Death and Wilderness

Last week Jack Temple Kirby died suddenly at 70 years old. Jack’s death didn’t make the local papers. Chances are you’ve never heard his name, but with his passing one of the great Southern environmental historians was silenced.

I met Jack when he delivered a keynote address at a conference I co-organized called “The Chattooga River: Wild River Real and Imagined” at the University of Georgia a few years back. That weekend we discovered a shared affinity for flat-water kayaking, and how we had different views about wilderness. His was informed by over 40 years of writing scholarly papers and books about landscapes, mostly Southern, and mine was shaped by my own 20 years’ writing creatively about nature and place.

We argued good-naturedly into the night to sort our differences. Over beers and his ever-present cocktail-hour cigar, Jack explained that
wilderness does not exist, that it’s an idea, entirely a human construction. I professed my belief that wilderness does exist, and that what we collectively name wilderness approaches a spiritual state, and therefore should be accorded our protection and reverence like a temple or a relic.

Jack countered by saying that human beings have been manipulating landscapes for hundreds of thousands of years. How do we decide at what point land becomes pure again and beyond human manipulation? When can human landscape (almost the whole planet) be deemed “wilderness?”

I said that I’d trust the framers of our federal law. Hence, I’d pay respect to the Wilderness Act of 1964, a document as sacred to me as the Civil Rights Act, or the Constitution.

“A human construct, my friend,” I remember Jack saying. “A noble American effort I support, but fallible as any human invention, and therefore subject to rethinking from time to time.”

None of this is to say that Jack Kirby did not love designated
wildernesses, like parts of the Smoky Mountains, and remote areas of his beloved Florida. He just believed that hanging on to old ideas of wilderness can hold us back.

We parted that night a little tipsy and agreeing to disagree. We promised to continue our conversation at another time, other beers.

Until the Chattooga conference Jack Kirby was simply an environmental history scholar I admired. After our conversation we struck up a warm correspondence. He kept me up to speed on his coastal Florida kayaking, told me where to eat the best barbecue when I traveled along I-95, read a manuscript draft of mine and recommended insightful revisions. In other words, he was a good friend, and will be missed as friends who pass always are.

I wanted to write about Jack this week not because anyone out there is as interested in his or my idea of wilderness, but because Jack loved to talk, to argue his ideas. His kind of scholarly thinking is important and impossible to reduce to sound bites or advertising copy or obituaries. Such thinking is the top soil of our culture. It’s foundational in a way that op-ed writing like this and TV news commentary can never be.

We tend to devalue our leading scholars. Some scoff when they’re locked out of their houses and falsely arrested, or ridicule the grants they get from the National Science Foundation or the NEH to study wolves or wilderness.

Where the oral tradition still flourishes they say that when an elder dies, it’s like a library burning down. Well, when Jack died last week I felt that an exciting conversation had abruptly gone up in flames.

Now we’ll never settle anything about wilderness, as if ideas and beliefs could ever be settled anyway.

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