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Many voices in search of Wildness

Western professor releases anthology of essays

Alan Wartes

Times Staff Writer


John Hausdoerffer recalls the precise moment he knew he would make Gunnison his home. He was standing at the height of Hartman Rocks on a snowy evening, looking across the valley just as the lights of the town started coming up.

“I think I could die here,” he thought. “Well, not here,” he quips, referring to the steep trail he was about to ride. “But in this community. I knew I could be home here.”

Soon after that fateful evening, Hausdoerffer returned to Gunnison to study history at Western, graduating in 1996. From there the journey continued through Sante Fe, N.M., where he earned a Master of Philosophy at St. John’s College and then on to Washington State University for a doctorate in environmental philosophy.

Then straight back to Western in 2004, this time as professor of environmental sustainability and philosophy and executive director of the Center for Environment and Sustainability. His students affectionately refer to him as “Doctor John.” He is also director of the new Master of Environmental Management  — a thriving program he helped launch three years ago.

Throughout that journey, he’s come to recognize a fulcrum on which he believes the modern environmental movement pivots — summed up in the word “wildness.” What is it? How does the broad concept of wildness in nature differ from “wilderness” as we have come to define it, protected regions set apart from most human activity on the land?

To attempt an answer to these questions, this summer Hausdoerffer and co-editor Gavin Van Horn released a new anthology of essays entitled “Wildness: Relations of People and Place.”

The book is a collection of 24 short reflections on what wildness really means and how it manifests in the world, not just “away” in protected wilderness areas, but across the whole spectrum of nature — from highway medians and abandoned lots on Chicago’s south side to high mountain tundra.

“The definition of wildness, to Aldo Leopold, turned on the capacity for self-renewal,” Hausdoerffer said. “Anything that can renew itself is wild. Anything that doesn’t require constant human control is wild. Wildness as renewal is the future of the environmental movement, in my view.”

To Hausdoerffer, renewal as a measure of resilience spans everything on the landscape, including people and communities like Gunnison. In fact, a number of the book’s essays are notable for pointedly placing people at the center of the issue of wildness.

Enrique Salmón, professor of American Indian studies at California State University, writes that human beings are, in fact, essential to the renewal of wildness — even suggesting that humans are a “keystone species” in ecosystems where we live.

“Until recently, researchers had not considered the possibility that humans could actually enhance their landscapes, that human communities might actually play a role in increasing diversity, or that humans are as essential to the ecological functioning of a landscape as saguaro cacti are to the Sonoran Desert,” Salmón wrote.

Turning that idea toward home, Hausdoerffer points to a number of local issues where human-facilitated wildness can play a role — the changing forest landscape due to beetle kill, the need for grassland restoration, habitat and wetlands enhancements, to name a few.

“How do we build our livelihood here in a way that enhances biodiversity rather than detracting from it?” he poses. “Because if we keep detracting from it, this place is not going to be liveable. Connecting with wildness awakens human creativity, human health and human community.”

Hausdoerffer will read selections from the book on Oct. 4 at 6:30 p.m. at Townie Books, 414 Elk Ave., Crested Butte. He will also screen a short documentary film he produced with Western film studies professor Jack Lucido. The event is free and open to the public.


(Alan Wartes can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or


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