My story on wilderness, below, ran in the Charlotte Observer last Monday. I wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which is upcoming on September 3, 2014 and I’m lucky enough that my editor indulged me.
Wilderness as a place is something that I’m both attracted to and intimidated by. The side of me which shuns living in a city and wishes I had a closer relationship with the natural world loves the idea of visiting wilderness. (And this from a gal who lives on several wooded acres — in the company of several black bears, coyotes, bats, flying squirrels, moths as big as my palm, and copperhead snakes — and who can only see her closest neighbors when the leaves drop each winter.) But my attraction to actually visiting wilderness depends upon what kind of wilderness it is, and where it’s located.
The first time I stood on tundra in Denali, Alaska and watched as melting hail and sleet soaked through my cotton hiking pants, I knew I was in over my head. Never before had I stepped on ground that wasn’t solid… in Denali, each footfall sunk six inches or more, into a spongey mass of moss and freezing bog water. Sometimes, as in Denali, I’m admittedly intimidated by vast unknown landscapes devoid of marked trails, designated campgrounds, or treated drinking water. What if I get lost? What if I can’t find water? What if I encounter a rogue bear/hungry mountain lion/crazed wolverine?
At the heart of these fears, some of which aren’t even rational, is my true fear: What if I can’t take care of myself in the woods? But this is also the same fear that attracts me to protected parks, forests, refuges and wilderness areas in the first place. To improve my skills, and to prove to myself that I can. It’s why I love going, and why I keep going returning.
What do you enjoy about wildlerness as a place to visit, or as a construct of the mind?
America was forged by taming and civilizing a vast wilderness that stretched from sea to shinning sea. Yet in ecological terms, “taming” and “civilizing” involved widespread biological degradation, species extinction, habitat conversion, dammed rivers, logged forests, plowed-over prairies and the spread of nonnative or invasive organisms on a massive scale.
A growing concern that wild lands might disappear all together led to the birth of the National Wilderness Preservation System five decades ago this Sept. 3, with the passage of the federal Wilderness Act. The system began with a mere 9 million acres but has grown to 110 million acres. More acres are added every year.
These preserved lands exist in 758 different wilderness areas within 44 states. North Carolina is fortunate to have 12 different wilderness areas from the mountains to the coast. Two of this dozen were in the original batch of 54 wilderness areas created in 1964: Shining Rock and Linville Gorge wildernesses.
In lobbying for the creation of a wilderness system, famed American novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner wrote: “We need wilderness preserved … because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.”
Today, 4 of every 5 Americans live in cities or urbanized areas, but many still seek out wilderness to be alone in a natural landscape and taste that character-forming challenge. Continue reading