Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.
– Jimmy Carter
The Introduction Section:
When people use the word ‘wilderness’ I wonder if they intend for it to have the meaning I associate with it. They could mean the countryside, something you might see if you take a drive in the country. But they usually they are referring to territory “further back” than a countryside with roads, fields, woodlots, cows, beans, and farmsteads.
Maybe they mean backcountry. I see that as something more remote than the countryside: deeper forests, fewer houses and fields, more wild than tame – or maybe that is my southern upbringing talking. Here in the temperate forest our backcountry is filled with an oak, hickory, pine forest. Backcountry could be tundra or plains or desert or alpine or swamp or other somewhat remote, mostly natural landscape. Maybe backcountry is the undeveloped areas of a park. It could be a few hundred or a few thousand acres, but some sees it as ‘wilderness.’
I see even more separation, more distance, less of man and more of nature in wilderness.
I occasionally get the privilege to join Joe Roggenbuck and friends in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. That’s a long and descriptive name; it’s the official name. There is The Boundary Waters, a beautiful mass of lakes and connecting streams in the woods of northern Minnesota. Here you’ll find seaplanes, motorboats, roads, homes, outfitters, and lodges nestled around the clear lakes and the north woods of the Superior National Forest. The area is rustic, charming and beautiful. But within that, there is the Wilderness. When you enter the Wilderness you know it, it’s marked on the ground and on maps, and you feel the Wilderness. It’s as though the atmosphere around you changes, and there are no planes, homes, or motorboats, only the water, the rough portage trails, the glacier-carved land, and you, your canoe, and your paddle. What you bring is what you have, what you take home is more of yourself.
The Digression Section:
We perceive things oddly, yet we think we perceive things completely and entirely. Ultimately, our perception is … about us. It begins and ends with our own memory and our first impression, our first ‘seeing’ of a place. When we see a landscape we accept it as what we see – a field, a forest, a canyon, a trail through the woods, a stream through a forest. That glance of a few minutes or a few days becomes the basis of our naming that place “wilderness.” We can expand our perception into understanding through experiences and study – gaining knowledge and understanding of the place. We slowly change our first-impression perception “sense of place” into an understanding-of-the-story “sense of place,” and it becomes a deeper, more meaningful “sense of place.”
That forest we first perceived as “wilderness” may be owned by a lumber company and may have been logged three times. It may have had roads and railroads crisscrossing it; it may have been homesteaded, even have been a small community. Our glance revealed an untouched place, but history tells a deeper story. With that added knowledge and experience our “sense of place” changes, it evolves as we gain an understanding of the story of the land.
The Back-to-the-Topic Section:
But what about this word, wilderness? Environmental activist and writer, Edward Abbey wrote:
“Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.”
Is that just the countryside? Is it backcountry? Is it parkland? Of course the answer is a resounding: YES! … but, not entirely.
In September of 1964 something extraordinary happened. After after over sixty drafts and eight years of work Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Wilderness Act. It created the legal definition of Wilderness in the United States, protected 9.1 million acres of federal land, and created a mechanism for designating Wilderness Areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The Wilderness Act is well known for its succinct and poetic definition of Wilderness:
“A Wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Oh, and one more thing: that little ‘w’ in wilderness changed forever. A capital ‘W’ denotes lands in the National Wilderness Preservation System – rugged, remote, WILDERNESS! This very special status of protection tells you these lands are among the wildest and most remote in the nation. They are even dangerous. You are own your own out there. It’s you and nature, and the challenges can be many. Want nice roads, developed trails, easy rescue, and a soft bed? – There are plenty of places to go for those things, but Wilderness with a capital “W” is not one of them. In Wilderness, man, and signs of man, are short-time visitors who do not remain. In Wilderness the land itself is supreme.
Passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 was not easy, but it was remarkable. The Wilderness Act is one example of the success of tireless efforts of conservationists and elected officials who worked together for a greater nation, and during that era passed to our generation the gifts of protected places, clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, places for outdoor recreation, wild rivers, and more. Today, we largely take these laws for granted. I encourage you to celebrate the people and legislation that has created America’s great environmental legacy, and work to keep the legacy alive.
Interpreters, include these great environmental laws in your programs, including why and how your own site was selected and preserved. Our audience is two or three or four generations away from these events and have little emotional or physical contact with the places and seldom realize benefits we reap from these laws (like breathing clean air and drinking clean water!).
When people leave your site, they should appreciate the work of those who brought your site into existence. We are good at walking through the forest, patting the bunny, touching the snake, and watching the hawk soar, but in the end, you audience needs to understand that they can enjoy those things only because someone fought to save a special place: your place, they place where they are standing.