Here’s the basic idea:
Man possesses a will with a drive to flourish. He cannot choose his will, neither is the will a totally blank slate on which nature and man inscribe desires. Rather, the primitive will is a landscape, and like a landscape the highs and lows of the terrain limit how, exactly, it can be modified. One can run a train through the mountain, and this comes with the benefit of more efficient travel; but it also destroys aspects of the mountain’s ecology and degrades aesthetic values. In every similar situation, the point is to assess the trade-offs. Few if any cases are totally good or totally bad. The question is whether they are good enough.
Life in civilization demands from man more than his primitive will can give, so he has had to become civilized, tamed — though not quite domesticated. Nomadic hunter/gatherers have successfully entered civilization, but entry is a process of education and cultivation; the beliefs and behaviors of modern humans are not the product of the womb.
According to the progress narrative, the historical development of the civilizing process has been an upward-moving line. And sophisticated progressivists note that the line is jagged: civilizations collapse, regression occurs, stagnation halts development. Still, the project has more or less continued, and in the process material conditions select for the most efficient methods of moral or behavioral cultivation. As these methods arise, the need for large-scale social transformations dissipates, and what was once a great cultural project is achieved through childhood education. Man before the Middle Ages lacked even the most basic of manners; man after could only conceive of the unmannered as savage.
The civilizing process does not work perfectly. One, it has not reached everyone at the same level of efficiency. Two, much of the civilizing process can be undone. And three, some possess particularly indomitable wills, which are able to resist methods that work well enough to sustain cultural manners, not well enough to fashion the specific individual in the required way. “There are some who can live without wild things,” Aldo Leopold writes, “and there are some who cannot.” The indomitable ones — the wild wills — are those who cannot.
They are repeatedly present throughout history. We can see the Wild Will in native resistance to colonization; in the Maroons, slaves who escaped captivity to live in the jungles and the forests; the Sentinelese, who respond violently to any civilized excursion into their land. We can also see it in profoundly civilized peoples. In 1753, in the midst of a “going native” phenomenon among American colonists, Benjamin Franklin noted that white captives freed from Native hands did not wish to stay long:
Tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English…in short time they become disgusted with our manner of life…and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.
Later, in 1785, a group of freed and runaway slaves and white indentured servants settled in a wilderness area now known as Indianapolis. Peter Lamborn Wilson writes:
They mingled with Pawnee indians and took up a nomadic life modeled on that of local hunter-gatherer tribes. Led by a “king” and “queen,” Ben and Jennie Ishmael…, they were known as fine artisans, musicians and dancers, abstainers from alcohol, practitioners of polygamy, non-Christian, and racially integrated. …By about 1810 they had established a cycle of travel that took them annually from Indianapolis (where their village gradually became a city slum) through a triangle formed by the hamlets of Morocco and Mecca in Indiana and Mahomet in Illinois…
Later “official” white pioneers detested the Ishmaels, and apparently the feeling was mutual. From about 1890 comes this description of an elder: “He is an anarchist of course, and he has the instinctive, envious dislike so characteristic of his people, of anyone in a better condition than himself.” …The observer continues: “He abused the law, the courts; the rich, factories — everything.” The elder stated that “the police should be hanged”; he was ready, he said, to burn the institutions of society. “I am better than any man that wears store clothes.”
Over half a century later, John Muir, a pivotal figure in the wilderness movement, echoed the same ideas. Muir spent much of his time in the wilderness that still existed in the U.S., camping primitively, often without much more than a few blankets and a knapsack. He was a prolific writer, in his essays extolling the value of the wild, rebuking the materialism of American society, and advocating for the creation of a wilderness reserve system. He writes: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity…”
Hanshan, Geronimo, Ishi, William Kidd — again and again the Wild Will possesses individuals and places them in direct conflict with the surrounding civilized world. Something here is ineradicable, and even those who do not agree must contend with it.