I once visited Santarém, in the central Amazon, during the river’s annual flood, when it wells over its banks and creeps inland for miles. Forest paths become canals and people boat through the trees. Farmers in the floodplain build houses and barns on stilts. Stir-crazy cattle in the barns stick their heads out the windows and watch pink dolphins sporting on their doorsteps. Acre-size patches of bobbing vegetation, the famous “floating islands” of the Amazon, drift by. Ecotourists are taken in motorboats through the drowned forest. Kids in dories chase after them, trying to sell sacks of incredibly good fruit.

In the center of Santarém, telephone poles are made of cement, as is usual in tropical countries that can afford them. (Wooden ones get eaten.) At the edge of town, the authorities create poles by cutting down trees and propping them wherever needed; in a display of lethargy, town workers do not lop off branches, strip away bark or vines, or even remove termite mounds. After maybe a mile they stop using logs and just string the lines on tree branches. A little further the lines stop altogether. Beyond this the river is occupied only by hamlets on the bluffs at the water’s edge. The biggest building always seems to be the Pentecostal or Adventist church. After services whooping kids fill the red-dirt churchyard and fly kites. Sometimes they attach razor blades to the sides of the kites and in a war of all against all try to cut each other’s strings. Except for soccer, rural Brazil’s main sporting event seems to be Attack Kiting.

Between communities water traffic continually darts, hopscotching back and forth with the speed of gossip even though many boats are still powered by pushing a long pole against the bottom. At the river’s edge during flood season are small trees inundated to the tips of their branches. Thirty feet above them dangles the red fruit of tall kapok trees, each scarlet bulb reflected perfectly in the still water. People make shortcuts through narrow tunnels in the vegetation called furos. When I visited an old plantation called Taperinha, site of an earlier Anna Roosevelt dig, the man at the tiller abruptly turned the boat straight into the forest. We shot through a furo two thousand feet long and six feet wide. Some furos have existed for centuries, I was told. There have been water highways in the forest since before Columbus.

All of this is described as “wilderness” in the tourist brochures. It’s not, if the new generation of researchers is correct. Indeed, some believe that fewer people may be living in rural Amazonia now than in 1491. Yet when my boat glided into the furo the forest shut out the sky like the closing of an umbrella. Within a few hundred yards the human presence seemed to vanish. I felt alone and small, but in a way that was curiously like feeling exalted. If what was around me was not wilderness, how should one think of it? Since the fate of the forest is in our hands, what should be our goal for its future?

European and U.S. environmentalists insist that the forest should never be cut down or used—it should remain, as far as possible, a land without people. In an ecological version of therapeutic nihilism, they want to leave the river basin to its own devices. Brazilians I have encountered are usually less than enthusiastic about this proposal. Yes, yes, we are in favor of the environment, they say. But we also have many millions of desperately poor people here. To develop your economy, you leveled your forests and carpeted the land with strip malls. Why can’t we do the same? If you now want more forest, why don’t you tear down some of your strip malls and plant trees? Yes, yes, we are in favor of helping the poor, environmentalists respond. But if you cut down the tropical forest, you won’t be creating wealth. Instead you will only destroy the soil. Turning Amazonia into a wasteland will help nobody.

These dialogues of the deaf have occurred so often that the participants can almost recite their lines by rote. In a way, the words are curiously weightless, for the environmentalists tend to live in, or at least reflect views from, rich places like London, Berlin, or San Francisco. And the advocates of development are often from São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, or Brasilia, cities that are thousands of miles away from the Amazon and culturally almost as remote as environmentalists’ cities. “You should see people’s faces here [in Amazonia] when we tell them we’re from São Paulo,” Eduardo Neves told me. “It’s like New Yorkers coming to southern Illinois, only worse. ‘My God, aliens have invaded! Kill them before they infect us all!’”

At the same time, the clash between environmentalist and developer cannot be dismissed. At stake, after all, is the world’s greatest forest. And similar arguments play out in a hundred or a thousand other places that need protection. Beneath the entangling personal motives, the debate is one of the oldest in the Western philosophical tradition, between nomos and physis. The ancient Greeks saw existence as a contest between nomos (rationality/order/artifice) and physis (irrationality/chaos/nature). In environmental terms, Thoreau, who saw the landscape as imbued with an essential wildness that could be heedlessly destroyed, embodies physis. Physis says, Let Nature be our guide; step out of the way of the environment, and it will know how to keep itself healthy. Nomos is the postmodern philosopher who argues that the entire landscape is constructed—that it has no essential, innate qualities, but is simply a reflection of chance and human action. Nomos says that no one ecological state is inherently preferable to any other, but that all of them are a product of human choices (even the ones with no people, since we will have made the choice not to go there).

Accepting the magnitude of the Indian impact on the landscape seems to push us toward the nomos side. In 1983 Cronon laid out the history of the New England countryside in his landmark book, Changes in the Land. In it he observed that wilderness as it was commonly understood simply did not exist in the eastern United States, and had not existed for thousands of years. (A few years later, Denevan referred to the belief in widespread wilderness as “the pristine myth.”) When Cronon publicized this no-wilderness scenario in an article for the New York Times, environmentalists and ecologists attacked him as infected by relativism and postmodern philosophy. A small academic brouhaha ensued, complete with hundreds of footnotes. It precipitated one of the only books attacking postmodern philosophy ever written largely by biologists. Another book, The Great New Wilderness Debate, published in 1998, was edited by two philosophers who earnestly identified themselves as “Euro-American men…whose cultural legacy is patriarchal Western civilization in its current postcolonial, globally hegemonic form.”

It is easy to tweak academics for their earnestly opaque language, as I am doing. Nonetheless the philosophers’ concerns are understandable. The trees closing over my head in the Amazon furo made me feel the presence of something beyond myself, an intuition shared by almost everyone who has walked in the woods alone. That something seemed to have rules and resistances of its own, ones that did not stem from me. Yet the claim that the forest was shaped by people does not seem to leave room for anything else, anything bigger and deeper than humankind.

Understanding that nature is not normative does not mean that anything goes. The fears come from the mistaken identification of wildness with the forest itself. Instead the landscape is an arena for the interaction of natural and social forces, a kind of display, and one that like all displays is not fully under the control of its authors.

Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens.

Gardens are fashioned for many purposes with many different tools, but all are collaborations with natural forces. Rarely do their makers claim to be restoring or rebuilding anything from the past; and they are never in full control of the results. Instead, using the best tools they have and all the knowledge that they can gather, they work to create future environments.

If there is a lesson it is that to think like the original inhabitants of these lands we should not set our sights on rebuilding an environment from the past but concentrate on shaping a world to live in for the future.

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