Comments 13

Out of the Wild: A Conversation between Pollan and Cronon

Have you ever read something where the author articulated precisely the ideas that you’ve been trying to work out in your own mind for ages? Have you ever felt that flash of recognition, that chill of goosebumps, and obeyed that urge to nod along and shout “yes!” out loud? And once the giddiness subsides, have you ever felt that sinking realization that someone managed to conveyed those ideas better than you ever could have?

I recently had that experience with a piece from Orion Magazine. “Out of the Wild” features a conversation between authors Michael Pollan and William Cronon as they chat about many of the ideas I’ve been grappling with on Ekostories: Concepts of nature and culture, the power of stories for change, the importance of personal sustainability. Regular readers will know that I’ve written a few essays on Pollan’s work, namely on Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education and The Botany of Desire, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed his contributions to this piece. But in my opinion it was Cronon, an environmental historian, who made this exchange a must-read. I’ve included a few of his thought-provoking comments below.

Of history and story:

“Everything has history: our ideas have a history, nature have a history, our place in nature has multiple histories… But the wonderful consequence is that everything also has a story. And rather than take the world as a static, unchanging place – in fact, there’s always a story.”

On the perils of sustainability:

“If one cares about the claims of justice, if one cares about how different groups have differential access to resources and power, only in the political realm can those ever be contested. If one appeals to a transcendent nature as a solution to such differences, injustice will almost inevitably be reinforced. It’s only through politics that we address inequity and injustice.”

On the small, slow acts for change:

“But the older I get, the more I mistrust the notion of a revolutionary leap. It seems to me that daily practice—small choices, lives well lived, mindfully and attentively lived—is the only way a just society can sustain itself. We have to make daily choices.”

The connective disciplines (I just made that term up):

“Ecology, storytelling, history—they all render connections visible. We make that which is invisible visible through story, and thereby reveal people’s relationships to other living things.”

The need for complexity in stories for change:

“Messy stories invite us into politics. They also invite us to laugh at ourselves. And those things together—the ability to laugh, to experience hope, to be inspired toward action at the personal and political levels—these strike me as the work of engaged storytelling in a world we’re trying to change for the better.”

Storytelling to remember:

“When we lose track of the narratives that human beings need to suffuse their lives and the world with meaning, we forget what makes the world worth saving. Telling stories is how we remember.”

So many head nods…

I would love to hear your thoughts on these statements and on the entire conversation, which you can read here:

 Out of the Wild, from Orion Magazine.

Header Image: Terrace field in Yunnan, China. Photo by Jialiang Gao at wikimedia commons. I thought it appropriate for this post as the image contains nature, culture, artifice, and history.


  1. I like Cronon’s ideas on daily practice and small choices to make change. But how does one encourage that when so many people seem to move through their lives on autopilot? Or themselves feel hard done by and hardened against their various personal struggles and misfortunes?

    • From personal experiences, I have found that people need to want the change before it can happen. We can offer them support and paths to embark on the process, but ultimately that choice rests with the individual.

      As to what triggers that flash of realization, it varies from person to person. For some, having a guide that engages in those daily practices and small choices is enough. For some, things must get more wrong before they’re receptive. For still others, they will never get to that point. But that’s how the world is.

      Long way to say, it depends, and I have no single good answer to that very difficult question.

  2. Karen Wan says


    I agree with the idea that daily practices are very important, and perhaps it is the patient march towards change that matters.

    I think of Mandela and South Africa, and the years of daily effort by so many people to end apartheid. All the daily actions led up to the inspiring moments when Mandela is freed and becomes president of a free South Africa. And of course, the story of working towards greater justice and freedom in South Africa and everywhere else in the world continues.

    Thanks for sharing the highlights of this conversation with us!


    • Thanks for the reblog, Karen. Naturally, Mandela’s struggles have been on my mind this week, and I draw strength from his comment that “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” But then I think to myself: what if it’s never done?

      This train of thought leads me back to the idea of process. The grand goal of achieving sustainability is nice, but how we get there is also important. I think Cronon’s comments touch on this aspect in the larger interview quite well.

      I’m rambling a bit now, and appreciate your indulgence.

  3. Karen Wan says

    Reblogged this on The Enchanting Adventure and commented:
    I like this blog post about sustainability, stories and social change by Isaac at Ekostories and wanted to share it today with all of you!

  4. I’m also an Orion subscriber and I admit that I am a long time Canadian political and environmental activist. I simply choose to fly under radar now and act in organizational capacities to allow the new generations myself and my colleagues raised to take our places. We (old time baby boomer activists) are, of course, always available as mentors and we are consulted on a regular basis.

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