A few thoughtsIn the last couple years, I've spent a good deal of time paging through Summitpost, consuming a lot of what it had to offer without ever really giving back. Now, as exams instill in me an even greater desire to procrastinate, I've finally found the motivation to produce something for this site. What follows is an abridged (really!) and more reader-friendly (but still kinda institutional and stuffy) version of an essay I wrote for an environmental ethics course. I've tried to keep it apolitical, yet I realize that this site isn't a platform for opinions. Hopefully you'll understand why I argue for the value of wilderness and why I believe it's appropriate for Summitpost.
Civilization, Wilderness, and You
Civilization, I have heard, is the presence of noise and light. But try turning that definition around and you'll find something a little more interesting: wilderness is absence of both. Since almost the moment the United States frontier “closed” in 1890, Americans have longed for the wilds they overtook. Civilization promised security, health, pleasure and all their accouterments, but it also coddled us and made us soft. We became so enamored of the world we built around ourselves that we forgot what we conquered to create it. In short, we forgot that civilization loses its meaning without its correlative: wildness.
Writers like Aldo Leopold, the grandfather of wilderness, and Henry David Thoreau (its great uncle?), understood that in overcoming the wild, we lost respect for it – we enslaved it. Only recently have we recognized the value of areas the human hand has failed to touch. Today, we find worth in wilderness precisely because it is not civilized. It represents a world we had sought to overcome for 100,000 years, yet now as it teeters on the verge of extinction, it gives meaning to our triumphs of skyscrapers, vaccines and space stations. When finally we tire of those things, however – when the noise and light become too much to bear – we can return to what wilderness remains, the realm indifferent to our Progress, our morals, and even to our existence.
Why?But why discuss this now? What makes it so pressing? In part, because few truly wild places exist anymore. In the lower 48 states, you can never find yourself farther than 25 miles from the nearest road. That spot, I’m told, exists in just one place: a remote corner of Wyoming amidst the crumbling Absarokas. Poring over a road map of the area reveals one of cartography's most pleasant products: the chance to discover nothing at all about a place. Try Googling it (without the terrain on!). There, somewhere west of Cody, lies a gray void that my imagination fills with endless peaks and ridges, and stands of white pines that march ever upward until only wind and weather halt their advance.
The Gros Ventre and Wyoming ranges rise nearby, almost as remote though perhaps not for long. The latter might soon become yet another natural gas field of round-the-clock pumps. And light. And noise. I apologize if it seems I'm rambling, but I say all that to say this: what few wild places still survive remain locked in an urgent struggle to persevere. Some of them live and breathe solely as the result of an inefficient government. Now more than ever, we need a justification for saving them.
And that justification comes from our understanding of escape. Certainly good travel writing transports us elsewhere, and television, sports and movies provide engrossing diversions, but people created all of them. We have made them to serve ourselves, and every pleasure they offer is something less than perfect because of that. That is, we can't escape by simply moving about within our own construct. We need to truly step outside of it to experience perfection. Suppressing the humanist inside ourselves, then, we can recognize a higher beauty in wilderness. To see its grandeur is to consider a world made for no one. It is breathtaking because it is purposeless, and there is joy in mountains and untouched ecosystems purely because they do not care whether we find joy in them at all. They are not what we wanted, but rather what we received.
Because the wild is hard and unfeeling, it strips us down to our essentials: our bodies and our minds. Perhaps that explains why so many people find spirituality in the wild – it forces them to think beyond the immediate. It allows them to reconnect with themselves and the beauty of Creation, regardless of creator. There, instead of living, we survive. Wilderness doesn’t assure us of our safety; instead it questions it with its predators, its terrain and its vastness. There’s a real possibility we could die out there. And that raises a key point, one that Leopold himself made: wilderness must be large enough to put us out of touch with humanity. The postage stamp preserves of the East might prevent development, but they hardly cut us off from society in any meaningful way. A true wilderness needs to take several days, not several hours, to cross on foot.
But some folks suggest civilization can exist interspersed with nature, that the two can develop together in harmony. The exclusive notion of wilderness, they say, is nothing more than a fairy tale dreamed up by environmentalist radicals who seem ashamed that man exists at all. But an argument like that throws out the very definition wilderness put in place by Howard Zahniser and the US Congress in 1964. Wilderness was and is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Using those terms, much of Yellowstone is no more a wilderness than Central Park. It might well offer some great sightseeing, but the typical Yellowstone trip hardly counts as an experience in the wild. Every moment there reminds us of civilization's triumph over nature and further erodes the distinction between the two. It starts to make nature a commodity. “You will pay this much to enter Yellowstone and consume nature,” we say. “Old Faithful will erupt at this time and that time, and the snack hut is just up on your right near the bear-viewing area. Your tour bus leaves at two. How about a commemorative snow globe for $10?” Can such a place ever hope to provide an escape from commercialization and civilization when those are the very things which sustain it? No. Yellowstone turns nature into a theme park. That’s not to say it fails as a method for introducing people to the natural world, but just that true wilderness offers a proper escape from consumerism because it does not allow for it.
And what about development?It’s that type of consumption which reminds me of a story of certain family and their favorite picnic spot. Every year, the family would pile into the car with lunch and blankets and travel games for the children. They'd drive an hour to a grassy hillock overlooking a beautiful and unspoiled valley. There they would lunch and take in the grandeur of the place. They wished they could spend all their time in that very spot, and eventually, they saved enough money to build a house upon it.
It was a lovely house, and as other families drove by, they too thought of how much they'd enjoy building country home for themselves. As years passed, the hill filled with houses, and a gas station and several restaurants opened to serve the all the people. One day some time after that, the family stepped outside to discover that everything they'd loved about their picnic spot had disappeared. Everything they'd sought to escape had followed them there.
Their story captures the paradox of development. In Montana, in Colorado, in Wyoming and California, and even in the exurban fringe of Washington, D.C. human exploitation of open land often voids the very reason for
Even Switzerland, though it's a model of environmental friendliness, has reserved just a tiny sliver of its land as a national park. In every one of the country's valleys sprout two hamlets or seven. So while the Swiss landscape may offer breathtaking beauty, it is far from wild. It courses with the influence of civilization. It offers no escape. But designated wildernesses present a path for saving us from ourselves.
Sure, some development is necessary. Society depends upon the conversion of raw materials into consumer goods, and those raw materials invariably begin their journey in nature. Extractive industries and agriculture are equally essential parts of modern life, but recreational and residential development are not. Where mining and wilderness preservation clash, we must carefully weigh the benefits of both. We probably ought to meet a new ski resort or housing development with a healthy dose of skepticism, however.
Toward a wilder future
That we can even talk today of preserving wilderness is a testament to progress of our civilization. We have advanced sufficiently far to begin a real discussion in the value of further development, and there is hope in that. Still, for all the citizens of developed countries watching the world's population climb toward nine billion, civilization's grasp seems to draw slightly tighter every day. Balancing the wild and the urban will continue to become all the more difficult and all the more essential. Without systems of protected wilderness areas, though, our prospects for escape will diminish or, worse, disappear. I, for one, hope I never see the day we define civilization against a concept of wildness known only in books.