: I asked him where he’d learned English. He said, “From my parents; where’d you learn English?” Wham! That guy was something else. Whether it’s with sharks or bears or sadhus, that type of wham experience shakes your foundations in a way an iPad never will. It has to do with contact. As Thoreau wrote in The Maine Woods: “Contact! Contact!” You can’t get contact from a screen.
Tonino: Can you talk about the difference between wildness and wilderness?
Turner: Wildness is a quality; wilderness is a place. I have never been much interested in the “great wilderness debate,” about what wilderness is and whether we have preserved it. It is now divided into “real” wilderness and legislated wilderness areas. As for the latter, I’m for anything that preserves what remains of the natural world, and if the only way we can do that is by formally declaring these areas wilderness, then fine. Do it — even if they are tiny, littered with old roads and trails, lacking dominant predators, subject to fire control and constant surveillance, and filled with people carrying iPhones, iPads, and GPS’s. What I am personally interested in are places that are remote, quiet except for natural sounds, and that have natural wildlife populations and few people. I think it will eventually come down to this: wilderness is a place you can go where there are no other people.
Tonino: You’ve also written of the “measured idleness requisite to intimacy with the natural world,” and elsewhere you’ve quoted the samurai adage: “Only the weak are in a hurry.” Those are contentious words in a culture obsessed with productivity and efficiency.
Turner: I think employee timecards and everything that follows from them are among the most pernicious things that have ever happened to the modern world. The techniques developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management, infected the very beginnings of wildlife biology by stressing the importance of efficiency and the collection of data. An emphasis on these to the exclusion of everything else always leads downhill.
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post have reported that Google has found its employees are more productive if they actually stop and meditate once in a while. It’s also been reported that productivity goes down with open offices. People need some solitude, some privacy, some time to slow down. In our culture that’s anathema. We’re unnerved by the idleness of Thoreau and Muir, both of whom were censured for not working all the time. Thoreau’s critique of American life went much deeper than our mumblings about late capitalism and consumer culture. He would have felt much more at home with those Taoist hermits.
When I taught some courses for the University of Utah, I would take my class out in the national park for eight hours at a stretch. For those eight hours I asked the students to be totally silent. It wasn’t formal meditation; we just walked for twenty-five minutes — slowly inching along, doing what Zen Buddhists call walking meditation — and then we sat for twenty-five minutes. Then we walked again. Then we sat again. Finally, at the end, we wrote. Some students said it was like an explosion on the page. About a third of them liked it, a third thought it mildly interesting, and a third hated it. Some of the latter said it was as if ants were crawling all over them.
Getting people to slow down — young people, in particular — is important to me. I’m not saying that anybody needs to formally meditate. A far less loaded word is contemplate. What’s going on in your life and your relationships? Think about it. Reflect. Most people don’t contemplate anymore. They just go, go, go. Every one of the luminaries from the American conservation movement — Thoreau, Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Margaret and Olaus Murie, E.O. Wilson, and many others — spent a lot of time alone on the seashore, or in a canoe on a lake, or in the forest, or in the mountains, or digging in the soil, and always in silence. I don’t think the conservation movement is going to get anywhere if we have a citizenry that no longer wants to be alone and experience silence.
If you don’t have contact with a wild place, a wild animal, or a wild process — and I mean experiential, bodily contact — then why would you ever vote for conservation and environmental measures? That’s a long-term problem for the American conservation movement.
Tonino: Should we encourage everyone to go out into the wilderness? Won’t we overrun and destroy it?
Turner: There is no need now to encourage most people. There was when Muir started leading large groups of the public into the Sierra Nevada to acquaint them with the values of wilderness. Now the values claimed for such areas are well-known. The problem is that the people who go there don’t care about the wildness; they care about the other human values of our culture: money, gear, family, friends, having fun. Most people who do go into the natural world are going for recreation, not contemplation. They use their beloved stuff — skis, fishing rods, backpacks, rafts — in the playground of their choice. Many are in the wilderness business, servicing clients, often hordes of them, at thousands of dollars a whack. These visitors do not have to confront the loneliness, existential fear, silence, and indifference of the wild, nor do they contemplate what these things mean for a human life.
Tonino: In an essay on Vietnam vet and grizzly expert Doug Peacock, you say that all seekers and wanderers require “a mixture of danger and love.” What do you mean by that?
Turner: If you have no passion or desire for exploration, then you probably won’t take an unknown path. If you do, your path will be treacherous, if only because it is unknown. Thoreau was opposed to the State, but his ultimate enemy was conformity to the known. The less conformity you have in your life, the greater the likelihood that your path will be dangerous. And I say: The more digital your life is, the more you have conformed. It’s safe to stay home and watch reruns of Star Trek and fiddle with Facebook and track digital gossip, but it’s also shallow and lifeless.
Tonino: It strikes me that the best antidote to our aversion to nature might in fact be to spend more time in nature, thereby realizing it’s not so bad. It’s pretty simple, really.
Turner: There’s no obstacle blocking us from real contact with nature. Students will sometimes say to me, “I want to have a wilderness experience, but I don’t have the money to go to Tibet. What should I do?” I tell them to get a pair of cheap snowshoes and a plastic sled and then drive up to the Tetons in the middle of winter and head north for eighty miles into Yellowstone, alone. You’ll have a wilderness experience real fast that way. Sometimes people will ask me how to become a hermit. Look, the Escalante in Utah and many other places in the desert have huge alcoves. Find a side canyon that branches into more side canyons. In many of them there’s water trickling along the bottom. Live in the alcove. Drink the water. You don’t need a tent. Spend a week there. Nobody’s going to bother you. Nobody’s even going to know you’re there.
It’s important to note that there are many levels of solitude. Thoreau was often not completely alone at Walden Pond. His cabin is little more than an hour’s walk from Concord. He wrote about the Irish workers living in shacks nearby. He went home in the afternoon to have tea with his sisters and to visit his mother. He walked the beaches of Cape Cod with a friend and went to the Maine woods with Native American guides. The amount of time that he spent in complete solitude was minuscule compared to the isolation of the Taoist and Chan and Tibetan hermits, and yet you can see how vital it was to the development of his thinking.
When the British first visited the Rongbuk Monastery on the north side of Everest in 1924, they found 450 monks living there, plus hundreds of meditation caves, all of this at over sixteen thousand feet in one of the most hostile environments in the world. We don’t have a hermetic tradition like that in America. It’s contrary to the Puritan spirit of work, work, work! You’re supposed to spend your life working, not sitting in a cave. My conservationist and environmentalist friends often take me to task for advocating wilderness and hermetic experiences. “But what about saving the world, Jack?” they say. “You should spend your time fighting climate change, saving the wolves and the redwoods, tweeting, blogging, and doing all that you can.” I reply with a very simple statement: I think a hermit can live a perfectly good and full human life. People recoil at that response. The Puritan ethic and Taylor’s ideals of management and efficiency are eating away at us. Solitude is seen as something to be feared, something that’s not “productive.”
Tonino: I’m reminded of a quote from Edward Abbey: “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.”
Turner: In the first chapter of Walden Thoreau says, more or less: Don’t be too good. “If I repent of anything it is very likely to be my good behavior.” And Abbey says that the problem with his environmentalist friends is that they’re all obsessed with doing more in the fight for conservation. Too often this comes at the loss of a week spent alone in the desert or a week “gone fishing.” The root experience is lost for the sake of the branches, which will eventually die.
By and large I think that environmental nonprofits are not very productive or successful. They take people’s money, fill out forms, go to meetings, write letters, and talk a lot. There are a lot of problems with putting faith in them, as well as orienting environmental and conservation education toward them. At the University of Utah there was a student who wanted to spend her life defending wolves. I asked her how much time she’d spent with wolves. She told me she’d never seen a wolf. That’s a problem.
I do support environmental nonprofits that are doing something concrete. I love Earthjustice because they sue environmental offenders. I support Greenpeace. But I also hope that the people working for those organizations don’t lose perspective. I hope that they spend some time in the water with the whales and dolphins, that they get out in the Yellowstone backcountry and backpack for a week now and then, preferably in a horrible storm.
Tonino: In your essay “Wilderness and the Defense of Nature” you quote Lao Tzu: “The world is sacred. / It can’t be improved. / If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it. / If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.” How do you reconcile the active defense of nature with the need to leave it alone?
Turner: There are many ways to act as nature’s helpful partner. One option is to start very close, with yourself and your own surroundings — right here, right now — with your life and your community. I put out bird feeders around my cabin in the winter, not because the birds need them but because I need the birds. Every once in a while a chickadee will fly into the screened-in breezeway and get trapped. I go in and catch the bird as gently as I can. Then I go outside and open my hands and let it go. That’s one end of the spectrum. From there you can go all the way up to the most extreme ideas about controlling the climate. For instance, Mark Lynas, author of the book The God Species, now says global warming has gone too far and that the only hope we have of preserving livable conditions on this planet is to actively manage the atmosphere, the acidification of the ocean, and the nitrogen cycle, and to group people into cities so they don’t live on the land anymore. Everybody living in cities? Nobody living on the land? It’s appalling.
I like to pick berries. I like to pick mushrooms. I like to fish. I like to do these things as responsibly as I can, humbly, modestly, the old Taoist way, seeking harmony as I understand it, by not taking too much or exerting too much influence. Humans have interacted with nature for thousands of years, and for an awful lot of that time we got along relatively well. Then, incrementally, we developed more power and more control. In my opinion some of the major environmental organizations have gone way over the line. They’re really pro management, really into tampering with complicated cycles and systems. I don’t support that. I say, Keep it local, keep it close. Can you touch it? Can you smell it? Good. You’re doing OK.
I have a tremendous distrust of turning things over to collections of experts bearing numbers. Look what they did to the financial markets in 2008. Look what they did in the Iraq War. Look what they did in Vietnam. We have a substantial history of extremely bright, numbers-oriented, technologically savvy people making terrible mistakes. So why should we trust them with the earth? I wouldn’t trust them as far as I can spit a brick.
Tonino: In your essay “The Abstract Wild: A Rant” you quote an officer in Vietnam who explained the destruction of a village by saying, “We had to destroy it in order to save it.” Does this apply to the scientific management of the natural world?
Turner: I think that both the wildlife biologists and the conservation biologists in Yellowstone and Grand Teton and elsewhere are well-intentioned human beings. They’ve spent considerable time out in the natural world, and they really do love it. But the ways they interact with the natural world and what their jobs entail are often intrusive. It’s one thing to talk in the abstract about putting collars with radio-tracking devices on wild animals, but in practice it’s ugly. They shoot nets over mountain sheep from helicopters. The sheep become hysterical. They run into avalanche zones and sometimes fall and get buried. They develop an incredible fear of helicopters and planes, so that when you try to monitor them, they scatter and run into avalanche zones again. And these sheep — or wolves, or bears — often aren’t trapped just once, but many times. And of course there’s a certain mortality rate, too.
There are few animal species in Grand Teton National Park that are not part of a management program. Everything is studied, everything observed. Ravens are collared. Microchips are implanted in fish. The studies raise further questions that need to be answered. Now you need to put radio collars on more animals. This kind of science feeds on itself in a horrible loop. You end up with more and more biologists collaring more and more critters. The numbers generate more numbers. The intrusion grows. And who can deal with all that information, anyway? It forces us to turn to computers and create models that tell us what the world ought to be like. Anyone who loves wild nature and wild animals should be opposed to all this.
Tonino: Perhaps there’s a feeling that if you’re a nature lover, you have to jump on board with this kind of scientific management because there seems to be no viable alternative. It’s this or nothing.
Turner: The real problem is that the nature lovers who want to get involved in ecology and biology and conservation are trained in this tradition. Look at the courses in wildlife biology at any university. What do the future managers of nature study? They study computer monitoring. They study the use of radio collars. They analyze data. If you say, “No, I want to be an old-school naturalist like Olaus Murie and go out with my binoculars and my notebook and watch elk for ten years,” then everybody will assure you that you’re not going to get a job. The only way to get a job in the field is to participate in the continued growth of this intrusion, and a lot of these intruders are aware of this, and some feel rather badly about it.
The cowboys have a great saying: “You can kick the spirit out of a puppy, but it’s hard to kick it back in.” We have all known dogs who were terrified of doing something wrong and getting kicked. The same goes for kids. You can absolutely smash a kid’s spirit. I don’t want to kick the spirit out of the natural world. Once we kick it out, we can’t put it back in; we can’t fabricate spirit and autonomy after the fact. The elk population here on the National Elk Refuge has been called the most heavily managed collection of animals in the world. They’re fed pellets. They’re given shots for their health. Multimillion-dollar mansions pen them in. And they’re still called “wild”? From the moment we emerged as a species, we’ve influenced the world; influence is not the problem. The question is a matter of degree: where along that line do you interfere with autonomy and self-organization? I believe that two human beings can be relatively autonomous and still have a healthy relationship. And I believe that this is the kind of relationship we need to have with the natural world: influence but not control.
Tonino: Are there other cultures that have a more intimate connection with the wild?
Turner: Yes. Any hunter-gatherer culture will be more intimate for the simple reason that they eat the wild. They have to know nature intimately in order to survive. For instance, men in the trackless dunes of the Taklamakan Desert of western China know where they are by smell. This intimacy isn’t a hobby reserved for summer trips to the mountains with a flower handbook in hand.
An easy way to track our own culture’s decline is the lost vocabulary describing plants and animals. Ethnobotanist Gary Nabham has documented this decline in the Native American Papago culture, generation by generation. Also, of course, there’s the decline in skills: the ability to hunt and fish, to find tubers, to navigate using the sky and wind and foliage. Most people don’t know a single constellation and couldn’t point out Jupiter or Mars in the sky if their life depended on it. We are now a digital culture far removed from nature. Even the typical environmentalist or conservationist — what is he or she doing at 10:15 in the morning? Looking at a computer screen. Many don’t know a tuber from a doorknob.
Tonino: We live in a time of great loss: fragmentations, destructions, extinctions. At the personal level, how do you handle this loss?
Turner: No one I know of is naive enough to think that we’re going to “save the world.” Regardless of what we do, the world goes on. Politics and economics aren’t going to amount to all that much in the end. But that doesn’t mean we should quit. I, for one, would like to go down fighting. It’s not Armageddon coming our way; it’s not the so-called end of nature. That said, with a combination of radical climate change, war, famine, and disease, billions of people might die, and millions of species might be lost, but nobody — nobody! — knows. Water shortages are already leading to water wars and water refugees. It’s hard to predict species loss, because most of the research focuses on coral reefs, whales: flora and fauna you can see and count. Nobody knows what’s happening with the microorganisms at Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park or in the sky a mile above Maui. And this is to say nothing of the threats to some of our more refined pleasures, such as democracy.
How do I handle it? I keep it close. I help the chickadee out of the breezeway. I give money to people fighting on the scale that best suits them. And I try to keep informed. But I have lost faith in the standard liberal/progressive/conservation/environmental paradigm. The revolution needs to go deeper than that; it lies in the realm of myth, the religious or spiritual (a word I don’t like).
Tonino: In some of your writing you’ve said that anger and outrage can be healthy.
Turner: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with anger. In fact, I’m suspicious of people who are never angry. If you’ve never gotten angry, then either you’ve never been crossed or you don’t have solid values. I just laugh at certain people I know who call themselves pacifists in our oh-so-safe world. What would you do if somebody went after your six-year-old daughter? You’d chase him down with an eight-inch frying pan and beat the shit out of him, that’s what you’d do. Pacifism and civil disobedience are nice if your opponent is also nice. The Nazis weren’t nice.
Environmental issues can be abstract, but if you pull them close enough, to the personal level, you’ll get angry. It’s a natural human emotion. I once drove to California to talk about anger with my old Zen teacher, Robert Aitken. After we talked for a couple of hours, he showed me a photo of Yasutani Roshi, one of the first Buddhist teachers to come to the U.S. Boy, did he have a fierce face — the guy was scowling! Aitken told me that Yasutani spent much of his life enraged at the Sōtō Zen hierarchy in Japan because he thought they had abandoned the roots of their own tradition. He was a wise, enlightened man — a good man — and he was enraged.
Gandhi may have advocated nonviolent action, but if you think he wasn’t pissed off, you’re nuts. Martin Luther King Jr. was angry, too, and for good reason. There is nothing wrong with anger, but it must be focused toward productive action against an appropriate object.
Tonino: You’ve commented that we live in an age of relativism and that most folks no longer believe in evil. Do you believe in evil?
Turner: Yes, I do. But evil seems to require a kind of scale: the Nazis, Stalin, Mao, the leaders of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Some of my Buddhist friends don’t believe in evil; and some think that compassion is always the best response, even to evil. I usually refer them to the great Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa’s idea of “idiot compassion.” Compassion is not a panacea; it requires judgment and wisdom. All of the virtues require judgment. You can be kind, and you can be honest, but not always at the same time. Sometimes you ought to shut up instead of being honest, and other times you ought to tell it like it is, even if it’s not kind and people will be hurt. Which to do? This requires good judgment and wisdom — and they do not come easily or quickly. We need people in our lives, both at a personal level and at a national level, who have judgment, courage, and compassion. As the Buddha said, greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly — yes, even in you and me. It’s not as though we’re going to save the world, and then everything will be OK. We’ll never succeed, but still we must try. It’s a constant confrontation with the present moment.
Tonino: Would you say a little about your religious life?
Turner: I describe myself as a student of Chan Buddhism and Taoism. I first started formal Zen meditation in 1966, but my practice was very inconsistent. I spent time in monasteries in Ladakh and Nepal. Around 1984 writer and poet Gary Snyder came to Jackson Hole to give a talk, and I had dinner with him afterward. I asked him to suggest a Zen teacher, and he recommended Robert Aitken in Hawaii. I now study with his dharma heir [successor], Nelson Foster. I am just a student. I’ve been sitting — though sometimes erratically — for more than five decades; I’ve studied Taoism and some traditions of Buddhism other than Chan, particularly the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Dzogchen, which has a number of similarities to Zen. I’m not much of an institutional guy, but I do have a tremendous amount of respect for all those traditions. I will always be just a student, and that’s fine with me.
America tends to convert everything into commodities, so now we have a spiritual marketplace with Buddhist teachers who make many thousands of dollars a year pushing what I think is basically snake oil. Buyer beware! But I do believe there are still true teachers. They’re more like mountain guides, actually: “I’ve done this route forty-seven times. If you want to do the route, bad conditions and all, then I can probably give you some helpful tips that might, just might, get you to the top.” The teacher-guide can’t move your arm and plant your foot for you, though. You have to pee for yourself; you have to climb the mountain yourself. Reading and talking don’t count. The form of Chan-Zen-Dzogchen-Taoism I study is not really a matter of beliefs. I don’t believe; I just try to practice. And I’m no better than that practice, which is in this present moment. You’re either here or you’re not, either in contact or you’re not.
I think a hermit can live a perfectly good and full human life. People recoil at that response. . . . Solitude is seen as something to be feared, something that’s not “productive.”
Tonino: What about the connections between mountaineering and the practice of meditation? Both seem to be, above all else, a practice of attention.
Turner: There’s a Zen story that speaks to this. An apprentice monk comes along and asks the master: “What is the secret of the great matter?” And the master says: “Attention.” And the young monk says: “I understand that attention is very important, but surely there must be something more.” And the master says: “Yes, attention.” The young monk goes berserk with frustration, insistent that there must be more. And the master says: “Yes, there is.” The apprentice asks, “What is it?” The answer: “Attention, attention, attention.”
There are some researchers in the field of neurophysiology who think consciousness is actually just attention. All sports involve attention at some level — there are books on meditation and golf, meditation and tennis. The incredible thing about surfing or rock climbing or Zen practice, though, is risk. Risk forces you to pay attention. It’s so common in this country to want the reward without the risk: “Can I buy it? Can I hire a great guide?” Soloing up Everest is one thing. Getting dragged up Everest by three Sherpas who are carrying your oxygen tanks is something else. There is no reward without risk. In Zen you risk everything.
Tonino: In one of your essays you ask: “Do we want nature to be sacred? Can this be chosen? Should it be?” Can you talk about the complexities of calling nature “sacred”?
Turner: There was a time in which the sacred was fairly circumscribed. There were sacred objects. There were sacred places to which people made pilgrimages. And there were more, far more, profane practices. Now the word has been so overused that it’s not really distinctive. At a certain point a word like that turns into mush. Most terms have meaning because they’re contrastive. “Wildness,” “wilderness,” “spiritual” — these words need to be contrasted with something. Spread them too thin, and they offer no nourishment.
Tonino: This brings to mind another of your essays, in which you call yourself a barbarian “in the original Greek sense of the word: one who has trouble with the language of civilization.”
Turner: Just yesterday I saw an advertisement for electronic devices that said, “Upgrade Your Self.” What an idea! “Make Yourself Better.” “Be a Better You.” And what do you need for this instant transformation? Well, you’re going to have to buy a new pair of headphones and a few other gadgets. The self-help movement in the U.S. is worth billions of dollars, yet no one has any idea what the word self means. Its meaning is contested by psychologists, therapists, neuroscientists, and marketers. But that doesn’t stop anybody from using it to sell electronic devices or all-too-clever books. Some words are overused, particularly in the worlds of advertising and entertainment, to the point where they erode and dissolve. Do you really think that buying new headphones will be an upgrade of your self?
Here’s another: “spiritual practice.” Pay two thousand dollars, and you can spend a weekend at our little place outside New York City. We’ll teach you to eat correctly and to be quiet, and, of course, you’ll have to buy a robe, some special bowls, and ebony chopsticks. It’s the American way. Do you think that has anything to do with Zen practice? Do you think that buying a Tibetan robe is going to make you a Tibetan monk? Or hanging a thangka [Buddhist painting] in your apartment? If so, you’ve been suckered.
And how about wilderness, that sticky word? There’s been a big fight out in California about the Drakes Bay Oyster Company. For nearly eighty years they have farmed oysters in a bay that’s inside of Point Reyes National Seashore. Now the park wants to close down the Drakes Bay Oyster Company and make the bay part of a “wilderness area.” There are houses on a nearby hill. Commercial fishermen work throughout the waters just off the coast. The bay is surrounded by dairy farms that have been there for decades. The species of oyster farmed there isn’t indigenous to the U.S. to begin with, and they’ve fundamentally changed the ecology of the bay. And you want to call it a wilderness area? I think the term “wilderness” is primarily political now: we have to label places a certain way in order to “save” them. This is another example of the erosion of language. We tend to use labels that benefit our own political position or what we can sell this weekend.
Tonino: You’ve written about the wilderness as “a project of the self.” What do you mean by that?
Turner: Well, since I don’t really know what the “self” is anymore, I misspoke. I take it back!
Real wild places allow you to sit quietly with few distractions, away from advertising, entertainment, and the rest of the modern mind-flood. I recommend going to a wild place for a week or two without bringing along your music or your iPad or even a book or a journal. I call this “radical hermitry.”
The mind’s ability to generate noise is astounding. It gorges on information, thoughts, feelings. And if you deprive it of them, it will generate its own. For people just beginning to do retreats of any kind, the mind is in a state of turmoil for a while. But if you stick with it, you quiet down, and “something” begins to settle.
On the treks I led, it was always the same story: Wealthy people who had given me thousands of dollars to guide them on a thirty-day trip to Everest or Annapurna arrived in their Brooks Brothers coats and ties — yes, mostly men in those days — all very impressed with their jobs and their prestige and their spouses and kids. Then we started walking, and for two or three days their minds churned and churned. These people who had flown to the other side of the planet to have a new and different experience dragged their lives along with them. Soon enough, though, they started getting blisters and having bouts of diarrhea and had to hike up steep, snowy slopes. They got to know each other, and themselves. They settled into the rhythm of the trip. After a month these people would admit, aghast, that they were no longer thinking about their jobs, their spouses, their kids. The main topics of conversation were their bodies, hunger, thirst, what they had seen, and the next mountain pass. When we neared the end of the trek, all of the old stuff started rushing back in. These bearded guys who had been out walking for five weeks and had forgotten about the “real world” returned to their hotel in Kathmandu, and immediately they were back in the whir of it all, the gerbil wheel: their phone, their computer, columns from The Wall Street Journal.
A retreat doesn’t have to be formal. It doesn’t have to be “Zen” or in the most severe wilderness. Isolation, solitude, and silence can all come together to allow for contemplation of the here and now. You’re never going to get rid of your thoughts; that’s not the goal. But there’s no avoiding the pain in your knee. It’s here. It’s close.
These bearded guys who had been out walking for five weeks and had forgotten about the “real world” returned to their hotel in Kathmandu, and immediately they were back in the whir of it all, the gerbil wheel: their phone, their computer, columns from The Wall Street Journal.
Tonino: I’m remembering your friends who say you should be out saving redwoods and tweeting rather than meditating in the woods. Why should we value a mind concerned with knee pain over a mind focused on social and environmental issues?
Turner: I don’t know how to respond to a flat-out rejection: “I have no interest in contemplation. I’m not interested in total isolation for seven days in the desert. I don’t care.” If you don’t care, you don’t care. It’s the same with people who say, “I’m supposed to care about giraffes? Are you serious? Giraffes?” Then they laugh at you and return to punching numbers into their computer and transferring money to Hong Kong. There’s nothing to be done with them. They must first experience doubt and glimpse a different need. You can’t force people away from their values and traditions, their mortgages and alimony payments. As Zorba the Greek says: “Wife, house, kids, everything — the full catastrophe.” Some folks are in the midst of the full catastrophe, and you tell them that they need to spend some time alone in contemplation. What can they do? They just look at you wide-eyed. These people are nearly drowning; they are dog-paddling as hard as they can, their lips sealed, the water creeping into their nostrils.
If you’ve never had a genuine wilderness experience, even some small version of it, then why would you be drawn to it? That’s why it’s so important for those of us who love wild places and wild animals — and what happens to our minds when we’re in their presence — to do our best to get people out there and help bring them into the experience. There are many paths.
Tonino: You’ve written: “Without big, wild wilderness, I doubt most of us will ever see ourselves as part and parcel of nature.” Where does that leave children, the elderly, the disabled, and people who can’t afford the gas to reach the trailhead, let alone the time off work? Can we practice seeing ourselves as part and parcel of nature in our everyday lives?
Turner: Expand your sense of wilderness. One of the easiest things is to go outside at night and look at the stars. Of course, if you live in the city, you can’t see the stars. I feel sorry as hell for any dog that lives in an apartment in a high-rise in New York City, and I feel sorry for the people who live there as well. But wilderness is still available to them. They can drive fifty miles out of the city and look at the night sky, maybe get a pair of binoculars and a star chart. Contemplate the fact that you are the debris of those stars. Contemplate the fact that the atmosphere you are looking through is a wilderness of trillions of beings.
It doesn’t require the money to go to Tibet. Central Park is pretty wild. Your backyard is wild. Go out there and dig, or go back there with a microscope and look at the insects that appear, tiny claws and mouths fighting each other and eating each other alive — the food chain in action. Thoreau watched ants battling. They were right there on the ground. He didn’t have to go to Tibet.
At root it’s a matter of choice. If you never take a moment to watch an ant, never go to Central Park, never put your hands in the soil, never glance up at the night sky, never go to the ocean and stare into the waves; if all you do is look at your screen for eighteen hours a day, then you’re not going to get it. If your kid has gymnastics lessons, French lessons, woodworking lessons, swimming lessons, debate lessons, math lessons month after month, year after year, with never a free moment, then your kid won’t get it either. If all you’ve done is study so you can get into law school and get married and get your first mortgage, then you won’t find the time for wilderness, big or little.
I can’t tell you how important family car-camping was for many of the people I know who are lovers of and advocates for the natural world. Those experiences mean a great deal to kids. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. All you need is a little intention. You can get kids out. You can get the elderly out. There are wheelchair-accessible fishing holes on the Yellowstone River. Exum Mountain Guides, I’m proud to say, has a program for taking veterans climbing. Guys missing an arm, a leg, an arm and a leg — they summit the Grand Teton.
There was a lovely essay by the poet Donald Hall a year or so ago in The New Yorker in which he described the experience of looking through his back window. He sat there and looked outside, watching the birds and the snow. He contemplated. He could have been watching reruns of I Love Lucy with the blinds drawn, but he wasn’t. It’s not a matter of money. This really can be done. There’s no logical barrier, and there’s no financial barrier. There are all kinds of ways to have contact with the natural world. It’s that people choose not to. They watch reruns of I Love Lucy instead.
Tonino: You’ve called the Tetons your “home in the deepest sense of the word.” How did this happen, and what does your life look like now?
Turner: I first came here in the summer of 1960. I was an eighteen-year-old kid working alongside two other boys on an oil-exploration crew south of Pinedale. After a month on the job we drove to the Tetons looking for girls and beer. We drove around Jenny Lake and stopped at a spot where we could put a nickel in binoculars and look at the Grand Teton. There were climbers on some rocks by a waterfall, receiving instruction from the Exum Mountain Guides Climbing School. After signing up for a basic rock-climbing class, we headed off in search of a place to camp where we could shoot our guns. Later we drove east, way up into the Gros Ventre Range, and found a spot called Crystal Creek. I still fish Crystal Creek today, fifty-four years later. My wife and I go up there and look through our telescope. It was my dog’s favorite place in the world before she died. I’ve lived here pretty much continuously for thirty-six years, but my relationship with the region goes back to that summer of 1960.
I’ve also made it a goal to learn the plants, the wildlife, the seasons. Two ospreys, Olivia and Othello, nest near our cabin each year. Sometime in late April they show up, and my wife and I welcome them back. We watch the chicks hatch and grow. During the winter months a fox visits me at our home nearly every day. My wife and I call her “Boots.” We don’t feed her, but she checks us out anyway, jumping up on the table outside my office window and studying me, as if to ask, “Where is my Belgian waffle with whipped cream?” We’ve had grizzly bears with cubs at our back window. We’ve had moose lips pressed to the glass. We’ve had Marty the pine marten [a close relative of the weasel] and his wife, Martina, as neighbors. I think of all these animals as our friends. Of course, the Feds are aware that naming animals or calling them “friends” — especially the dangerous ones — is too anthropomorphic for science. So they number them: “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Grizzly #399.” I don’t think that’s an improvement. My wife and I are not naive, though: we carry bear spray every day to protect ourselves.
One of my essays starts: “My cabin is located next to a stream that runs through a meadow, but it is not on any map.” It’s not on a map because the places I’ve lived and loved are labeled with my own names: Where Rio chases her stick. Rio’s favorite pool. Where Rio ran into the bear. It’s a private mapping, a personal geography projected onto the land. It requires a long time living in one place and studying its plants and animals. If you follow them and their lives, you gain a deeper sense of home. Those old hermits didn’t need topographic maps.
Researchers can tell you that Concord is six degrees warmer now than it was in Thoreau’s time, because they have his journals to refer to. They can tell you that on average the plants now bloom anywhere from two to six weeks earlier than in his day. They can tell you the number of wildflowers that have disappeared. Only because of individuals’ note-keeping and tracking and immersion in place do we have any sense of how nature is changing. The idea of being embedded in one’s environment is paramount, and Thoreau is our great exemplar. The old Chinese hermits wrote poems and painted pictures of their places, always presenting their “embeddedness.”
I can’t focus on things that I am not intimately connected with, whether ideas or places. You can’t send me to Chile to write an article about rounding up cattle, or to France to cover the next election. I have no interest in that. I just paint pictures of places that I love, places that have meaning for me. I write essays. I take walks with my wife. I greet the ospreys and free the chickadees trapped in the breezeway. That’s my life. That’s what I believe in.
Tonino: Of being caught alone in a storm on an open alpine plateau, you write: “I wait, ruminating on the impossibility of escape and the wisdom and freedom buried in the impossibility of escape.” Can you expand on this?
Turner: One of the things we do with our minds to get away from the present moment is generate hopes, fears, and predictions about the world, what might be called “the not-here, not-now.” But I don’t believe in hope. Hope is a cosmic joke. Look at what happened to President Obama and hope. Life is too filled with contingency to waste time on hope; hope places you in the future, not here. And predictions? We can’t even predict the weather two days from now.
The passage you quoted describes a big storm in the Beartooth Mountains that I weathered with my beloved dog Rio. We were above the timberline, totally exposed, nowhere to run to, and the flashes of lightning spooked her. She whimpered and hid behind my leg. I held on to her by her collar and the scruff of her neck. We were lashed by hail, wind, and rain. I didn’t know if the lightning was going to hit us. What do you do in that situation? You can’t turn off the storm or retreat or control what will happen in a minute. You just grab the scruff of your dog’s neck and hold on. Just hold on. There’s a tremendous freedom in turning off the mind-flood and holding on to your beloved dog. You can lament the torrent — “I have no control” — or you can accept it: here it is; this is what’s happening.
Tonino: Metaphorically this notion can be applied to global social and ecological crises. We’re all stuck in a storm, bearing with it moment by moment.
Turner: Yes. Free the chickadee. Hold on to your dog.