Like all traipsers through woods and walkers of rivers, I have a few, favorite “secret places.” I could go on and on about their beauty, about what makes them so different from any other location on Earth, about the feelings they elicit from deep down in my core. But the problem is, if I tell you, you might visit them and bring your friends; and then they wouldn’t be my “secret,” undisturbed refuges anymore.
I think my reluctance to talk about the hollows and crannies, hilltops and crests in the world that have really stirred me is shared by many nature enthusiasts. For example, while writing a book about Wisconsin’s many great woods, I interviewed a Kettle Moraine State Forest ranger about her favorite places in that 29,000-acre, 10,000-year-old geography.
“I do have a little, magic place,” she confessed, “at the northern end of the forest. At the bottom of a huge moraine, there’s a spring. Where the water comes up, it makes the sand bubble. The grains just jump and dance. It’s gorgeous! I could sit there and watch it all day—it’s one of those Zen things, I think.”
“Where is it?” I asked her.
“You wouldn’t find it,” she stated quickly. “You’d need a guide to show you. Northern end of the forest—that’s all I’ll tell you. It’s a very spiritual place.”
I ran into this same reticence in a guide who regularly works in the Grand Canyon. He once had told me that if I ever traveled to the Southwest, he’d show me his favorite, “hidden” place in one of America’s most popular, natural landmarks. But when I finally did show up in person and asked him to make good on his promise, he balked.
“You’re a writer,” he said. “If I take you to my secluded spots, you may write about them. Then other people will know where they are,” he explained. I could hardly argue. If the places he kept to himself were as wondrous as he made them sound, I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t love them, too, and end up expressing my awe and regard for them in the way that I normally express myself: in writing.
It seems that even UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) knows well the problem that comes along with popularity. Thirty-eight years ago, it launched its World Heritage program to help preserve cultural and natural treasures. Since then, more than 900 sites—including the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda—have earned the distinction. However, recently some experts have warned that tourism development that inevitably follows a World Heritage designation may actually do more harm than good for the very sites UNESCO’s program was meant to preserve and protect.
For example, scientists say that 40 percent of the Barrier Reef Reserve System in Belize has been damaged since it gained World Heritage status in 2009 due to the cutting of mangrove trees and excessive development within the site. Ocean pollution, global warming, an increase in ocean temperature, shipping and fishing have also played their part in the coral reef’s degradation. In fact, 35 sites on the list have been placed on another: UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list.
Exposing them to save them
Despite such evidence, I wonder if calling attention to such special places—whether it’s by writing about them or giving them special status—should be considered a bad thing. If we keep quiet about the special places that move us and “speak” to us in ways that other terrains cannot, are we doing them a larger disservice?
I think of the author Rick Bass, who has written frequently about his beloved Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana. Over the course of his lifetime, he has been conflicted within and ostracized from without about his books regarding his adopted home. Some of his neighbors consider him a traitor for calling attention and the public eye to their little, private piece of heaven. But, would Congress be considering granting the valley a protective status—thus preserving this special place—without Bass’s many published essays and books on the topic of his home turf? It could be that the only way to “protect” is to “make public.”
Are you in favor of bringing attention—and protected status to—your most loved, “secret” places?
It could be that sharing secrets is not only a way to bond with a friend, but to forge a lasting relationship with a landscape.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,