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James H.S. McGregor

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Professor Emeritus
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Dr. Mcgregor's most recent book, Back to the Garden, describes how Mediterranean peoples and the cultures world-wide that they have influenced lived on and transformed the land, how they acknowledged their reliance on the land, and how they understood nature through the image of the cultivated landscape.  The modern rejection of their vision led to the current environmental crisis, and recovery of their concepts promises a new foundation for ecological health. 

Single Authored Books:

Rome from the Ground Up, (Cambridge:  Belknap Press of Harvard  University Press, 2005)

Venice from the Ground Up (Cambridge:  Belknap Press of Harvard  University Press, 2006)

Washington from the Ground Up (Cambridge:  Belknap Press of Harvard  University Press, 2007)

Paris from the Ground Up (Cambridge:  Belknap Press of Harvard  University Press, 2009)

Athens (Cambridge:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014)

Back to the Garden:  Nature and the Mediterranean World from Prehistory to the Present,  (New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 2015)

 

I am currently taking a further look at the concept of capital ‘N’ nature that is the focus of Back to the Garden. During the last two hundred years, for Americans certainly and for many Europeans as well, the idea of nature has merged with the wild. Wildness is easy to imagine in a desert environment, a mountain range or redwood forest—in wilderness, that is—but wildness is far less clear from a biological point of view. Nothing internal to an organism marks the difference between a wild and a domestic animal (though within closely related species, genetic traces of domestication can be found.) Chicken genetics and tiger genetics rely on the same basic chemistry and operate on the same principles. The habitats of the two species –their distinctive environments, a matter of geography not biology—are the best indicators of where they belong in the domestic/wild polarity.

What becomes of the distinction between domestic and wild when we look not at geography, but at the life histories of wild and domestic animals? I approach this question by considering two species, the black footed ferret, an endangered wild animal of the American Plains, and the carriage horse, a domestic animal powering an industry that activists are attempting to outlaw in New York’s Central Park. Federal, state and tribal governments along with multiple NGO’s have gone to great lengths to captive-breed, release and protect the BFF, its prey and its habitat. Though exemplary of the wild, the ferret is watched over like a well-groomed domestic pet.

If the activists prevail, the future of the draught horse will first be release from its labors then “a return to the wild.” Horses now employed will be put out to pasture and maintained for life by rescuers who cannot sell, slaughter or work them. It is not hard to imagine that with the loss of their place in the labor economy, diminished numbers and eventual extinction will be the horses’ ultimate fate—one they would share with the many other plants and animals that within the last century have ceased to be cultivated.

At this late stage of the domestic/wild polarity, then, the reality for animals on either side of a once meaningful divide is roughly the same. Rescue from annihilation and prolonged engagement with the human community on the ‘wild’ side and disengagement from traditional societal roles on the domestic front leading to enforced leisure and perhaps extinction. In these specific cases and more generally as well, there is very little practical difference between what it now means for an animal to be wild and what it means to be domesticated. If this distinction is no longer clear, then our culture’s long accepted merging of the wild with the natural cannot be sustained. We have reached, as Bill McKibben proclaimed some time ago, the End of Nature.

 

 

 

 
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Comparative Literature
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