Ecocritical analysis of Carl Sandburg’s ‘Wilderness’:

Explore the ways in which Carl Sandburg represents the relationship between humans and non-human nature in ‘Wilderness’:

Carl Sandburg, in ‘Wilderness’, attempts to explore the assimilation of the Anthropocene epoch into non-human nature; specifically, an integration into that of the concept of the Wilderness. Contrarily, Sandburg explores the heterogeneity, in time and place, of the Anthropocene concerning non-human nature. This essay will detail how Sandburg’s ‘Wilderness’ can be analysed through an ecocritical lens with the following three points: (a). An attempt to show an incorporation of the human into the non-human, specifically animality. Secondly, (b), Sandburg displays an alterity of animals to humans; the human is, in Sandburg’s metaphor, the zookeeper. The power dynamic here is anthropocentric. Thus, reinforcing ideas about hierarchal dualisms present between animal and human. And thirdly, (c), an example of the Heideggerian neologism Unheimlichkeit (not-being-in-the-world), whereby, the Anthropocene experiences a disparity, temporally, with non-human nature. Sandburg, therefore, depicting a form of Dasein (being-in-the-world), a shared Being in time rather than physical place. This is shown through the quasi-evolutionary common ancestry explored in the poem.

            The poem ‘Wilderness’ is a narrative free-verse poem detailing a variation on the theme of the adage ‘I contain multitudes’, whereby Sandburg contains ‘multitudes’ of non-human nature that compose his humanity. Sandburg writes seven stanzas, characterized by their irregular line numbers, meter and syllables accompanied by long line lengths. This entropic structure provides the reader with a very ‘wild’ feel of the poem; an attempt to capture the human perceived chaos of the wilderness in writing, specifically poetic writing. Despite this irregularity, Sandburg uses the refrain ‘There is a…’ followed by the naming of a specific animal, whether it be a ‘wolf’, or an ‘eagle’ and each animal is described in vivid poetic images. E.g. ‘fangs pointed for tearing gashes’; the vividness of the objective description shows an appreciation of the otherness of non-human nature. However, within this otherness an anthropocentric ascription is applied to the animal, i.e. a ‘fox’ is only cunning because that is the human observation. Sandburg details how from the wilderness his ‘multitudes’ of animal qualities, such as the strength of the ‘wolf’ or the cunning of the ‘fox’, allow him to be a guardian of non-human nature. Whereby, the wilderness provides what critic Leo Mellor calls an ‘elation […] self-knowledge [and] a recalibration of self in the world’ (Mellor, 2013). Instead of receiving a recalibrated self, Sandburg is imbued with the power of the wilderness. Continuing from this infusion, there is still an otherness between human and non-human. Therefore, this begs the question whether the usage of the poetic form can allow an analysis of the dwelling of Dasein within the verse. The Ecocritic Greg Garrard summaries the Heideggerian concept of the abyss between the human and non-human to be potentially transcended through language, especially poetry (Garrard, 2012). Thus, allowing an Eco-phenomenological analysis of literature. Consequently, using the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Poetry, Language, Thought, directly, we can assess the extent to which the aforementioned abyss can be bridged through Carl Sandburg’s ‘Wilderness’. Heidegger argues the concept Dasein, authentic being, dwells within language. Pre-empting Derridean deconstruction, Heidegger analyses the etymology of the German noun Bauen (building) and states that in both High German and Old English Bauen derives from Buan (dwelling); this definition has been lost to humanity (a common theme in his work). Heidegger follows on to argue that Bauen and Buan transcribe into bin (am), therefore ich bin, du bist (I am, you are) also mean I dwell, you dwell (Heidegger, 2001). Therefore, Dasein is not just in-the-world but within language itself. This concept of dwelling can be applied to Sandburg’s poem, as in the final stanza the speaker proclaims ‘For I am the keeper of the zoo’, if we substitute the ‘I am’ to I dwell, does this affect the overall ending of the poem: ‘For [I dwell as] the keeper of the zoo’. The original ending suggests an anthropocentric protection of the wilderness, like that of Jonathan Bate’s arguments, in The Song of the Earth, whereby the wilderness is, historically, fetishized by the bourgeoise for the purpose of self-nourishment, i.e. the setup of National Parks (Bate, 2000). Ergo, these locations require protection hence so Park Rangers, rather than being a Park Ranger of, for instance, the Peak District, the speaker seeks to be the protector of the whole world. The substitution of I dwell changes the syntax to replace the more throwaway phrase ‘I am’ to that of residing or living, but perhaps, more so of that of presence/Being; the speaker’s ek-sistance[i] is to be in the world. However, this substitution does not prevent an anthropocentric ending of the poem and the noun ‘keeper’ still keeps agency away from non-human nature. There is still an abyss present, a hierarchal dualism between human and non-human nature.

            This, arguable, failure for a Heideggerian analysis to disrupt the dualism present in the protector/protectee relationship is typical of the anthropocentrism of Heidegger’s work. As a result, this is representative of his support of the National Socialists and therefore, Heidegger’s sympathy with ecofascism rather than environmentalism (Glazebrook, 2013, as cited in Zimmerman, 1993). The concept language being the dwelling of Dasein (Heidegger, 2001), is challenged by French Phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who argues that human speech is our way of ‘singing in the world (Westling, Winter 2010, as cited in Merleau-Ponty, 2000); ‘Singing’, of course implying harmony with non-human nature. Ecocritic Louise Westling argues that poetry probes the invisible wilderness that Merleau-Ponty saw as rife with language, experienced by all animals: a shared Being (Westling, Winter 2010). This realm is depicted in Sandburg’s verse, through the changing refrain of ‘the wilderness will not let it go’, changing because the wilderness must adapt in accordance with the Anthropocene, and the final line ‘I came from the wilderness’. The lack of capitalization of ‘wilderness’ connotates the wilderness being a Space, uncivilized and uninhabited, however, the wilderness is also a Place as it is ‘ascribed with meaning’ (Buell, 2005). This is because it is rife with the language of animals and non-human nature, this capitalization consequently would reinforces the abyss. Contrarily the lack of capitalization could reflect language’s inability to define the wilderness as a proper noun, as it is inherently wild. Or, further still, the wilderness is no longer independent from the Anthropocene, therefore, it can hold no reign over language. This is reflected in the past participle transitive verb ‘came’, implying not only a physical distance, but also a temporal distance from the wilderness. This temporal distance represents the Anthropocene’s attempt to reintergrate itself into non-human nature.

            Despite Sandburg attempting to display a shared Dasein with non-human nature, he inevitably falls into the trap of reinforcing the alterity of the relationship between human and non-human nature in the wilderness. Using Descartian language in his descriptions of the hog as ‘a machinery for eating and grunting… a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun’. The anthropocentric ascriptions of the noun ‘machinery’ reinforce the ideology represented in the Western continental philosophical canon; that animals have no soul. They are instead biological machines under the care of a human mechanic, or specifically a ‘zookeeper’. Sandburg prioritizes homogeneity over heterogeneity, in the subject of the human and animal abyss, however despite this binary divide being bridged, he is still dominant within this dualism as he is ‘keeper of the zoo’. The final stanza deviates from the anaphoric refrain of the last six, from ‘There is a’ to ‘O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie’. This deviation in poetic form indicates and ending of the poem but also a homogenization of all the aforementioned animals he has collected, his body is the zoo. These animals have not been captured physically, rather a quasi-evolutionary form of entrapment. Interestingly, the use of the noun ‘menagerie’ does not connote harmony, instead of an exhibition of wild animals — where the human is the final product, the animals are actors on the stage and the human the play itself. This does not display an appreciation of non-human nature, instead shows an appreciation for anthropocentrism, animality is, therefore, performative in ‘Wilderness’.

            Lynn Turner, in Chapter 4 of The Animal Question in Deconstruction, draws attention to the abyss between man and animal, arguing that it is representative of the Derridean term ‘limitrophic violence’, (Turner, 2013), a symbol for Deconstruction. Therefore, by using Sandburg’s evolutionary ‘menagerie’ we can argue that Sandburg is reinforcing the ever-present abyss between the twin frictions of human and animal. Jacques Derrida, in The Animal That Therefore I Am, disseminates this friction into indeterminable ‘differences that grow’ (Derrida, 2008). Whereby, Derrida argues that beyond the edge of the human, there is not a single opposing side: a non-human nature, there is already a heterogenous multiplicity (Derrida, 2008). Derrida goes on to criticize the usage of ‘The Animal’, as a homogenous term, as it is a word that man has given themselves the right to use. Sandburg names each animal using the indefinite determiner ‘a fox [or] a fish’, rather than the definite article in ‘The Animal’, does the splitting of the homogenous term animal into the animal’s specified names disrupt the anthropocentrism of the term ‘The Animal’. Although expressing less alterity than ‘The’, it nonetheless still reinforces Derrida’s argument about the naming of animals. The ascription of zoomorphic qualities to the speaker in his ‘menagerie’ does not show an appreciation for the alterity of animality, it instead reinforces anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. The ‘animal’ qualities ascribed are human interpretations of animalistic behaviour; the ‘wolf’ has been summed up a ‘red tongue for raw meat’, thus displaying an indifference to non-human nature. The wolf’s Being has been summed up by its human observed characteristics, simplifying and diminishing it as a singularity. Contrarily, the human is a multiplicity, a ‘menagerie’.

            In, The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida incorporates the following philosophical thinkers from Aristotle to Lacan (including Descartes, Kant, Heidegger and Levinas) to essentially be saying the same thing: that the animal is deprived of articulated language, or more importantly a deprivation to respond (Derrida, 2008). This concept of articulated language is interesting for our analysis of Sandburg’s ‘Wilderness’ as expressed in the dichotomous image of ‘an eagle in me and a mockingbird’. The metonymic image of ‘mockingbird’ can be equally substituted for an echo, the lack of agency within the concept of an echo reinforces the anthropocentric concept of animals having no articulated speech. This mimicry, implies an alterity of non-human nature to human nature, therefore, still maintaining an abyss like that of the caller and the repeater or that of the protector/protectee relationship of ‘zoo’ and ‘zookeeper’.

            In, ‘Wilderness’, Carl Sandburg attempts to reintegrate the Anthropocene back into the ‘Wilderness’. However, Sandburg displays the Heideggerian neologism Unheimlichkeit, whereby, the kinship Sandburg feels with the ‘little wonders of […] animals and plants that never lost their wonder for [him]’ (Allen, 1972, as cited in Sandburg, 1953). They are appreciated not-in-the-world, instead of through the common evolutionary ancestry of human and non-human nature. Sandburg, in the postmodern sense, is incredulous to the grand narrative of religion, he seeks to overcome God and return to the wilderness, the inverse of Milton’s Paradise Lost — the wilderness is Paradise Regained. This is shown when the speaker ‘blew waterspouts with porpoises’, he creates his own micro-narrative to reconnect with non-human nature, through time. A return to what marine biologists call the last wilderness: the ocean. Sandburg talks about this common ancestry, humanity evolving from marine life, whereby he exists before ‘Noah… before the first chapter of Genesis’. One possible reason for this return to the water, and therefore the wilderness, is that Sandburg is writing in 1918 (the end of WWI). Sandburg is attempting to escape the horrors of the war and consequently is trying to escape experience in the phenomenological sense. Much like how T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land breaks down the human condition, Sandburg does so also, but not for Modernist nascency, breaking the human into the adage ‘I contain multitudes’ —humanity is made up of non-human nature through time. Returning to Sandburg’s desire to escape experience and return to the wilderness, we can assess the extent to whether the speaker experiences a temporal version of the sublime. French philosophical aesthetic critic Peter Milne argues that the sublime experienced temporally creates what Jean-François Lyotard calls a ‘temporal crisis’ that unravels the speaker’s consciousness and allows him to, phenomenologically, escape experience (Milne, 2020). The Anthropocene epoch is therefore so tiny compared to the vast epoch of the Earth, that it experiences the Burkean sublime as a consequence. This unravelling of the conscious subject (speaker), Milne argues, allows the temporal sublime to be related to the Freudian unconscious. Therefore, within the poem, the speaker undergoes a form of the dissolution of self and he becomes, and dwells as, ‘keeper of the zoo’, experiencing a form of ego-death, where he must return to the wilderness.

            Perhaps, more importantly, than an unravelling of the speaker’s unconsciousness, the speaker’s DNA is unravelled revealing similarities with animality. Although writing in 1918, Sandburg embraces a quasi-Darwinist appreciation of non-human nature with his symbiotic relationship with said animality. This analysis is, by nature, anachronistic as 35 years later Rosalind Franklin discovers DNA. Consequently, pre-empting 20th-century advances in genetics, Sandburg relates how there is ‘baboon in [him]’ this proclamation is, of course, Darwinist but perhaps, more importantly, Homo Sapiens sharing 94% of its DNA, with a baboon — displaying a relationship with non-human nature, shared temporally. This suggestion of a biological continuum is rejected by Derrida as he vehemently reacts any notion of ‘[a] biological continuism, whose sinister connotations we are well aware of’ (Derrida, 2008). Louise Westling attributes this rejection to Derrida being a Sephardic Jew who would understand all too wells the horrors of social-Darwinism, eugenics and the diminishment and abjection of the human to animality for more than pejorative consequences. Westling follows on to argue that accepting a continuum is not necessarily as extreme as Derrida’s assertion, implying that varying consciousness evolved over the Earth’s existence allows human sentience to be recognised as one of the many facets of animal awareness (Westling, Winter 2010). This recognition allows Sandburg to show an appreciation for the alterity of non-human nature, whilst also seeking kinship with it, understanding that he has a shared Being with non-human nature, in time rather than place. Thus, showing an appreciation of the wilderness through time rather than its physical presence in-the-world.

            Carl Sandburg’s ‘Wilderness’ represents the relationship between human and non-human nature as lost and hyper-separated. However, Sandburg revels in his belief that humanity must recognise its ancestry with the wilderness, and a desire to protect the wilderness. Sandburg fails to mention that he is protecting the wilderness from his fellow man. Sandburg emphasises a shared Being with non-human nature, not in place in time. The Anthropocene may not be able to re-join with non-human nature, but it can exist in a continuum whereby, and equilibrium is achieved, and hyper-separated, hierarchal dualisms are disrupted in the process.


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[i] The Heideggerian term ek-sistance is used as it means standing out in the truth of Dasein — this reinforces the speaker’s commitment to be protector of the world.

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