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What wilderness means

One of many signs marking a designated wilderness area in the Adirondacks (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

Over the past few weeks I’ve written the words “wilderness” and “wild nature” dozens of times. I often use them casually to refer to any place on a trail or mountain, in the woods, and so on. It occurred to me today, though, that wilderness is perhaps not a word that should be used so casually.

When you actually stop to ask yourself, “What is wilderness?” the definition turns out not to be so simple. Furthermore, its meaning, value and the images it evokes change substantially from person to person. So, what is wilderness, and how do we relate to it? I think we need to take time to examine our use of “wilderness” more carefully.

Just a few generations ago, wilderness was more broadly seen as something to be reviled and feared. It referred to a place or a state of being that stood in opposition to the advance of civilization. Wild land needed to be tamed, improved and made suitable for humans. A few hardy individuals made their home in such places, and a few more wrote of the “sublimity” and “terrible beauty” of wild nature. Then, in less than a century, there occurred a seismic shift in how we view the word. For many, it now evokes a sense of refuge or escape from a life which has become too hectic. It’s not just a few wandering poets who refer to wilderness as a place to find healing or a connection with something greater; hundreds of thousands of Americans go out in search of it every year — no small number of them right here in the Adirondacks.

But what caused the shift in perspective? Is it something that has changed in humans or is it something innate to our nature that we’re just better able to see from a modern vantage point? For one thing, there is certainly a lot less wilderness than there used to be. Maybe this made it more precious to us, as we now fear losing it permanently. Or does it have more to do with the technological advances we’ve made as a species? Most of us are certainly more removed from a natural state in our day-to-day lives. Wilderness, perhaps, seems more novel now, less threatening than it used to be when humans lived more closely to it.

Whatever the causes for this change (and there are many more to be suggested), one thing remains constant: Wilderness seems to be thought of as the physical embodiment of wildness, a state which is seen as inherently non-human.

Here in New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation officially defines a wilderness area as a place where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man — where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” and where, to paraphrase, we don’t try to improve upon the primeval character of the land. I think this does a good job of capturing a sense of what it is to be wild. However, it leaves us with a conundrum. How do we reconcile our desire to pursue and enjoy being in wilderness when what defines it is a lack of human presence? How many of us have felt that a hike or a paddle has been ruined because there were so many other people out there? As a person who loves being immersed in a sense of wildness, what am I to do with the notion that I might be subtly undermining the wild experience I seek just by seeking it?

One thing has become abundantly clear over the past century, and that’s the need to protect these places from our worst impulses. Despite our connection to it, there is an innate desire to exploit wilderness as well, and this begs the most confounding question of all: Do we work to preserve wilderness areas so that people can enjoy them as visitors, or do we preserve them for their own good? I think any answer to this question lies in a fine balancing act. Aldo Leopold, one of the most eloquent advocates for wild nature, said that “conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” This is the most satisfying response to the conundrum of wilderness I’ve found. It’s not possible to protect that which you don’t know how to love, and it’s not possible to love something you’ve never experienced. To think of humans as inherently separate from wilderness is to miss the point. There are little pieces of wild nature in all of us — little bits of a wild past and a wild present — and that is part of why we find it so alluring. As far as I’m concerned it is the critical piece of the puzzle.

So much time is spent highlighting the divide between wild and human that we lose sight of our intimately woven connection to it and our dependence on it. To deny people access to that part of themselves would be unnatural and cruel. Should there be places that we leave alone to exist as they would in our absence? Absolutely. But I think it is more important that we make our presence in wilderness more accommodating than destructive. We’re never going to stop people from going out in search of wild places. To do so would be an exercise in futility and would be counterproductive. Instead, we should think long and hard about how to preserve that sense of wildness as we’re pursuing it. Only then can we can start to approach that notion of harmony and find what we go out there looking for.

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