Monday, April 06, 2009

A Simple Idea

View of the Catskills from Mohonk Preserve, NY; March 2009
"Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed...We need wilderness preserved-- as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds-- because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simple because it is there -- important, that is, simply as idea."
-Wallace Stegner, 1960
Even those of us who struggle to accept romantic notions of wilderness are moved by appeals such as Stegner's. And with good reason.

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2009


andiscandis said...

A few months ago, a friend (you may remember her from the blind mice anecdote) told me that she wasn't sure if her 18 month old son had ever touched grass. They live in a suburb in a warm state, have a big lawn, and have never played with their child outdoors, except on that rubbery stuff at the playground.

The worst part is that I think this is fairly common.

Hungry Hyaena said...


That's almost unbelievable...and very depressing.

Peter Cowling said...

I grew up in the English countryside, and remember an abnormal amount of my childhood. Given that my memory itself cannot be coaxed into remembering things I know are not really important, but can hold a days worth of meeting conversations, I came to the conclusion that I remember so much because I enjoyed so much. Certainly, it seems a shame that so few are lucky enough to share that experience.

But wilderness seems a more complex prospect. I remember reading about some tourists who had gone to visit a tribe with canabalistic tendencies. They were apparently shocked stupid by the experience - just meeting the people who obviously eyed them in such an unfamiliar way. I tend to feel that if people saw more wilderness they would feel that same stare sooner or later - and I do not mean some animal predator.

So my view, being well-travelled by normal standards, but no great explorer, is that many forms of wilderness need more protection, and some none at all.

Donald Frazell said...

Wilderness can be anywhere, often quite close by. And need not be dramatic, though I love Yosemite, I feel far more conncected to a place on the Central Coast, half way between Frisco and LA, that few if anyone knows about. I took most of my old photos there, nothing is more raw, for me, or both powerful and peaceful. The ocean tears into the land, life dies, and grows, it is everywhere, but one must look. It is not obvious, and one can find forms, structure, meaning in the seeming chaos surrounding oneself.

This is the power and rejuvenation of the wilderness. Far from others, only a few surfers and equestrians were a few miles away, as I photographed, as the sun rose over the golden hill, Montana de Oro. The sea lions keep company, and I have seen literally thousands of sea birds migrating, I swear over a thousand pelicans flew by once, in a near continuous two lines of 15 or so in a squadron. Incredible, life beyond man. And yet the nuclear plant of Diablo Canyon lies just beyond the last ridge.

My remains will go there. We all should have such a place, and in America we are lucky enough to have many, if we only seek and open our hearts. Where we can be truly ourselves, open to the vastness of life, and the Universe. Where death and life mingle, we are one. One must be humble, if only for a moment. Few have ever described me as such, but there, I am speachless.

Nature is the college of life, humanity the students, god the Principal. Nothing else is needed, but we all must maintain humility, and know, we will always be students, and never the Master.

art collegia delenda est

Hungry Hyaena said...


The pleasure and value of a rural upbringing is remarkable. It is also increasingly uncommon. I wonder what that will mean for future generations' attitudes about conservation. I'm an optimist, but it does worry me.

"Wilderness," as Stegner and I use the concept, is peculiarly American. That is to say, the romanticized understanding of "untamed" land deserves critique. There is much of value in preserving and revering so-called "wilderness," but the very notion of a land or ecology free of human influence is naive, even unnatural.

Everything is interconnected. Humanity is no less natural than the garden snail or, harumph, the zebra mussel.

It seems as though your interpretation of "wilderness" includes the more base, violent aspects of human nature. Am I right in this reading?


Indeed, sir, very well said.

I, too, feel empowered and rejuvenated by certain landscapes. The salt marshes of the mid-Atlantic coasts or the epic splendor of the Pacific Northwest are particularly moving, but I've experienced equal rapture contemplating the "blight" of New Jersey's Meadowlands or a thriving city park.

Neither the Meadowlands nor the city park qualify as "wilderness," but the pulse of the natural world is no less real there. Yet, importantly, I don't know that I would recognize that vitality if I hadn't spent so much time removed from the population centers.

Peter Cowling said...


I wonder what that will mean for future generations' attitudes about conservation.

I think there is always a risk when your beliefs are informed by others, rather than through first hand experience.

I'll suggest that the use of Wilderness by Americans is interesting. By the time English speaking Americans arrived, man had become a confident surveyor of all before him. He could look at onto any landscape and feel certain of his mastery.

(A good deal of inner turmoil existed, and the things that could not been seen gave pause for thought, but that is a different matter.)

The other difference is obviously that there is a heck of a lot more USA than UK. We do not have great sweeping plains over here, we have moorland and so on.

I might be reading things were they do not exist in fact, and I know of no supporting evidence for my supposition, but its at least interesting to think on...

Donald Frazell said...

You are right, in that we know we can destroy any landscape if we wish too. We have known this since 1900, even before, when John Muir traveled the West and convinced Teddy Roosevelt to start the National Park system.

That system actually tames the area, makes it accessable, and able to stay in comfort. But we have developed a far bigger Wilderness Area system also. One needs a permit, and must take out what one takes in, with no facilities. I traveled it once when 17 with my sister, who dated a ranger, and we took two horses and a mule over the top of the Sierras for 11 days, checking permits and taking out trash. Saw eagles circling to their lairs barely a hundred feet above us. Meadows and wildife of all kinds. And bears peering at night, which is why you bring dogs, bear hate dogs. Almost half of California is government lands, some we use for logging in the National Forest areas, and others left pristine.

This has worked well. There are far more trees in the US than in 1900, as we had devasted forests as much as we had the American Bison. We replanted, and use land as recyclable farms, the danger now is more global warming, as the Sequoias may go extinct as the climate warms. They are rare now after thousands of years of warming, since they covered much of the West.

But the earth changes, mans influence or not. New species will slowly develop to replace old ones, though many have been lost already, and caused imballances. But Americas forrests are actually far better now than a hundred years ago, and the pollution that peaked in the 60s brought down. There is much hope.

But we do need pristine areas, where we can feel what is wild, and allow it to adapt outside of mans influence, to learn how the earth is changing, and as humans, we adapt, or die. We are rather good at adapting. But it also refreshes the soul. As with art, not everyone is sensitive to it, to feeling the power of raw nature. As CR said, we need but a small patch to remind us, take us back to who we are at heart. Not mans layered marketings and self dellusions. Even small nature centers, we have a mile square section here in the LBC, along the San Gabriel "river". With the oilfields, wetlands, and navy base nearby, we have coyotes back in the city, hawks in abundance, vultures, egrets, herons, and vast numbers of sea birds returning to the area. People do not blast animals away on sight like we used to, and they are back taking up a place in life again. As the noisy Squirrels, packs of loud parrots, and peacocks in some areas attest. Foreigners though they are.

Man has, and must, do better. Each generation has its obstacles, its goals, its age purpose, along with our eternal Purpose. To enrich, progress and strengthen our species. But now, in ballance, we have done enough conquering. Time to find ballance, some raw nature, some adapting nature to our lives, and some using, farming, and even destroying. But finding sustainablity. That is this generations task. What they must study, work on, commit too. Even the Vatican has stated this, religious groups taking up the call. Its never perfect, get over that, as things are always changing, and so never in "perfect" ballance, whatever that is.

Creative art has always reflected this, in the language of the times, but in terms that are immediately and visually understandable and relevant to all future generations. Human ideas alone are limiting, weak. Without testing and working in all areas of life, mind, body, and soul, it is shallow and vain. Whether crazy PETA people threatening some woman who sold a pedigreed dog to Biden, crazed land exploiters, "conceptual" artistes, or twisted religious hypocrites, ignorant and self glorifying is the enemy of life and humanity.

Quiet contemplation in the vastness of naturee is a humbling and spiritual place to be at one with the world. We are both but a tiny speck, and a integral part of nature. What we do determines our place within it. A blight or a sprig of growth upon the tree of life. What other think is irrelevant, never let the human establishment govern you purpose. find for yourself. This is a seeming lost art. And raw nature is a wonderful starting point to receive and be a part of life.

art collegia delenda est

Hungry Hyaena said...


You wrote: "I think there is always a risk when your beliefs are informed by others, rather than through first hand experience."

Indeed, that is what worries me. I'm encouraged to see programs such as this, though. Of course, we need a lot more of them!


Right on. Three cheers for the informed optimism, too!

I feel that environmentalists (myself included), as a general rule, would do well to drink in the longview improvements - today's forests, for example - so that they can energetically work on the pertinent issues of the now.