Some Thoughts on Wilderness

I must have been about ten years old when I peered from the windows of my parent’s Ford station wagon on a late evening drive home from Grandma’s house. Asphalt, neon lights, and power lines passed by. From the windows of other cars and businesses, silent figures watched me watching them.
As we made our way down that thoroughfare, I imagined trees, wildlife, and darkness. I wondered how that place might have appeared a hundred, two hundred, a thousand years before, and why we needed so much light in the middle of the night, why we paved so much. A deep sadness sunk in. That night I prayed with the fervency of a young boy who knew his God would answer a prayer of faith for an opportunity to turn back the clock. I didn’t know where we went wrong, or even how, but I knew that somewhere along the line we had taken a wrong turn and the only way my young eyes could see righting that wrong was through an act of God. That was neither the first nor the last time I prayed that prayer.
Over the next decade I struggled with the God whose answers never came, and with a deepening sadness over the disconnect I felt every time I walked on paved streets, watched a bulldozer level another woodlot lot to build another business or house, or strained my eyes for constellations lost to light pollution.
I wondered why I didn’t hear the adults around me addressing these issues. Surely, they must feel the same things, I thought. Surely…
Then, somewhere around my twentieth birthday, I was introduced to Aldo Leopold’s book A Sand County Almanac. In the foreword to that book, Leopold spoke of “a shift of values…achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined…”  Later, in his essay The Green Lagoons, Leopold wrote “Man always kills the thing he loves. And so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”
For the first time in my life, I felt as if someone else felt the things I felt, shared in my sadness, understood.
As  middle-aged man, I now understand that regardless of prayers, God will not turn back the clock, we will not be granted a do-over. It is up to us.
I recently looked over a map of all the federally designated wilderness areas in the United States, and was shocked at how little there is. In 1924, largely due to Leopold’s urging, the Gila Wilderness was designated in New Mexico. Forty years later, the Wilderness Act was passed and since then almost 110 million acres have been given that highest level of protection.
One hundred and ten million acres sounds like a lot, but of our total land, it is only about 5%, and nearly half of that is in Alaska. In the contiguous forty-eight, total wilderness is equal to about the size of Minnesota.
When Leopold returned from school to find his boyhood swamp drained, he wrote. “My hometown thought the community enriched by this change. I thought it impoverished.” Jesus and John the Baptist went to the wilderness to fast and pray. And Henry David Thoreau wrote that “In wildness is the salvation of the world.”
My beliefs have changed a lot since the days of riding in the back seat of my parent’s station wagon. Perhaps that young boy was wrong about God answering his prayers. Maybe he just needed to go to the wilderness to hear the answer. Maybe the answer was that he needed to do something about it, that it is up to us.
Currently, there is a bill before congress that would designate about 20,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee as wilderness. It wouldn’t cost anything. In fact, it is all currently being managed as wilderness anyway. Don’t we owe it to our young people and young people to come to pass that legislation? Mustn’t we ensure that the young always have wild places to be young in? After all, their salvation just might depend on it.
Contact your representatives in Washington and urge them to pass the Tennessee Wilderness Act.

6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Wilderness”

  1. Like those people who once joked, “I’ve got some swamp land in Florida to sell you”, the wetlands and wild lands that held my youth have become parking lots and mallwarts. It humbles me to have thought that they were sacred to all… forever wild. Your voice lends strength to the future of a bill that I support emphatically.
    Thank you Jim, non-middle aged storyteller.

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  2. Beautiful essay, Jim! My wife and I often ponder, usually while mowing five acres, when we should sell our country property and move back to town where at least the yard work would be much less. But we’ve looked and cannot find a town-place that even comes close to our land on a hill, overlooking a 40-acre lake, with timber to our south and east, and deer, turkeys, foxes, coyotes, snakes, opossums, raccoons, and all manner of smaller birds, wandering at will. The sky explodes at night with stars, and when snow comes it truly creates a wonderland that our grandchildren love. Like Leopold’s Shack, this is our sacred place and our escape from city lights and bulldozers and traffic and too, too many people.

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