Tomorrow, September 3, 2014, will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act. In 1964, the bill that created the act passed the Senate by a vote of 73–12 and the House by 373–1. It’s hard to imagine such a strong, bipartisan consensus in today’s Congress, so we are fortunate that it was enacted five decades ago.
Because of our country’s vast and varied landscapes, wilderness has always seemed to play an important part in our collective conscience. And since our nation’s beginnings, American writers have tried to put the meaning of our wild lands into words; from the harsh and terrible, cold desolation of Jack London’s North to the soothing beauty of Terry Tempest Williams’ Southwest deserts.
In honor of the Wilderness Act’s fiftieth anniversary, I’ve gathered together some thoughts on the significance of our still wild lands from ten, well-known, environmental and outdoor American authors. Hopefully, their views will inspire some of your own reflections on wilderness this week.
10 American Writers on the Meaning of Wilderness
1) “We need the tonic of wildness … At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden or, Life in the Woods, 1854
2) “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901
3) “A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.” Jack London, White Fang, 1906
4) “Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.” Sigurd F. Olson,“We Need Wilderness,” National Parks Magazine, January–March 1946
5) “I am glad I will not be young in a future without wilderness.” Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949
6) “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.” Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water, 1969
7) “A world without huge regions of total wilderness would be a cage; a world without lions and tigers and vultures and snakes and elk and bison would be — will be — a human zoo. A high-tech slum.” Edward Abbey (1927–1989), Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast, 2006
8) “A blank spot on the map is an invitation to encounter the natural world, where one’s character will be shaped by the landscape. To enter wilderness is to court risk, and risk favors the senses, enabling one to live well.
“The landscapes we know and return to become places of solace. We are drawn to them because of the stories they tell, because of the memories they hold. Or simply because of the sheer beauty that calls us back again and again.” Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge, 1991
9) “Every time I’ve encountered a brown bear, the animal moved away if I didn’t leave the area first. But all it takes is once in a lifetime; the wrong bear in the wrong place. Without a rifle (and the knowledge of when and how to use it), the rest of the story would be entirely up to the bear. Some people who have lived around these animals for years apparently understand their limits and signals well enough to need no protection. Lacking their knowledge and experience, I can’t bring myself to copy them. I have no interest in hunting a brown bear and would go to great lengths to protect its life. But this falls short of contributing myself to its metabolism. I feel no greater distance from the animals when I carry a rifle, just a greater sense of being prepared for the realities of life in this place. It’s my way of self-preservation, as the hawk has its talons, the heron its piercing beak, the bear its claws, the otter its jaws and teeth.
“At the same time, there is a curious inconsistency in the things I find threatening. How can I fear bears or sharks, to say nothing of spiders or bats, and not shrink in terror from the car in the driveway? The truth is, it would probably be safer to walk this island empty-handed for the rest of my life than to spend one day on a freeway. Perhaps it’s having grown up in a culture that regards even the most dangerous machines as friends and nurtures a comforting illusion of human control over technology. I remember the snarling bears of my childhood books, while the cars had smiling bumpers and happy, twinkling headlights.” Richard Nelson, The Island Within, 1989
10) “It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.
“It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.” Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, 2012
An environmental activist and naturalist as well as a writer, Terry Tempest Williams once said, “If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go … this is the story of our past and it will be the story of our future.”
For the last fifty years, the Wilderness Act has helped us hang on to a bit of our past and our future.
For me, wilderness is a solitary place that you can go to — whether a physical landscape or a terrain of the mind. There, you and your thoughts are free to wander unobstructed, among the synapses, lobes, convolutions, folds, plains, hills, rivers, and mountains.
What does wilderness mean to you?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,