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Wild and arbitrary

Artist Matt Burnett thinks hard about what wilderness really means

January 9, 2010
By MIKE LYNCH, Enterprise Outdoors Writer

At the heart of many of the most important decisions now taking place in the Adirondack Park is the concept of wilderness.

Here, this complicated definition is often on policy makers' minds because the Park itself is a jigsaw puzzle of land-use designations ranging from "hamlet," the least restrictive for development, to "wilderness," the most restrictive.

Matt Burnett, a Saranac Lake artist who grew up on Little Tupper Lake in what is now the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area, explores the concept of wilderness in a recent project called "Arbitrary 46." In this multimedia project, photographs, videos and paintings of people, animals and manmade objects in nature show the paradoxes that exist as people try to create, explore or even perceive the many facets of wilderness.

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“Wilderness II,” an oil painting by Matt Burnett

Burnett is familiar with wilderness. He has been an assistant forest ranger in the western High Peaks Wilderness and St. Regis Canoe areas, and he is a graduate of North Country Community College's Wilderness Recreation Leadership program. He currently is a teacher of graphic and multimedia design at SUNY Canton.

Arbitrary 46, funded by the Arts Councils of the Northern Adirondacks, is a play off the concept of climbing the 46 Adirondack peaks traditionally thought to be above 4,000 feet (although only 43 are actually over 4,000). A proud 46er himself, Burnett said the goal of the Arbitrary 46 is to point out that people don't have to climb a mountain to find wilderness.

The idea for this project builds off a previous Burnett art project in which he was going on trips "sometimes with myself, sometimes with other people, where the circumstances dictated what you did and what you found," he said.

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Matt Burnett's paintings are on display at SUNY Canton until May. You can also see his work at

His goal was to leave behind conventional and known cultural perceptions of wilderness often found in landscape paintings and other works of art. Instead he wanted to get underneath those ideas, look at the forest with the eyes of one who had no preconceptions of what it should be.

"This is kind of approaching wilderness as a psychological frontier rather than a geographic frontier," Burnett said. "A lot of the paradox surrounded how humans objectify and institutionalize things. How do you objectify and institutionalize wilderness when wilderness is supposed to be something beyond humanity. Right there, it's a paradox."

The concept of wilderness is filled with paradoxes, according to Burnett. People go into the High Peaks to find wilderness, and are visited by habituated animals such as pine martens and bears looking for food. People hike to waterfalls or summits for the natural beauty, but they call their friends on cell phones to talk about what they are seeing while they are there.

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In this time period when man's influence can be found nearly everywhere, Burnett explores the idea that wilderness no longer exists geographically. There is no escaping the world man has created, unless one can relearn to see the world in a new way.

Here in the Adirondacks, the concept of wilderness is further complicated because of consistent attempts to create "wilderness settings." People's need to control wilderness and shape it for their own purposes, whether it's for skiing or snowmobiling, ultimately flies in the face of what wilderness is really supposed to be, according to Burnett. Wilderness is a place that is not influenced by humans, not one that is controlled by them.

"What a lot of this is about is that nature is that wild state that we try to understand enough to be in control, and then we try to bend it to our purpose," Burnett said.

Climbing the 46 High Peaks is a method many choose to find wilderness. People often need a goal when they go into wilderness, but Burnett's project tries to prove that really doesn't have to be the only way to do it.

"Until I got into all these projects, I always felt like I needed a reason to do things outside, whether it was hunting or whatever," Burnett said. "I couldn't just go wandering anyplace. Why do we, or I, have this objective hang-up?"

Instead, the wilderness experience can be about that which happens on the way to the peak or the waterfall or the backcountry pond. It's enduring the natural elements and reacting to their effects without necessarily having every detail planned out. In today's world, some people have to use digital maps to learn the terrain ahead of time, GPS devices to know where they are at all times and fixed schedules to keep track of their busy days. But taking that into the woods takes away from what the people are trying to experience in the first place, Burnett says; without leaving the regularities of everyday life behind, one cannot experience wilderness.

"I think that sometimes gets in the way of enjoying the contingencies because we get in and out faster, we get in and out lighter. We're on deadline," Burnett said. "We're still connected to our life with our cell phone. We want to schedule this trip, and we don't want it to do one minute past what that trip is supposed to be, and that all flies in the face of experiencing something outside of your control, which this all sort of boils down to."


Contact Mike Lynch at (518) 891-2600 ext. 28 or



(According to Webster's)

1. Any unsettled, uncultivated region left in its natural condition, especially:

-a large wild tract of land covered in dense vegetation or forests

-an extensive area that is barren or empty, as a desert or ocean

-a piece of land set aside to grow wild.

2. Something likened to a wild region in bewildering vastness, perilousness, or unchecked profusion.



(Selected by Matt Burnett)

Because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable at all.

-Herman Melville

Now the darkness only stays at night time.

In the morning it will fade away.

Daylight is good at arriving at the right time.

No it's not always going to be this grey.

All things must pass, All things must pass away.

-George Harrison

But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.

The best works of art are the expression of man's struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state forgotten.

-Henry David Thoreau

A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.

-Henry David Thoreau

I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

-Henry David Thoreau

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.

-Henry David Thoreau

I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front on the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

-Henry David Thoreau

And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.

-Henry David Thoreau

While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house today is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too. Though it prevents my hoeing them, it is of far more worth than my hoeing.

-Henry David Thoreau



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