Welcome to Northern Passages

Welcome to my blog exploring the ethics and esthetics of wilderness experience.  Please visit often, and I'd love to hear your comments.

In a patriotic essay written on the heels of the September 11 attacks, Richard Nelson issued a plea that we cherish our public wilderness with the same reverence that we hold for national icons like the Statue of Liberty, the Alamo, or the Lincoln Memorial. 

“We all know that America’s public lands ‘belong’ to every citizen,” he wrote in a 2002 essay titled Patriots for the American Land.  “But does this actually register in our minds at a deep, intuitive level? …  If people thought of themselves as the real owners of these American places, they’d probably care more about them, do more to support them, and take more action to defend them.”  

The best way I know to cultivate the patriotic sense of ownership and stewardship that Richard Nelson describes is to spend time in the wild lands that we are all privileged to own.  That has certainly been my experience, and it will be the overarching theme of this blog and the related website.

Mardy Murie, who is known as the Grandmother of the Conservation Movement, was of a like mind and expressed the idea elegantly: 

“I don’t think once having had a great experience in wilderness you could ever abandon wilderness in your thoughts.  And at every opportunity that came your way to preserve wilderness you would be there fighting for it, no matter what your other occupations might be.  And in that way you’d be achieving real citizenship in this country.  That’s what my hope for tomorrow is.”  

These sentiments, the desire to fight for what is ours and what we cherish, are deeply personal and subjective.  They are also powerful, like the instinctive urge that propels a grizzly sow to protect her cubs.  What is the wellspring of this deep emotional attachment, the source from which it rises? 

For me, it was the natural outgrowth of time spent in wilderness.  As Mardy observed, how could you ever abandon it after that, any more than a parent would abandon a child?  It is a subtle emotional process, yet inexorable, like the frog slowly coming to a boil in the pot.  The more time I spent in Alaska’s wilderness, the more profoundly I cared about it. 

I came to embrace, if only imperfectly to practice, a philosophy that Aldo Leopold expressed in the mid-20th century in his signature work, A Sand County Almanac.  He referred to this philosophy as the land ethic.

The land ethic is an ecocentric moral stance that places humanity in the context of a broader natural community.  It is a Copernican shift of perspective, expanding the circle of beings that are entitled to moral consideration from humans alone to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively:  the land.”  

The Northern Passages blog will explore these themes, including environmental patriotism, legal and ethical theories, nature and wildlife stories, book reviews and other related topics.  Please consider following the blog on Facebook or subscribing by email at the website's homepage, www.NorthernPassages.com.