In Defense of the Wild

In Defense of the Wild

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Activities Activities: Hiking

A few thoughts

In 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

AT Near Loft Mtn

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.


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.
Willow Creek Property of Chevron?

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.

Nature 2.0

Happy TrailsSomeone's been here before.

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.”
Don t just bring any map...Evidently, man doesn't visit this sign very often.

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
Val d AnniviersOkay, so yeah, Switzerland does have some redeeming value.
developing it in the first place. The spread of sprawl and mountain “ranchettes” confirm that, trite as it sounds, we cannot have our cake and it too. We can’t move into the woods only to tell everyone else to stick it out back in the city.

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

Point 10650

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.


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Viewing: 1-20 of 27
Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Dec 13, 2008 10:31 pm - Voted 10/10


You should write and add more to the site. Much of what you said mirrors my exact thoughts. I suspected from our earlier conversations that you "get it" about wilderness, but know I know you do. I will be in NW WY again in early July next year-- visiting the Absarokas, Gros Ventres, Winds, and the Wyoming Range. If by any chance you will be out there again, too, I'd love to explore some of that wilderness with you.

I also attached this article to my Yellowstone and Bob Marshall pages. Thanks for posting this.


magicdufflepud - Dec 14, 2008 1:09 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Well-written


Thanks for your kind words. After spending time in both NW Wyoming and Switzerland, I've truly come to appreciate what the United States' wildlands have to offer. The Swiss do things right when it comes to integrating cities and mountains, but there's something indescribable in America's millions of untouched acres.

If things go as planned, I'll be heading out in the Peace Corps at the end of next summer, but I fully intend to get back up into Wyoming before that happens. I'll let you know if it looks like we'll run into each other.


Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - Dec 14, 2008 4:34 pm - Voted 10/10


I enjoyed these thoughts about wildness and wilderness, especially since you're thinking in terms of the Alps and the Rockies--two regions near to my heart.

You might find this SP discussion interesting. The point farthest from a road in the US is in the Thorofare region of Yellowstone, about 40km; in continental Europe, about 10km. Thinking in terms of circles around those points, there's 16 times more wild space around the Thorofare.

But you're right, Yellowstone's tourists never see it.


magicdufflepud - Dec 14, 2008 5:34 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks!

Cool pointer. Makes you wonder about what those stats are for places like Western Mongolia, too.

Ski Mountaineer

Ski Mountaineer - Dec 17, 2008 1:29 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks!

10kms? Does that include the Arctic Urals, parts of the Eastern Caucasus or the Carpathians? Europe has wilder regions than most people think. Also - thinking Switzerland when thinking Europe is like thinking California or Colorado when thinking US: oversimplified, over-idealized.

Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - Dec 17, 2008 5:46 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Thanks!

Constraints are south of the Arctic Circle, not in former USSR. Everybody protects lots of tundra, it hardly counts.

The lower 48 United States has several wildernesses that exceed 1 million acres (404,685 ha): Boundary Waters (Minnesota), Bob Marshall complex (Montana), Frank Church-River of No Return (Idaho), Death Valley (California), Marjory Stoneman Douglas (Florida), and the east Yellowstone complex. Others (like Olympic) are close.

Europe has some big preserved areas: Danube Delta National Park (600 000 ha) and Bialowieza Primeval Forest (187 100 ha). Danube Delta has lots of development scattered about inside it.

The US wildernesses are *roadless* and undeveloped. Danube Delta and Bialowieza are not.

Europe and North America are in different leagues in terms of wildness. (You live in Austria and BC, you know the difference.)

Ski Mountaineer

Ski Mountaineer - Jan 7, 2009 1:49 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks!


thanks. Interesting numbers and information!
Europe and North America are in different leagues in terms of wildness - yes; after seeing the reality of Canadian and US wilderness policies, however, I am convinced that this is mostly due to the shear size of the countries than anything else.

Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - Jan 7, 2009 5:05 pm - Voted 10/10

Europe vs. Wild

Yes, North America is blessed with "more space" (= "lower population density"). But we also have better policies.

Our wildernesses have no roads. European "wildernesses" have gondolas, huts, power lines, and sustainable forestry. (Some US wildernesses have livestock grazing.)

Compare this sign with this sign.

I get worked up about this stuff, as you can probably tell. :)

Dmitry Pruss

Dmitry Pruss - Dec 14, 2008 4:53 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice pictures

and nice write-up. As much as we crave the Vast Wilderness, I learned to appreciate almost equally strongly those little snippets of wild, the patchwork of the Original Nature in the places which are closer to civilization. "Touched by development" doesn't mean unworthy of enjoyment and protection!

Yes, and lastly, one little formatting advice. Add carriage return after SP's inline pictures ;) Just one new line and it's gonna look a lot nicer!


magicdufflepud - Dec 14, 2008 5:28 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice pictures

Thanks -- how do do put in carriage returns? And you're definitely right, the mere presence of a nearby town doesn't make spending some time in nature any less fun. I do most of my hiking on AT in Virginia, and without all the little towns along the way, it'd be a lot less enjoyable. Still, in the back of my mind, it's nice to know that places like the Gila and Bob Marshall Wildernesses exist.

Dmitry Pruss

Dmitry Pruss - Dec 14, 2008 5:49 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Nice pictures

Put the cursor after the closing square bracket "]" and press enter.
My first fav American hikes were there too, Old Rag, White Oak, and higher up to the ridge of Shenandoahs :) But now I take time to enjoy even a half-acre patch of unspoiled foothill prairie tucked in the neighborhood. Alpine tundra is wild and often stays wild no matter the human designs. Plain grasslands aren't like that... Some wild communities just may not be "wilderness wild" anymore, but...

Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - Dec 15, 2008 9:42 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Nice pictures

I think prairie wilderness has to be the next big project of the environmental movement. As you note, tundra generally stays wild if ignored.

Prairie doesn't stay wild but we need it, too. I know of some prairie wilderness in Theodore Roosevelt NP, but that's it (and it isn't much).

These folks, who want to "rewild" North America, forgot about the prairie entirely--the heart of the continent.


yatsek - Dec 15, 2008 10:44 am - Voted 10/10

Live or Survive

"There, instead of living, we survive"

Well, depends on the meaning of the words. I'd actually tend to say: while in the city I'm just surviving; I wake up and live each time I get away back into the (not necessarily GREAT – seems like I'm with MOCKBA here) outdoors.


magicdufflepud - Dec 15, 2008 11:18 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Live or Survive

Good point, and one that makes a lot of sense. Originally, I'd been thinking about the excitement of survival: concerning yourself with just food, water, and avoiding danger, but you've looked at it in a way I hadn't considered. Maybe living day to day in the city constitutes mere survival while the woods are where we really "live." An interesting thought!


Nanuls - Dec 15, 2008 12:28 pm - Voted 10/10

Man and Nature

Hi Andy

Thanks for writing this article, it’s certainly and interesting and thought provoking piece, although, coming from a country which has very little in terms of true wilderness (or any at all if you apply the definitions quoted in your article), I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with your view in more or less equal measure. Although I can appreciate true wilderness for what it is; for its scenic, environmental and physical value; and wish to see it protected as far as possible from development of any kind, I don’t’ think total wilderness necessary for “one to reconnect with themselves and the beauty of Creation”.

You discuss the natural and manmade landscape as if they are separate entities, and perhaps in North America they are, but from a European perspective, there is no such duality. Here man’s imprint on landscape is just as natural as that of its flora or fauna; we have after all, been here just as long. The cultivated valley floors and villages of Switzerland are not part of a “designed wilderness”, but are part of mans interaction with his environment, a process which has been ongoing since the Palaeolithic.

The same can be said for my own country Wales, where humans have lived, although probably discontinuously, for at least 40,000 years. We have some vast (at least in British terms) areas of ‘wilderness’ (and I use the term in its loosest sense possible) which see very few visitors, and where you could potentially hike for days without seeing a single other person. The landscape is bare and open, and has no obvious signs of human activity, yet it is an entirely human creation; in fact it’s the product of what is probably the country’s first environmental disaster. After the downwastage of the Late Devensian Ice Sheet the area became covered in a rich thermophilous forest, which was later cleared by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers to aid hunting and later, with the introduction of agricultural practices, to grow crops and raise herds. This led to the soil being leached of its nutrients, and so, when the uplands were abandoned in favour of more hospitable valley locations, the forests that once grew there were unable to re-establish themselves. This is still the case today, however, despite this not being a true wilderness it is possible to escape the entrapments of ’civilisation’, and be forced to rely on ones fitness, ability to navigate, and if needs be, survive.

I guess what I’m saying here is that although I agree that wildernesses are a hugely important and finite resource, especially in Western Europe where we have so few, they are not the only landscapes that offer the kind of experience you describe; and that some manmade landscapes are just as important, and deserve a similar level of appreciation, admiration and protection.

Anyway, keep up the good work I hope to read more from in the future.


magicdufflepud - Dec 15, 2008 1:23 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Man and Nature


Your post is nothing if not thought provoking as well. I think you've hit upon a point I'd considered implicit in my article but that could have been better illustrated. That is, wilderness is a matter of degree, and thus, the potential for escape increases commensurately with the wildness. The place you describe in Wales probably approaches the perfect escapism of wilderness, but I'd argue that humans' role in shaping that landscape (regardless of their intentions) still reminds visitors of everything we've wrought as a society. So long as we're worried about the possibility for escape, then we can hold up virgin land as the ideal. No doubt that concern comes across as academic and nit-picky, but when we start talking about ideologies it necessarily magnifies minor rumples. Practically speaking, though, I take your point.

Moreover, while I understand that a pure wilderness/civilization dichotomy ignores the possibility of a continuum, I think it's also a more profitable reading for Americans. We didn't evolve together with the land in the same way Europeans did. Instead we saw it as an enormous untapped resource, and that view, I think, informs our current relationship with it. Americans' possessive mentality explains in part why we grapple with sprawl and wildland preservation more than Europeans.

For us, free land has always provided the answer. That also puts it in greater danger. Whereas the Swiss landscape has grown and developed to maturity over several millenia, the America West in particular is still in a state of flux. Swiss valleys feature tiny, dense towns, but a similar landscape in the states would feature one gas station surround by 50 5-acre plots. It'll be interesting to see how that growth plays out in the next couple decades.


Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - Dec 15, 2008 7:56 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Man and Nature

Dan, I'd distinguish between "wilderness" and "natural" here. There are some evolved human landscapes in Europe that are now "natural," like English hedgerows -- so old that they're a distinctive ecosystem. Natural, but not wild.

I think we need both.

Europe increasingly frustrates me because it has only nature, not wilderness. I'm getting more and more extremist on this point as I age. For whatever reason.


BobSmith - Dec 15, 2008 5:17 pm - Voted 10/10


I wish the US government would declare eminent domain and snag many millions of acres as wilderness and National Parks. Just take it. Kick the rich off and turn it all into wilderness and park lands.


magicdufflepud - Dec 15, 2008 7:55 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice...

Thanks. A lot of folks in the environmental community are right there with you. After a steady childhood diet of Captain Planet and Ranger Rick, I'm only just beginning to realize how complex the issue of wilderness preservation really is.


mattnoland - Dec 15, 2008 7:37 pm - Hasn't voted

nice article

You should take up sailing. The ocean is the biggest wilderness of all.

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