|Three Sisters Wilderness, Cascade Range, Oregon, 2012.|
Over the course of working on this blog for the last six years, I have shared thoughts and photos about the natural history of the western US. I have touched on science here and there, and tried to describe my natural history experiences in a way that educates and inspires. With “wilderness” the operative word in the title of this journal, I’ve wanted to discuss the broader meanings of the concept and offer some additional thoughts about what the idea and experience of wilderness mean to me. In short, it is past time to offer a preface to the central theme of this blog.
Wilderness refers to specific places, an idea intimately tied to space. These are areas of land (usually) or volumes of ocean that are distinguished for their intrinsic “naturalness”. That naturalness is a matter of degree as much as kind in the modern world, because every geographic place is simultaneously somewhat natural and somewhat unnatural in character.
Most of us have an intuitive sense about the difference between natural and unnatural, but what about wilderness? Is it something more than simply a natural area, perhaps a manifestation of nature in a unique state? Does it include areas where human beings infrequently reside such as rural areas or parks? In the 21st century with near total human dominance of the planet, does wilderness even exist?
The Wilderness Act of 1964, enacted to preserve specific
federal lands as wilderness, offers a starting point in terms of understanding
how wilderness might refer to something more specific than simply “nature”.
With preservation as a focus, the Act defined wilderness as “an area where the
earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a
visitor who does not remain”. In its quality,
wilderness is meant to be “unimpaired” and in its scope it is intended to be an
“enduring resource”, even if specific areas are rather limited in their
|Joshua Tree in Death Valley National Park, 2016.|
Most of the park is designated wilderness.
While the practical application of the Wilderness Act was to set aside certain land areas in the
as wilderness, the Act also lays out wilderness as a concept. That notion did
not just suddenly appear 50 years ago, but was almost certainly the evolution
of many years of thought about the interaction between humans and nature
stretching back to Muir and beyond. Conceptually wilderness touches on science,
law, and aesthetics. On a personal level, it also embodies certain values for
me, in much the same way that liberty and knowledge are cognitive and emotional
guideposts which center and structure my life.
The Act’s brief definition of wilderness pivots on the presence and impact of humankind, for example, prohibiting roads or permanent structures in designated wilderness areas. The absence of human-kind and our infrastructure could be the simple criterion for wilderness. However, our activities are important too, and the Act suggests (or is at least consistent with the notion) that the predominance of natural processes distinguishes wilderness from non-wilderness areas. A farm, for instance cannot be wilderness, because the processes affecting the area’s hydrology, vegetation, and soil are all dominated by humankind.
Another way to think of wilderness, admittedly from a biologically-centered perspective, is as a collection of organisms in an ecosystem that in their composition and abundance are relatively unaltered by human activity. This definition allows for the recognition that virtually every ecosystem today has at least some non-native species present. But if species composition in an area is predominantly native (i.e., non-endemic species are a minor and unobtrusive component), we might capture some of the sense of what constitutes wilderness. Non-native species are of course natural, but they are not present outside their endemic range without human activity as a vector. By this definition, a farm fails too because its plant species are non-native, its native fauna is consequently altered by the change in vegetation, and its soil microbial community would be expected to deviate too from natural composition by farming practices.
Wilderness also evokes a sense of pristine, primitive, and pre-historic, each of these qualities being the antithesis of the presence of humankind. When nature exists in such a state, we might learn about how organisms interact in ecosystems prior to, or absent from, pressures added by human activity. In theory, such examples might be windows into how prehistoric ecosystems functioned. In reality, our influence is pervasive and even the most extensive tracks of wilderness cannot be completely regarded as independent of our activities, past and present. Wilderness areas may lack current human intervention, yet they may deviate from their prehistoric condition because they have been altered by past activities such as removal of top predators across large geographic areas.
|Madrone in the Ventana Wilderness, central California, 2015.|
I’m not partisan to any of these ways of considering wilderness. I think both the functional (processes) and structural (native biota) definitions have merit (and probably would usually point to the same conclusions about whether an area is wilderness or not). They highlight that humankind affects nature in different ways – from alteration of local natural processes (hydrology, productivity), to changes in regional species composition (species invasions), to diffuse but widespread impacts (climate change, chemical and light pollution). The preservation of wilderness as an “enduring resource” hinges on minimization of these impacts at a range of scales.
For the rest of this essay, I turn to an exploration of the ways in which wilderness helps articulate some of my personal values and outlook.
First, wilderness exemplifies what I feel is the proper relationship between our species and the other millions of species that occupy Earth. True, as a species we need wood for timber, land for habitation, and farms for food, but the scale of that exploitation is in our hands to determine through choices about our population size and the relative care with which we use and recycle resources. Wilderness reminds us, for our own sake and the eventual destiny of other species, to step back, and to eschew overindulgence. It reminds us that our species can and should have other objectives besides complete dominance of the biosphere. While no other species exists with any specific raison d’etre inherent in its existence, our relative consciousness and awareness places us in a unique position of self-reflection and regulation, one which can be employed for our own long-term well being. On a personal level, wilderness reminds me to balance the impulses of competition and exploitation, with an ethic of limiting impact, respecting life, and eschewing waste.
|John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada Range, CA, 2017.|
Wilderness reestablishes a proper sense of scale for us as a species. It invites us to correct the flattery we heap upon ourselves with regard to our power, influence, and importance. A marvelous, ingenious, and conquering species we are. But next to a bristlecone pine, we are but a brief acquaintance; next to a microbe that can fashion its own food in a boiling sulfur spring, we are metabolically feeble; next to the efficiency of social insects, we are a disorganized and discordant lot. In scale, no human engineering feat compares to the tidal forces that shape coastlines, or the oxygenation of the entire atmosphere by the microscopic ancestors of cyanobacteria two billion years ago. There are other organisms that run faster, swim better, endure harsher temperatures, or exhibit enviable self-sufficiency by unfurling a leaf towards the sun to make their own food. Our species is not less impressive than the other millions inhabiting Earth, but it is not more marvelous either. In wilderness we can be reminded of that humbling perspective and adjust our conscious feelings toward, and interactions with, nature accordingly.
|Vine maple in the Menagerie Wilderness, OR, 2012.|
Next, wilderness embodies perhaps the most fundamental aesthetic by which our artistic proclivities are enlightened. Isn’t art built in large measure from the harmonies, shapes, forms, and colors nature has already invented? Imagine the painting made by the light streaming through a vine maple growing in the forest understory, its delicate sprays of palmate leaves dancing lightly with the breeze, and leaves glowing the most vibrant green. Each such vine maple painting in each forest is transitory and unique, evoking our aesthetic wonder. Each day such forests change slightly in composition, and in a generation, a vine maple seed will start the process of painting a whole new sculpture of lignin and chlorophyll.
Wilderness invites simplicity which can be one of the most powerful expressions of art, like those embodied in the Zen aesthetic. While in nature, I’m often drawn to the complexity of a beautiful landscape – the collective view of clouds, mountains, forest, snow, and flowers – but perhaps I’m inspired even more so by the simpler patterns in nature such as a dark mineral seam coursing through the surface of granite bedrock, or a repeating pattern in nature (coupled with just a touch of random organization) in the clouds, snow, or water surface.
The inhabitants of wild places model simplicity for us too – their simplicity is one of purpose. An organism’s basic programming is only essentially to survive, grow, and reproduce. But to our good fortune, nature succeeds in accomplishing these simple purposes with great beauty. Few would find interest keenly observing a friend eating, but how we would readily watch a herbivore graze on delicate meadow plants or a predator adeptly approach its prey in perfect stillness.
Third, wilderness reminds us of renewal and impermanence. It shows us that new life and new composition inevitably follow death and decomposition. As a species, our spirits are renewed in the wild. We are re-encouraged, reinvigorated, and rejoice. Continuity of life is manifest in this cycle of renewal, not in any one organism, mountain, or river, but in the collective. Nature teaches that impermanence is the most consistent attribute of life at any scale. The closest that nature may come to impermanence may be the constancy of her change, the relentlessness with which she shapes and reshapes rocks and mountains and the ever evolving web of life. As humans, we all participate in this relentless change, and whatever barriers we might construct between each other or between our species and the rest of living earth, we are inexorably united as participants in change, in being subject to the ever-changing flow of matter and energy through nature.
Recognizing the inevitability of impermanence, wilderness helps set a sustainable pace and tempo. So much of our modern society is too frantic, too focused on the inane. True, the twists and turns of our lives are just as transitory as the flow of water through a creek or the birth and death of deciduous leaves, but how often do we mistakenly view the mundane details of our lives with a level of importance they do not merit? We can humbly dedicate the small acts of our lives towards a greater human ecosystem.
The paradox of wilderness is that it excludes humans by definition, but we of course are the product of nature too, formed by the same evolutionary forces that have shaped other millions of species over billions of years of Earth’s history. Our natural origins notwithstanding, wilderness warns us of the danger we pose to ourselves and to the rest of life. We can be destructive, violent, impetuous, and perverse, propensities which are unlikely to end all of life on Earth, but which could certainly end our own geologic tenure as a species or make continued existence a lot less pleasant for our descendents. Wilderness is threatened by our ever expanding global reach, and we stand to lose not only nature’s evolutionary treasures but the values they model for us. Let’s recognize the irreplaceable value of wilderness and preserve it as an enduring resource.
- Summer 2017.
Mt. Rainier National Park, WA;
John Muir Wilderness, CA; . Portland
|Bandelier Wilderness, Bandelier National Monument, NM, 2017.|