Ethics and Esthetics

As I mentioned last week, I am re-posting the first two Northern Passages blogs from early last year, in part because I am away on vacation and in part because many readers stated following the blog only recently.  These initial posts laid out the overarching themes that I have been exploring since then.  These and other early blogs can also be easily accessed through the navigation bar of the website.


Coming Home to Wilderness

In my first post, I referred to Aldo Leopold and his conception of the land ethic.  The land ethic has an important esthetic, as well as ethical, dimension; it has many of the same emotional qualities as the familiar family rhythms and sage-infused aromas of Thanksgiving during your first visit home from college.  And the surest way to appreciate that esthetic character, to develop the accompanying moral sensibility and humility, is to experience wilderness, to feel it in your bones.

After traveling with the Muries in Alaska’s arctic region, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas remarked that there is “a loneliness that is joyous and exhilarating” about wilderness.  It is the kind of loneliness that settles in just after the roar of a bush plane’s radial engine has faded to silence, leaving you standing on the margin of an arctic bay in the company of a few friends, miles removed from any trace of human settlement, feeling at once insignificant and invigorated by the quiet fabric of life that surrounds you.  The joy of that solitude, that aloneness, is closely akin to the humility that lies at the core of the land ethic. 

Equally important, for those willing to open their hearts and minds to the experience, time spent in wilderness connects us to something primal within ourselves, some deep muscle memory of the spirit.  It connects us not just to nature but to the nature of ourselves.

John Denver sings of “coming home to a place he’d never been before.”  America’s wild lands are like that.  They are our collective home, just waiting for us to return. 

Are we prepared to recognize and accept the comforting warmth of that home?  Can we humans celebrate the joy of our loneliness and the enrichment of our souls in the community of nature?

When I have scanned the horizon in today’s remnants of the ancient Bering land bridge, it has been easy to imagine, almost to physically see, our primeval ancestors striding through the fog among the rugged granite tors that dot the tundra like ancient sentinel towers.  It is for all practical purposes the same landscape today that was encountered when the first humans entered what we now call North America.

When I have watched teeming throngs of brightly colored salmon pressing their way up flowing streams and vaulting past the rapids and waterfalls, not to mention the gauntlet of hungry bears and other predators that are obstacles to reaching their spawning grounds, I have witnessed the essential web of life that gathers nutrients in the oceans of the world and conveys them to all the plants and animals that live on the land, humans not excepted.

And when I have sat silently and alone, gazing up a side draw of the Sheenjek River valley and watching the shifting patterns of light and shadow dance silently across the mountainside as the midnight sun circles low across the sky, I have returned home in the very deepest sense. 

Let us all come home to wilderness.