Law and Wilderness

[This is an introduction I rejected. It now lives on in the blog world, where it may well be read by more people than the introduction that replaced it.]

Law, like wilderness, is a process, not a thing. Only in their evolutions from moment to moment can we be sure that they are occurring at all. Stare as long as you like at a photograph of an idyllic, apparently natural scene complete with buzzing insects, wildflowers, grazing elk, and brown bears lumbering above on meadow-covered slopes. You will still be left wonder: an instant of wilderness captured on film or an illusory tableau, a zoological artifice masquerading as untrammeled nature, with roads, tourists, and cages just off camera? Is it the immediate result of land management, bear relocation efforts? What causes predominate here?

We define wilderness as the unfolding story of the parts of the universe from which our influence is substantially absent. If we play a significant causal role in the happenings of a place, then we can say that this place is not a wilderness. But the moment we substantially withdraw, and non-human causes take or retake control of the destiny of this physical space, wilderness has returned. A large and persistent wilderness, one in which our absence is longstanding, can be beautiful and terrifying. But even a crack in a forgotten sidewalk, shooting up weeds and lined with colliding highways of commuting ants, can be wilderness for as long as we remain strangers to it. Wildness refers to our relative lack of involvement in processes and causes, not virgin beauty.

We, of course, are of the universe and as “natural” as anything else in it. Wilderness therefore has no meaning detached from the human perspective. It is a way we have to understand our own negation, part of its lure our bearing witness to the world’s getting along just fine without us. And while we have chosen as its exemplars swathes of land inhabited by our fellow DNA-bearing creatures, it is also to be found in the nuclear fusion in the hearts of stars, where nothing we have ever done or will do matters. There or perhaps in the coldest, emptiest parts of intergalactic space, we find its purest, most fearsome examples.

In contrast, wherever people are present, we can find in the social glue between them the process we call law. Where wilderness is the evolution of a place without people, law concerns only the interactions of people. It may refer to physical things, but it consists in a purely human system of information and organization. If wilderness is the operation of causes in a space without people, law is the processing, encoding, and creating of information — destined to become causes — purely in and among the minds of people.

Law describes the way people act toward one another when they decide to act together. They transcend the mere plural of person and become a public only when they desire to do at least some minimal thing together and then only with respect to that thing. The concept of law and the concept of a public are therefore inseparable, one yielding the other. Each is subject, and each is object.

It is possible to imagine multiple, solitary individuals acting separately upon the landscape, never cooperating. There would be no law there, only volition. Law, again, is the name we give to the process by which (and there is always a process, however changeable) a public realizes the social purposes its constituent people share. Every public, therefore, has a legal system, and every legal system belongs to a public. Modern societies are composed of layer upon superimposed layer of publics and legal systems. Corporations are publics. Families are publics. Churches, law faculties, school districts, criminal gangs. All are self-consciously groups of people, and all have processes that maintain the social glue that defines them, effectuating the purposes that draw their constituents together.