One of the seeds of How Is Travel a Folded Form? was an assignment I received in Thalia Field’s deep ecology class–to buy a big notebook, choose some pair of opposing terms, and investigate–on the book’s facing pages, and over the course of the semester–that binary. I chose “empty” and “full,” and the results show up many times in How Is Travel?
“Response to a space seen as empty: inscribe it.”
I don’t think I ever came across, during that semester, the fact that waste–about which I wrote another book–shares an etymological connection with emptiness. That would be the Latin vastus, I’ve now learned from Jedediah Purdy, meaning “empty” or “desolate.” Purdy explains that when conservationists around the turn of the 20th century argued for more efficient use and careful stewardship of resources (especially forests), they made “waste” the antithesis of conservation, and in this they co-opted and shifted an older sense of the word “waste”–undeveloped wilderness.
Binaries do tend to yield multiple valences over time. Waste was at first the opposite of use–i.e., here is this continent and we need to turn it into farmland; then it became the opposite of care–i.e., we must conserve the resources this continent represents, since it turns out to be finite. Waste as wilderness (and God wanting us to change it), then waste as carelessness (and economic prudence spurring us to learn better attitudes).