Column: What Wilderness Can Teach Us

In a society preoccupied with electronic devices, it came as a ray of natural sunlight to read in the Valley News in spring about Vermont families escorting frogs, toads, newts and salamanders across busy roads to the vernal pools in which they breed.

Concern for wild creatures is especially timely since, on Sept. 3, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. That law defined wilderness as an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character, without permanent improvements or human habitation.

To understand the commitment of conservationists to wilderness, I conducted an e-mail dialogue with a number of Sierra Club members and conservationists. We discussed their early encounters with the natural world, and why wilderness matters. They said, among other things, that it has changed the way they think about nature, and people.

Greg MacDonald, of St. Johnsbury, thought back to moments in a family camp in New Hampshire in the ’50s and ’60s. “Raccoons would often jump from the trees … onto the roof of the camp, which triggered the vivid imagination of a 4-year-old child in the middle of the night. My initial fear of these midnight marauders was later put to ease when a couple of raccoons decided to raise their family under our porch.”

“Much of my nature discovery happened on my own or with the neighborhood kids,” wrote Jackie Ostfeld, of Washington, D.C. Being out in nature provided her “with a sense of freedom … where my parents didn’t really know where I was … where I could just be a kid.”

When Bob Jordan, of New York, was about 11, his family had moved from a built-up area to the edge of some fields and woods. “I would take long walks with my dog to enjoy the peace, quiet and natural beauty,” he wrote.

Others were attuned to special characteristics of the landscape. Vicky Hoover, of San Francisco, made her first trip into wilderness when she went backpacking in California with her husband and two children. “It was like a paradise, the peaceful, quiet, expansive sub-alpine basin with meadows, rock slabs, ponds and streamlets, small trees and mountains all around … hard to believe that this was ‘the real world,’ (with) no other people around. We were instilled with its serenity and peace — its perfection.”

Vermont Author Bill McKibben was introduced to hiking by his father. “I was always moved, from an early age, by the shape of ridges and mountains, the sound of wind across a big pine forest,” he wrote. His most powerful experience of wilderness occurred while hiking in the Adirondacks and “after four or five days just feeling like my mind had finally gone fully silent. Animals seemed to notice the same thing — I remember an owl landing on a branch three feet above my head and just sitting quietly as I walked underneath along the trail. At day’s end I sat by the lake shore and watched a heron stalking fish not five feet away. It was as if I’d become invisible.”

“My concept of wilderness changed greatly over time,” wrote Bob Norman, of Lebanon. When he was about 7 his family made several trips to a park in northern Indiana. “I was aware that this area was protected from incursions by roads, machines and buildings. I was fascinated with its geology, its tall forest trees. I loved hiking its up-and-down trails.”

His interest broadened during other trips. In the Tetons, “I was interested in how the geological features came to be, and how they were changing, watching water flow and carry sand and rocks, forming new routes, wearing down channels. I liked comparing plants in high altitudes growing wild with domestic plants familiar to me.”

He experienced curiosity that was paralleled, even surpassed, by that of Denis Rydjeski and his partner Betsy Eldredge, of Springfield, Vt. After finishing graduate school, they hitchhiked to South America where their explorations included canoeing on the Amazon and climbing 5,000-meter extinct volcanoes in Ecuador, even as they mastered Spanish and Portuguese and worked with local people.

But is even our experience of wilderness changing in these times? Vicky Hoover interjected a caution. “When people have direct experiences of nature, it forever alters them. The mere fact of a person having a cell phone irrevocably and irretrievably has changed the wilderness experience, the essence of which used to be … disconnecting from civilization.” However, when she asked her college student grandson about this, he said that because he and his friends spend so much time connected to electronic devices, outings to get away from that world are especially energizing.

Being in the wild stirred a recognition of the limited role of individual humans in the world. “It teaches us that we are not the center of the world, helps create empathy for plants, animals, (other) humans,” wrote Ostfeld. She recalls a night lying on the rocks on Vermont’s Long Trail during which she watched the Milky Way and shooting stars. “I felt humbled, I felt sheer joy,” she recalled. In a similar vein, McKibben remembered his awareness “that I was something small in something very large. In a human-centered world that seems so key.”

“Being in the woods as a child I would hear, smell and touch everything,” remembered Mark Nelson, of Ripton, Vt. “It was the experience of being next to and part of nature and close to God. … I have a strong emotion related to the being that created the Earth and everything on it. Not necessarily a ‘religious’ experience but more a ‘spiritual’ experience.”

Nelson’s view is almost echoed by MacDonald. “I am much more comfortable in wilderness than I am in most American cities,” he wrote. “Humans are much more unpredictable than any animal I have encountered. … The question of why does wilderness matter is answered with the question of why do churches matter. … I am not a religious person, but when I am in the wild there is a spiritual connection to my surroundings that I do not get anywhere else … a peace that is healing, rejuvenating, unpredictable.”

Audrey McCollum is a resident of Etna.