Essay: In Search of Wilderness

  • Valley News — Shawn Braley Valley News — Shawn Braley

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/27/2017 9:59:58 PM
Modified: 10/27/2017 10:00:07 PM

Anyone who wants to have an experience of the wilderness in the Northeast is liable to find that the best place to search is between the covers of a book. This is conjectural but it’s worth stating: Wilderness, as an actual place, is dead, except in print.

A neglected classic of the genre is Edward Hoagland’s long, majestic essay The New England Wilderness, published in 1971, in, of all places, The Village Voice, itself now defunct as a physical entity. Hoagland, who made his name by striding around the countryside and the city alike and writing about it all in the most lucid prose going, is, in my view, the longest-legged writer of the past 60 years. There was no terrain he couldn’t cover. For The New England Wilderness, he had a simple conceit: head off to northern New England and see what wilderness remained in a place with, as he noted, 70 million people within driving distance for a long weekend.

Right away, Hoagland ran into two problems: There wasn’t any wilderness, and what exactly is wilderness anyway?

“I defined wilderness as a place where one should carry a compass and wouldn’t meet other people; where one would be alone willy-nilly and couldn’t beg off from the experience by hailing a ride from a passing log truck if supper was spoiled or the weather soured,” Hoagland wrote. “I was surprised and disappointed to learn that there was no such thing any more, though from a personal standpoint I did find enough pockets of wild country to be less discouraged — I’d know where to go in the woods, if nobody else did.”

Not much has changed since Hoagland wrote the above, except that the northern woods are now within a day’s drive of perhaps 100 million people. His “I’d know where to go,” is particularly telling. Wilderness remains a romantic ideal that exists as much in the minds of its seekers as it does in the woods and on the mountaintops.

The essays in New Wilderness Voices, a collection published recently by the University Press of New England, also hem and haw over what wilderness is. If there’s a common definition among the volume’s 21 essays, it’s that wilderness is what a writer says it is. Whether this is a problem for a reader will probably depend on his or her thirst for objective truth.

New Wilderness Voices comprises the winning entries in the annual Waterman Fund Contest for writing about wilderness. The fund, named for Guy and Laura Waterman, of East Corinth, also donates to projects intended to preserve the Northeast’s fragile Alpine landscape. “Maintaining the wildness of our mountains is at the heart of the fund’s work,” Laura Waterman writes in a foreword to the essays. Guy Waterman died in 2000, and the fund was created in his honor.

There is a legal definition of wilderness. The Wilderness Act of 1964, which curiously makes no appearance in Hoagland’s essay, called wilderness “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The definition continues, calling wilderness “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions . . . .”

It’s hard to say whether the mountainous terrain of Northern New England retains its “primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or habitation.” The Green and the White mountains are festooned with huts and lodges, and the trails and parking areas are as busy as many a suburban shopping center on a fine summer day. Most of the essayists are at pains to conceive of even a personal definition of wilderness, much less find any on the ground. As a result, the book can seem more than a bit scattered. But the effort is a noble one, even if the aim — to find and protect wild places — doesn’t always seem clear or achievable.

“If you ask skiers why they ski at Tuckerman’s Ravine, you’ll likely hear echoes from across the past few centuries of wilderness philosophy,” writes Jeremy Loeb in his 2009 prize-winning essay A Ritual Descent. He goes on to refer to “Roderick Nash’s seminal classic Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, 2001).”

Among the essayists, Loeb digs deepest into the idea of wilderness. He cites the environmental scholar William Cronon, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who “suggests that with a reorientation of our concept of wilderness we can find it in the most unlikely places, even in our backyards.”

Loeb’s fellow Waterman essayists have taken this message to heart. Blair Braverman writes about wandering in the woods around the campus of Colby College, in Waterville, Maine, and not a lot of woods, either: “only a few square miles, really,” she writes.

Rick Ouimet, who teaches English at a school in New York City, writes about trying to find a wilderness experience on a 100-mile hike in New Hampshire’s federally-designated wilderness areas. “(W)e turned to the Guy and Laura Waterman vision of wilderness,” he writes. “That is, could we find solitude in a beloved region that attracts millions of annual visitors?”

Ouimet and his wife do find solitude, but are a bit goofy about it, running across road crossings to avoid seeing cars and bushwacking rather than using trails that go near campgrounds and boat ramps.

In only one of the essays does someone write about going to a place “where man himself is a visitor, who does not remain.” Michael Wejchert writes about an effort to climb Alaska’s remote Mount Deborah. A friend asks him why he wants to go. “I offer my best response: that to find adventure in wild places these days, you’ve got to construct your own, that to keep pace with helicopters and cell phones and idiot-proof GPS devices, you’ve got to burrow further, create challenges, go to mountains without names,” he writes.

But isn’t such a trip it’s own contrivance?, his friend persists. Wejchert, a New Hampshire-based climbing guide, acknowledges, to himself and to readers, that he takes all of those way-finding devices with him anyway. “The farther north I get from the trappings of the digital age, the more of them I seem to carry in my bag.”

If wilderness seems to have been defined downward, that has less to do with the people who are seeking wilderness than with the people who aren’t.

“The wilderness is shrinking,” writes Jenny Kelly Wagner in her fierce 2014 essay The Cage Canyon. Her subject is the caging of wolves, or the keeping of them as pets, which often ends in euthanasia when the animals start to escape, or to harm their owners. “By insulating ourselves from the outdoors, we have created a cage for ourselves that is warm, comfortable, and lonely as hell.”

Hoagland has covered this ground, too, back in 1971:

“And yet anybody who looks into the future recognizes that these bickerings between forester-naturalist-hunter are a tiny matter compared to the sea change in the affinities of Americans as they settle for good into a suburban life style. All factions have reason to worry if the broad majority of citizens lose that mysterious sense of felicity and exuberance they once had in the presence of natural grandeur — the feeling of having known it before, of being linked to it via thousands of centuries before they were born — and simply stop caring.”

There’s always a sense in New England of wilderness lost. Driving home, north on Interstate 89 from West Lebanon, I often imagine what the White River Valley was like before it was stripped of trees for ship’s masts and potash in the late 18th century, then grazed down to nothing during the 19th-century merino sheep boom. Were the hillsides covered with dense woods, tall cathedrals of white pine, sugar maple, beech and red oak? I feel a pang for a world that seems as distant as Saturn.

What we have left are the many accounts of eyewitnesses, from the writings of early settlers to Thoreau in the Maine woods, a chain that extends to the Waterman Fund and its essay contest, and one hopes, into the imaginations of readers, people who live here and who visit Northern New England.

It’s worth noting that thanks to the Waterman Fund, and to the University Press of New England, which is based in Lebanon, the Upper Valley plays a central role for people who are trying to define and preserve wilderness. What wilderness is, who can say? But there’s no question that it’s worth looking for.

For further reading:

New Wilderness Voices: Collected Essays from the Waterman Fund Contest; University Press of New England: 193 pages; $17.95

The New England Wilderness, by Edward Hoagland, is collected in Walking the Dead Diamond River. The title essay is another example of wilderness writing at its best.

Wilderness and the American Mind, by Roderick Nash; Yale University Press; 440 pages; $25.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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