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Rewilding and Deep Ecology: A Tribute to Dolores LaChapelle

The debut issue of Wild Earth, published in the spring of 1991 under the editorial leadership of John Davis and Dave Foreman (also co-founders of Wildlands Network), featured among its many ecocentric contributions a scholarly essay written by mountaineer and ecophilosopher Dolores LaChapelle (1926–2007). LaChapelle was a pioneer of the deep ecology movement, whose objectives she described as, “to uphold the rights of every form of life—both human and nonhuman—and to promote diversity, symbiosis, local economy, and decentralization” (White 2016).

Profile of an elderly woman with long gray hair and wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses
Dolores LaChapelle, 2005. Photo: Margot Early, Wikimedia Commons

In her Wild Earth essay, “Wild Human Wild Earth,” LaChapelle proposed that wild indigenous cultures throughout the world shared three key aspects of life that kept primitive tribes in balance with their wild environment: ritual, population control, and respect for the non-human. “Practicing ritual,” she wrote, “is living our connections with the non-human.”

LaChapelle further suggested that, deep within our brains, we still hold a portal to our animal ancestors—and thus a way forward in dealing with our current ecological predicament:

The nature of the rational hemisphere (the “left brain”) is to take things apart to see how they work. But it cannot put anything together again. That’s what the other hemisphere and the older brains do. The emotions we humans value most—altruism and empathy—do not come from the neocortex but from the deeper, the so-called animal or limbic, level of the brain. We inherited these emotions from our animal ancestors, and when we operate within this brain we share thinking with the animals.

Close-up of large black ape in vegetation, holding a piece of bamboo
Photo: Richard Ruggiero, USFWS

LaChapelle expanded upon some of the above concepts in a thought-provoking interview conducted by author Jonathan White, published recently under the title, “Mountains Constantly Walking.” Over a 10-year period, White carried out interviews with inspirational thinkers like LaChapelle, Ursula LeGuin, Matthew Fox, Lynn Margulis, David Brower, Gretel Ehrlich, and others, while he traveled with each of these luminaries on board his 65-foot schooner, Crusader, along wild Northwest coastlines. He compiled the resulting material in his excellent book, Talking on the Water: Conversations about Creativity (Copyright © 2016 by Jonathan White), and generously allowed Wildlands Network to republish his interview with LaChapelle in its entirety (reprinted courtesy of Trinity University Press).*

In the excerpt below, LaChapelle describes deep ecology in the context of human life and juxtaposes this philosophy with the environmentally destructive realities of our modern industrial system.

Excerpt from “Mountains Constantly Walking”

JW: The deep ecology movement has been criticized for its antihuman position. For example, in Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance, he says the problem with deep ecology is “that it defines human beings as inherently and contagiously destructive, the deadly carriers of plague upon the earth.” He goes on to say that the logic of deep ecology points to only one cure: eliminating people. Gore’s criticism is particularly harsh and perhaps misguided, but I believe it reflects the general perspective toward deep ecology.

Woman skiing steep slope with bright blue sky behind her
Dolores LaChapelle, breaking trail, mid-1950s. Photo: Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

DL: No, deep ecology is not antihuman. It’s larger than the human. It includes humans within the whole of life, not setting them apart from life or above life. There’re some talk that we humans need to become humble, artificially humble. That’s not the point. As soon as you pay attention, you are at once humbled by what you do not know. Take our bodies, for example. The bacteria inside us are constantly working to sustain life, yet we have little or no awareness of it.

Deep means going deeply into the human. Perhaps some of the confusion over this question comes from the criticism deep ecologists direct at our modern industrial growth society. It’s becoming obvious that this modern system cannot continue. Well, the answer is not to use more of the same tactics. The only way out is to relearn or just remember the techniques that made us human in the first place. Those are the techniques that governed humankind and our relations with the earth for the past fifty thousand years. It these techniques hadn’t been successful, we wouldn’t be here. It’s as simple as that.

A gray wolf raises its head in the air and howls.
Photo: William C. Gladish

JW: What are the techniques that made us human in the first place?

DL: What is it that you most like to do? Chances are it’s some variation of hunting, dancing, racing, conversation, or flirting. This is the life of primitive hunter-gatherers who, like the aristocrats of all cultures, made no distinction between leisure and life. Primitive tribes are the original affluent society. The primitive !Kung San bushmen, who live in the most inhospitable desert in the world, work an average of twenty hours a week. The rest of the time is devoted to dancing and storytelling and ritual.

Primitive man is not the sick, beleaguered, pre-scientific creature we’ve been taught to believe he is. Instead, he is a highly social, responsible being who lived in some degree of harmony with his environment.

The end of the modern system does not mean the end of all life, it means the return to real living and responsible relationship.

Cultural man has been on Earth for over two million years, and for 99% of the time he’s been a hunter-gatherer. Only in the last ten thousand years have we turned to farming. We’re fooling ourselves by thinking we can draw on some new potential here. We and our ancestors are the same people. That’s who we are! We still have the same sophisticated body and highly complex brain of the hunter, yet in the last four hundred years we’ve been trying to force this body/brain into the tight, dull, limited, violent view of modern industrial culture. The breakdown is showing up all over the place—in stress-related diseases, alcoholism, suicide, devastation of land, and so on. The end of the modern system does not mean the end of all life, it means the return to real living and responsible relationship.

The “old ways,” thanks to Gary Snyder, has come to mean our rather sudden and recent remembering of who we are and what we should be doing on Earth. And it turns out to be exactly what we want to be doing.

JW: When you say “the end of this modern system,” do you mean that literally? Can we use or present technology and science to undo the problems it has caused, as David Brower suggests, or do we need to find entirely new tools to rediscover “real living and responsible relationship”?

DL: The titles of books these days, such as Reweaving the Sacred Web, Healing the Earth, and so on, imply that we think we can accomplish the necessary work by still more planning and ideas. But it’s not the earth that threw us out. We threw ourselves out. Rational, human planning is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Just before he died, Gregory Bateson said the biggest task ahead is reinserting humanity back into nature. That’s not going to happen through philosophy or science. It happens through direct experiences where you know you are part of nature.

Rewild Human Rewild Earth

Today, LaChapelle’s wisdom may be all the more salient, as Wildlands Network and other conservationists struggle against the powerful tide of biodiversity loss to rewild landscapes and the human heart. But how does her deep ecology perspective align with conservation planning and the science-driven protection of large landscapes?

Man with backpack hikes up a snowy mountainside with tall green trees and a mountain peak visible behind him.
John Davis climbs a  mountainside during his 5,000-mile trek across the American West. Photo: Karsten Heuer

I asked John Davis, now editor of Rewilding Earth, to address this question given his past friendship with the late LaChapelle, whom he considered a personal mentor in his early days as a conservationist. He replied:

I believe if Dolores were still alive, she would be speaking increasingly of Rewilding as Ritual. I suspect she would urge us to complement our hard work of mapping wildways and fending off attacks to wildlands with the on-the-ground, shared work of reintroducing wildlife eradicated in the past. Welcoming home the wild neighbors eliminated by our forebears can become a Practice of the Wild (to borrow from another leading deep ecologist, Gary Snyder) that helps stem the extinction crisis.

Our animal brains are calling upon us to listen to the wildness and to fight like hell to preserve it.

Indeed, scientific knowledge and conservation action are clearly key to saving our remaining wild places and wildlife—but reconnecting with wildness in a deeply personal way is essential to finding the humility, compassion, and fortitude necessary to restore our relationship with wild nature. Wherever we live, and whatever the practices that tie us closely to the land (and sea) around us, our animal brains are calling upon us to listen to the wildness and to fight like hell to preserve it. In the words of LaChapelle:

If we’re going to rediscover a viable relationship with nature, it will not be through more ideas but through experiences where you know you are part of nature, with no questions asked. When you’ve had these experiences you know what you want and you can’t be pushed around.

TO OUR READERS: How do you commune with wild nature in a deep and meaningful way? Please join the conversation by adding a comment below.

* “Mountains Constantly Walking” appeared in the book, Talking on the Water, by Jonathan White, published by Trinity University Press, October 2016. Please visit www.tupress.org.

For further inspiration, check out White’s latest book, Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, and the Rewilding Institute’s online publication, Rewilding Earth.

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