Wilderness: Wild/Bewilder

In anticipation of my first foray into wilderness last year, I wondered if I would yield to the ‘wild’ of these unfamiliar environs – leaping instead of climbing, crawling instead of walking, screaming instead of talking – joyful escapes from the constraints of social protocols and engineered technologies. Or perhaps, I imagined, I might feel inclined to skulk through the wilderness on tip toe, whispering quietly or refusing to speak to minimize my intrusion into a territory where neither humanity’s greed, abuse, nor its generosity are welcome. Alternatively, I considered the possibility of joining generations of prophets who ventured into wilderness to seek the glory of god. On their behalf I conjured descriptions of wilderness from literature that evoked mysterious light, eternal renewal, and fearsome powers, imagining that this excursion might provide my closest encounter with the divine.

I was reminded of this trip this week when I read a headline  in the Wall Street Journal,  "Nature Runs Wild in Greenwich Village," describing the postage-sized 'wilderness' in Manhattan created, with great care and dedication, by Alan Sonfist. My journey had led me into the vast, unsettled territory surrounding Questa, New Mexico. It was preserved, fifty years ago, by the Wilderness Act, a landmark bill that created the first legal definition of “wilderness” and established the National Wilderness Preservation System that now protects over 100 million acres of land.  Sonfist's artwork is praised in the article for including one 'stowaway elm' that is 40 feet tall. It is not wilderness. Instead, it is an artistic representation of wilderness, bearing the same relationship to the grandeur and expanse of authentic wilderness as a 24" landscape painting might.

Unexpectedly, I felt homesick in the wilderness. Even as I reveled in its wonders and marveled at the primal stirrings it awakened, I missed the trees in my meadow back home. Here, I was an outsider, a visitor, a tourist, an interloper. At home, I am a member of an interspecies community, which affords me the privilege of experiencing the entire life-histories of my botanical neighbors. Only members pause at the stump of an old elm that was struck by lightning, shearing off all of its bark; and only members know the oak whose hollow gradually fills with acorns each fall, deposited there by a family of industrious squirrels. Beyond these intimate observations, my trees provide fuel for winter warmth, ash for garden fertilizer, fencing for the corrals, acorns for feed, brush for critter shelter, sap for maple syrup, logs to cultivate mushrooms, mulch for the orchard, shade in the summer, and lighht in the winter. Although my care-giving is dwarfed by my trees’ generosity, I diligently prune their dead branches, clear the entangling vines, and allow last year’s leaves to support next year’s growth.

I DID receive enlightenment in Questa Caldera. The trip yielded an illuminating pair of scenarios. On the one hand, I gained an abiding respect for preservation initiatives that restrict the construction of roads and dams; prohibit most timber cutting; and forbid motorized vehicles and mining. By relinquishing such human claims, these territories can be returned to the raptors, songbirds, waterfowl, beaver, river otter, ringtail, prairie dog, cougar, black bear, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and elk that are ‘home’ in the same region where humans are consigned to be ‘visitors’. On the other hand, the journey deepened my appreciation of the few modest acres where I live. My home turf cannot boast of grandeur; it scores poorly on the awe-inducing scale; and it has never inspired romantic legends. But it abounds with ingratiating and tender familiarity. It and I are life partners, and we are both thriving.