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Wilderness (editorial)

 “It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet: that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old, dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear, ...”  William Faulkner, “The Bear”

Despite fear and abhorrence, there is some wilderness left in the United States.  If you were a youth growing up in a middle or upper class family in America a century ago, your parents might ship you off to a summer camp where you would learn the fine art of woodcraft.  Splicing rope, whittling, axemanship, shooting, paddling a canoe, making pemmican, nature study, cooking a meal over an open fire, building a lean-to shelter, hiking, fishing, and being in proximity of God’s creations imbued the young with character.  Some of these young folks developed an appreciation of wild nature.  Bob Marshall, founder of the Wilderness Society, comes to mind.

In 1872, the United States invented the National Park concept with the designation of Yellowstone.  Wilderness followed in 1924 with designation of the Gila.  Regulatory authority for Wilderness sufficed until 1964.  After 66 renditions authored by the Wilderness Society’s Howard Zahniser, the Wilderness Act became law.  Nine million acres were designated.  By 2004, acreage grew to 107 million.  There are a few hundred million additional de facto wildland acres in the lower forty-eight states.

 The Wilderness Act only stipulates three criteria a landscape has to possess for designation:

  1. 5,000 acres, or manageably large.
  2. Substantially natural.
  3. Possess outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, or both.

The many characteristics we associate with Wilderness, such as outstanding scenery, historical and scientific amenities, ecological diversity and so on, are not required by the Act.

The values of Wilderness argued by environmentalists are important, but not the driving force of The Wilderness Act.  Nor is Wilderness a “lock up” as detractors assert.  The Act stipulates Wilderness be designated for the use and enjoyment of the American people.  They are not playgrounds.  Wilderness areas exist specifically to provide outstanding opportunities for solitude, or primitive and unconfined recreation.  Mechanical conveyance is prohibited, as are motorized devices generally.  There is gray area.  If you use a chain saw in a wilderness to clear down trees from your favorite hiking trail, you will be cited.  If you carry a wind up mechanical shaver to hold whiskers at bay, you will not.

Wilderness is the most revolutionary concept in America.  Environmental types refer to it as self-willed land, as opposed to managed land.  Few are those willing to seek solitude and embrace primitive recreation.  We invade Wilderness in herds along engineered arteries, with an assemblage of gadgetry designed to tame the experience. 

John Muir’s admonition to, “Keep close to nature’s heart...” go sauntering and wash our “spirit clean” seems lost on the modern outdoor “gear head” interested in minimizing carried weight, maximizing hiked distance and checking one more accomplishment off the life list. 

Almost everyone has violated the intent of the Act.  Virtually every book, article, brochure or lecture about Wilderness use encourages avoidance of solitude and application of modern gadgetry to increase safety, ease and convenience. 

Here are a few suggestions:   

Do go into the Wilderness alone (dangerous, yes), or with one or two other folks. 

If you are not alone, don’t get on the trail each day for an organized militaristic approach to covering ground.  Take time to amble alone from camp and contemplate your circumstance. 

Do not confine yourself to engineered trails.  Do a reasonable amount of off trail poking around. 

Comb through your gear and eliminate as much gadgetry as you can feel comfortable without.  I am not talking about checking your clothing and the English language at the Wilderness boundary and living like an animal for a week, though the idea is intriguing.  I am suggesting you keep in mind Wilderness emphasizes primitive recreation, not the aggrandizement of gadgetry encouraged by the outdoor recreation industry and media. 

Specifically, try to avoid mechanical and electronic items such as stoves, lanterns, GPS, cell phones, radios and so on. 

Do use traditional, ready to eat foods instead of instant meals.  Where ecologically acceptable and safe, do cook on a campfire. 

Try to take advantage of natural shelter or use a simple tarp, instead of the latest, easiest to pitch tent. 

Hunting and gathering are worth a try.  If you do hunt, limber up Uncle Charlie’s old 1886 33 Winchester, instead of relying on the laser range finder and latest plastic stocked super magnum with a telescopic sight that looks like it belongs at Mount Palomar .  Archers will find a stick bow more appropriate than a compound.  If you fish and have been tempted to try a cane rod and silk line, Wilderness is the place.

Why should you do these things? 

“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World.  Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild.  The cities import it at any price.  Men plow and sail for it.  From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind.  Our ancestors were savages.  The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable.  The founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source.  It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the northern forests who were.”  Henry Thoreau, “Walking”  A lecture published posthumously by The Atlantic Journal

Don Tryon,  January 2012

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