Here is a detail from Zhao Yuan’s 14th-century depiction of a tranquil refuge in the mountains. It’s a desire as old as time, this fantasy of retreating from the clamor of an undignified world. We envy cloistered monks and pond-dwelling poets. We nurse elaborate dreams of spartan living, perhaps in a remote cabin lit by a kerosene lamp with a narrow bed against the wall. Even the wealthy are not immune. After deciding that our cities had become “living hells of alienation and consumerism,” the billionaire Soichuro Fututake created a subterranean museum on the island of Naoshima. But is retreating into the wilderness any kind of solution?

Idealizing nature as a panacea has its perils. In The Uninhabitable World, David Wallace-Wells suggests that romanticizing the wilderness as a remote sanctuary has led us to consider nature as something separate from ourselves, that we “see its degradation as a sequestered story, unfolding separately from our own modern lives—so separately that the degradation acquires the comfortable contours of parable, like pages from Aesop, aestheticized even when we know the losses as tragedy.” In these days of scary weather and accelerating change, we cannot afford to compartmentalize or romanticize. Plastic, pixels, and exhaust are nature. There is no retreating from the world. We must find rituals that offer momentary refuge, then return to the fray.

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Collage by Candy Chang

April 2019

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