I was laying in my hammock reading “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond, when finally it clicked. The general thesis of the book is that environment and ecology are some of, if not the, biggest factors in determining how a culture, technology, and a society develop. I’ve often felt the rejuvenating effects of time spent in wilderness, but no opiate seems to be as universally potent as time spent in the wilderness, and I’ve always wanted to know why.
I thought about writing about my impressions of Entiat Ranger District, and life working for the Forest Service, but presumably that’s been written many times already, and honestly, I’d rather let any future intern reading this form their own impression, unadulterated by my perspective. Also, and again honestly, I’m arrogant enough to think my reflections on this matter are worth reading.
With very few exceptions, no human spends a protracted period of time in the wilderness, and doesn’t come back feeling “better” than they did prior. The sights are lovely, breathtaking even, the sounds are simple and sweet, and you’re given the solitude for reflection that’s so hard to achieve in contemporary society…but those conditions can be met strolling through an art gallery with a pair of headphones and YouTube search for “Bach cello suite” or “nature noises” or even just “white noise.” While that certainly can be rejuvenating for some, the effect doesn’t seem to be nearly as universal as time in wilderness.
Conditions can be harsh, and even in the best weather, walking for miles, perhaps with thousands of feet of elevation gained in a day, it can provide a fairly strong source of accomplishment to spend time out there, and return unscathed. But that too can be achieved through other means. Working on a craft, completing a project, reaching any goal, but that can still feel hollow at times. Not this though. I’ve never felt hollow out here, and I don’t know a single soul who has.
The language found in the wilderness act even reflects the point I’m trying to get at, however clumsily and verbose my attempt may be. “Solitude,” “unconfined recreation,” and “primitive” are just some of the seemingly banal terms that pepper the legislation, which I’d say hint at the authors of it having had profound insight into the human condition. While attending a wilderness management seminar in the Methow Valley a few weeks ago, a discussion occurred about the use of chainsaws in wilderness. I didn’t understand the ardent objections to brief and limited use of chainsaws to accomplish in days what could take weeks or months with a crosscut and hand tools. I know what the law says, but the law does give authority to certain agents to allow things like that, so what’s the big deal?
Remember that book I mentioned at the beginning? That’s what the big deal is. Wilderness is the only place on the planet where not only are you allowed to cast off the yoke of technology, culture, and a million other things that shape our thoughts, you’re literally required by law to. It’s one of the late vestiges where we can try to at least get a taste of the primordial and untainted human spirit inside all of us. There’s no roads, no walls, no cities, heck there are even limits on party size so there can’t even be enough people present to constitute a village. As the wilderness act states, wilderness is a place where “man and his works” do not dominate the landscape. This is the place where you’re assaulted by the humbling and beautiful fact that you’re just an animal trying to stay warm, and free from mosquito bites.
The more tangible environmental impact of wilderness stewardship is no doubt of incredible importance as well, and I don’t want to diminish that fact, but wilderness constitutes such a small percentage of our nation’s land, keeping it “clean” isn’t going to slow the increasing speed at which humans impact this planet. However, the uphill battle to preserve these lands, and keep them as unspoiled and free from the devices we’ve used to subjugate this planet, can hopefully provide a place where people can learn or be reminded of what it truly is to be human, and that might be enough to slow the steam engine of “development.”
I don’t know, ignore all the ostentatious words and narcissistic attempt at profundity, I guess I’m just trying to say, speaking directly to future land stewards, what you’re doing is important. Not “presenting a sales pitch for the Stevenson account, gonna get paid big” kind of important, but…man I’ve used enough big words for one day, you get what I’m saying. Just think of it this way, I’ve never heard ANYONE say “ew gross that job must suck.” I’ve heard “that must be hard,” “that must be scary,” “you go out in the middle of nowhere?!” but usually the refrain of this song is “wow I wish I had your job.” People value what you’re going to be doing, almost ubiquitously (there are a few detractors of course), and that’s because it is in fact, supremely valuable….also it’s a heck of a lot of fun.