Call of the Wild
David Gessner’s article “The Taming of the Wild” (Summer 2016), commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and advocating for the preservation of “the wild,” resonated with me strongly. I have had wonderful experiences visiting and camping in our national parks, from Acadia to Denali. And yes, I’ve been irritated by the crowds, but that is avoidable, as Gessner suggests, by getting off the roads and main trails. Solo wilderness experiences can be so powerfully meaningful that poets (sometimes to the point of cliché) call them transformative. My own experiences in the wild rank in value just behind the birth of my children, my wedding, and the memorial services and graduations I’ve attended. I am permanently affected by those solitary encounters with land, sky, and water, and all that’s contained within. I don’t really know if I am a better person because of them, but I am happier for them.
David Gessner’s idea of “the value of uselessness” has a long pedigree. It is a prominent theme in the book of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi
(c. 300 B.C.E.), whose eponymous work contains a number of anecdotes illustrating the concept. A typical example goes like this:
Carpenter Shi was on his way to Qi. When he reached Crooked Shaft, he saw an oak tree at the village shrine. It was so big a thousand cows could stand in its shade; its trunk measured a hundred arm-spans round. It seemed as tall as a mountain, and its trunk rose up ten fathoms before branching out. If you used it to make boats, it could yield ten or more. Looking at it, you would think it was ripe for the market. But Carpenter Shi just kept walking and paid no attention to it. His apprentice, however, gazed fixedly at the tree and then ran to catch up with Carpenter Shi, saying, “Master, since I first grasped hatchet and axe and became your follower, I’ve never once seen timber as beautiful as this. Yet you didn’t even turn your head to look at it; you just walked on without stopping. How come?”
The carpenter said, “Enough! Hold your tongue! This wood is useless. If you used it to make boats, they would sink. If you used it to make coffins, they would quickly rot. If you used it to make utensils, they would quickly break. If you used it to make doors, they would drip resin. If you used it to make pillars, they would become worm-eaten. This is a worthless tree. It can’t be used for anything. That is why it has been able to live so long.”
The problem today is that a “useless” tree is likely to be bulldozed, along with the land it stands on.
John S. Major
New York, New York
Save the Brain!
James McWilliams’s “Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie” (Spring 2016) is a superb essay, with excellent references, lucid points, and some humdinger insights that I will be quoting and pondering for a long time. That so many people find simple conversation so frightening doesn’t bode well for society. I never acquired a smartphone, initially because I didn’t need one, but later because I predicted an insidious effect on my brain should I ever use one. As a creative person who gets most of her ideas from daydreaming (and reading and listening to radio), I do love my brain.
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Birds of a Feather
I loved Amy Butcher’s description of the sandhill crane migration and her heartwarming encounter with Hal (“Flight Behavior,” Summer 2016). An old bird myself, I have seen the cranes on several occasions over the years—with our children when they were small, on a final trip with my aging mother, and this year with friends from Barcelona. Never, though, have I seen or heard of a “cabbage tree” in Nebraska. Could it have been a cottonwood tree?
The error was introduced in the editing process.
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