The Idea of Wilderness

I have quoted from Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Teddy Roosevelt, The Wilderness Warrior, in several recent posts, Legacy and Lessons from Salmon.  The book is quite a tome, running more than 800 pages before even getting to the maps and endnotes.  But reading it is well worth the effort, along with a companion volume, The Quiet World, a history of the campaigns to save wilderness in Alaska from 1879 to 1960 that seems positively slender at a mere 500 pages.

Now I would like to return to an extended quotation from the first volume.  In a section discussing one of the many books on natural history that Roosevelt himself wrote, Brinkley says:

“[R]ecent environmental historians have mocked Roosevelt as a weekend warrior, an urbanite with money to burn who bought himself a ticket to the wilderness for a few weeks and then returned home.  At face value this analysis is true.  But from the perspective of [today] Roosevelt’s desire to connect with nature to rejuvenate himself has proved ahead of his time. ...

“Roosevelt’s notion of extreme wilderness experiences in short fixes has become widespread.  Shooting the rapids, mountain climbing, rappelling – Americans crave an extreme fix from nature in hundreds of different ways.  Whole cities such as Boulder, Eugene, and Asheville cater to consumers of nature like Roosevelt:  claustrophobic city dwellers and suburbanites desperate to encounter a rare bird or cypress grove or desert ecosystem before it all vanished.” (267)

I see my own experience in these remarks.  For many years, while pursuing a challenging career as a corporate lawyer in the Lower 48, I regularly sought refuge and rejuvenation, however fleeting, in the wild:  first in the accessible wilderness of northern Wisconsin and then increasingly in Alaska, especially its arctic region.  This sense of renewal from brief “fixes” of wilderness is akin to what I have described as “coming home to wilderness.” 

For many urban dwellers, and certainly for this one, a trip into wild lands evokes the same warm feelings as a gathering of close family or good friends.  We settle in and reconnect with our own true nature, letting out a long and satisfying sigh, then breathing deeply.

Some Americans still live in close proximity to wilderness and spend most of their lives connected to it in one way or another.  But most of us do not.  For us, wilderness is a place to return when we can, however briefly and sporadically. 

Even more important, perhaps, is that we can visit wilderness any time, anywhere.  When I am physically in wilderness, I take pains to internalize the landscape and study my feelings about it, to capture the moment, imprinting it in my senses and memory to be summoned for subsequent recall.  Many is the time I have sat at an office desk, in a conference room or on a long-haul business flight and been transported in my mind’s eye to the Sheenjek Valley or the Gates of the Arctic, or even to wild places that I have never visited in person.  

As Mark Knopfler sings in Shangri-la:   "Tonight your beauty burns into my memory.  The wheel of heaven turns above us endlessly. This is all the heaven we got, right here where we are -- in our Shangri-La."  My personal Shangri-la is any number of river valleys in arctic Alaska that I have indelibly burned into my memory.

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold asked:  “Is my share of Alaska worthless to me because I shall never go there?” 

I love Ed Abbey’s indirect response to this question in Desert Solitaire:

“Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization.

“A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces.  We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it.  We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there.  I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there.  We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope....” (161-162)

We may visit wilderness only occasionally.  But the idea of wilderness is with us always.  

This is what Wallace Stegner had in mind when he wrote his famous "Wilderness Letter" in 1960.

"What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. ...

"It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives.  It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there -- important, that is, simply as an idea."

You can read the full text of the Wilderness Letter by clicking here.

Overlooking the Kongakut River in the northeast corner of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Photos can be helpful for recalling moments like this, but the best pictures are the ones we paint and later revisit in our minds.

Overlooking the Kongakut River in the northeast corner of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Photos can be helpful for recalling moments like this, but the best pictures are the ones we paint and later revisit in our minds.