The vocabulary of wilderness is often self-explanatory, sometimes onomatopoetic. Alpenglow requires no elaboration; you’ll know it when you see it. Walk through brush and you’ll brush up against it — it’ll sound like brush. Scree echoes its own murmurous hiss, sliding down a slope beyond its angle of repose — that critical “point at which gravity challenges friction,” Antonya Nelson defines it, “the tense moment before one succumbs to the other.” We’ve got sheepback rock, mudslides, and hedgerows. In Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape, a dictionary-cum-field guide, dozens of writers contribute brief entries detailing the lexical pleasures native to their regional geographies. And don’t forget the fauna, either; the chickadees sing their own name.
This language feels instinctive, it’s part of us. Frederick Jackson Turner wrote, “civilization in America has followed the arteries made by geology, pouring an ever richer tide through them.” As we poured through the landscape, it poured through us in turn. And even if we opt for city apartments in lieu of lean-tos, this rootedness in the land runs deep. “It is the nature of roots to nose into cracks,” wrote Aldo Leopold; grass will find its way through concrete.
Americans were shaped by the wild, and have long fought to preserve it. Within our borders, we boast around 640 million acres of federally managed public land, mostly found in the West. These consist of National Forests, National Parks, and Wildlife Refuges — and there are many more acres of State Parks and community gardens that are preserved, as well. We all have access; the land belongs to us.
Conservation of public land is a tradition we can trace back to one of American history’s most famous naturalists, Theodore Roosevelt. “Roosevelt’s vision of a public land system was a response to the land and wildlife management systems of Europe,” writes Steven Rinella, author and outdoorsman. “The notion of public land, where the lowly working class was free to roam and hunt and fish, was distasteful to the aristocracy of England.” Public land was an outcry against tyranny.
Over time many have forgotten about this land — or maybe not forgotten, but just begun to live disconnected from it. For those who are connected to it, land has always fostered disagreement and debate. This land is your land, this land is my land — but that doesn’t mean we agree on what we should do with it. Some demand that our land should feed the insatiable maw of industry. Edward Abbey saw this view as “admirable in its simplicity and power,” but “also quite insane.” Some see wilderness as intrinsically valuable and necessary — like Abbey did — but this common ground doesn’t eradicate disagreements.
Abbey, in his seminal Desert Solitaire, explains that “The Park Service, like any other big organization, includes factions and factions.” As Americans argue over the wording of the Constitution, conservationists argue over the wording of the Organic Act of 1916. There are developers, Abbey elaborates, who focus on the call to “provide for enjoyment” and want to build infrastructure to ensure maximum accessibility — even for young children and the elderly. Then there are preservers, who see the lands as sacrosanct and want to “leave them unimpaired.” The wild should be as wild as we can make it, which involves making as few changes as possible. You cannot construct a wilderness; to construct it would nullify its claim of being wild.
But parks are not purely wild. You must construct a park — or at least a way to get to it, and some amenities, like lodging. And so the debate rages on: should we web our world with pavement? Or should we, as Abbey proposed, ban cars altogether and force tourists to walk, bike, or ride horses, banking on the off chance that they’ll rediscover “the pleasures of actually operating their own limbs and senses in varied, spontaneous, voluntary style” to the point that they even complain about having to get back in their vehicles. Neither of these options is perfect, or even totally viable. A resolution of the argument remains unclear. But what is clear, Abbey says, is “we must make up our own minds and decide for ourselves what the national parks should be and what purpose they should serve.”
Desert Solitaire was published just shy of 50 years ago, and the terms of the argument have since changed. It’s no longer development versus preservation — it is exploitation versus essentiality. Essentiality of the National Parks Abbey knew well, of state parks frequented by locals, even places like Central Park, just off the subway. We are now arguing over the land’s right to not be messed with — our right to speak on its behalf. “The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak,” Roosevelt famously said, “so we must and we will.” The “quite insane” view Abbey semi-jokingly wrote off isn’t so much the butt of sardonic derision anymore as much as it is a plausible reality. Twenty seven of our National Monuments are at risk of “border adjustments” — intentionally vague — or possible eradication. The powers that be see the land as a cash-cow chock-full of dollar signs. They consider mining a “traditional” use of the land. Providing for enjoyment and leaving the land unimpaired don’t seem to be priorities.
You can argue with them using their own language — not of buttes and mesas, vistas or cuestas, but of dollars and cents. The American outdoors is an industry. Outdoor recreation — hiking, fishing, hunting, camping — generates $887 billion in consumer spending every year. It provides 7.6 million jobs and generates 65.3 billion in Federal Tax Revenue — and 59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue. For some reason, this argument falls flat.
“This country has been swinging the hammer of development so long and so hard that it has forgotten the anvil of wilderness which gave value and significance to its labors,” wrote Aldo Leopold in 1935. “The momentum of our blows is so unprecedented that the remaining remnant of wilderness will be pounded into road-dust long before we find out its values.” This, now, 82 years later, is even more poignant.
The woods authored our identity. Wilderness, according to Leopold, stimulates a specific and acute awareness of history: “Such awareness is ‘nationalism’ in its best sense.” At a juncture where it’s hard to imagine nationalism in a good sense, let alone a “best” sense, perhaps the wilderness is more vital than ever. Perhaps we need to renew our appreciation for the soil — Wendell Berry’s “divine drug” — beneath our feet, to remember who we are, to take a walk in the woods while we still can.
Roderick Nash wrote of wilderness: “While the word is a noun, it acts like an adjective…it designates a quality (as the -ness suggests) that produces a certain mood or feeling in a given individual.” This certain mood, then, “may be assigned by that person to a specific place.”
Terry Tempest Williams shares an anecdote in The Hour of Land about the writer Doug Peacock. While serving in Vietnam as a Green Beret, he sought refuge in a topographical map of Yellowstone. Looking at the map — a certain mood, a specific place — “kept him half-sane in an insane war.”
I grew up in Massachusetts, in a self-proclaimed “delightful community characterized by rolling hills with broad valleys and an unspoiled rural charm.” It was a 20 minute drive to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge — a renowned haven for piping plover, thick-necked little shorebirds with short, black-tipped beaks.
I could walk to Maudslay State Park — 483 acres of untouched pines along the Merrimack where bald eagles nest, whitetails just stare at you, and stands of mountain laurel form a serpentine corral to the riverbank. I could walk through the woods to a reservoir, the Artichoke — or “the Artie” — where we’d hook bluegills, largemouths, the odd chain pickerel. We’d snap stocky branches from suitable trees and wrap a length of monofilament around it, skewer a worm on a hook and drop it whimsically off the dam. We heard coyotes at night; we knew where their dens were and recognized their shadowy lope when they trotted through the yard. After snowfall, I’d strap into my dad’s snowshoes and plod around, looking for tracks.
This small radius of land — the experiences it provided — defines me, my “-ness.” Because of public land and wilderness, I know exactly where I’m from; I know where I feel at home. The same is true for many Americans. For a man to feel at home in the world, Wendell Berry wrote, “there must be times when he is here as though absent, gone beyond words into the woven shadows of the grass.” Perhaps this is what Leopold meant by “nationalism.” To know where you’re from, to love a place so much that you go there to act absent.
To pin down one, single American identity is a problematic undertaking — an impossible one. The American identity is by nature individualistic; individualism being one of the traits cultivated by the woods. Americans are as varied as the landscapes which formed them, and this variance, as with the landscape, is a source of beauty. Wallace Stegner was awestruck by the West’s “bewildering variety.” In the west, one “could go all the way from arctic to sub-tropical, from reindeer moss to cactus, from mountain goat to horned toad.” And that’s just the West.
We pride ourselves in being the proverbial “melting pot,” a mélange population cobbled together like a homespun quilt, beautiful in its rejection of uniformity. We forget that our land is much the same — except for that, unlike us, it’s always been here. America is like its rivers: never constant, you can revisit a riverbank and recognize the water, but the water flowing through is never the same as before.
Gretel Ehrlich ponders “the Diné (Navajo) words that can mean two opposing things at once: the word for ‘up’ can also mean ‘down.’” In nature, everywhere she looks, Ehrlich sees “opposites moving toward resolution.” This is a productive way of thinking, nature is a good model to emulate — opposites moving toward resolution.
Perhaps industry and progress, in excess, create regression. Perhaps construction is better looked at as erasure — eradication of the empty space that was there beforehand. And perhaps this same thinking can apply to the American identity: we are all the same, because none of us are — diversity is our commonality.
The natural world bears lessons such as these, and it isn’t immune to this line of thinking either. Wilderness: a word both denoting what we were, simultaneously informing who we are. To lose the land would be to lose our collective and multiplied “-ness.”
The cultural heft of the American wilderness is so overwhelming that it, like a truly magnificent landscape, is almost ineffable. The words bred from geography are beautiful; they are, as I said before, to the point. But they are not enough. The ability — the mere option — to go to a public, wild place is invaluable. It is the purest and most authentic way of touching and defining your own “-ness,” your little corner of America that inspires that certain mood. This is something we could all be robbed of, and before we realize how much it was worth. As Leopold wrote, what’s left of our wilderness “will be pounded into road-dust long before we find out its values.”