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Time in the Wilderness Supplies Lessons for (Planetary) Survival

In celebration of the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary

This article originally appeared on the opinion pages of The San Francisco Chronicle.

Ah, summertime — the season for getaways to the great outdoors. Maybe that means a lazy float trip down the Russian River, a weekend at the beach, or camping at the nearest state park. If you're especially intrepid, getting away might involve strapping on a pack and striking out into one of California's 149 designated wilderness areas.

John Muir Wilderness Area Photo by V.H.S./FlickrThe United States has more land protected as wilderness than any other country. Yet the
wilderness ideal is also experiencing unprecedented challenges.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. The watershed law established a legal definition of wilderness as an area that retains its "primeval character" and where "the imprint of man's work [is] substantially unnoticeable." Today, some 110 million acres of land across the United States are protected as wilderness, an achievement unmatched anywhere else in the world.

Yet the wilderness ideal is also experiencing unprecedented challenges. The strains of accommodating 7 billion people on Earth are making wilderness areas and other preserves ever more isolated. The far-reaching effects of global climate change are disrupting the natural cycles of even the most remote places. The tug of our technologies requires extra effort to disconnect from the noise of civilization.

It has become fashionable in environmentalist circles to say that the garden, rather than the wilderness, offers the best metaphor for understanding how humans can coexist with the rest of nature. As a co-founder of San Francisco's largest urban farm, I agree the garden supplies a bounty of teachable moments about environmental sustainability. And I also agree with the poet Gary Snyder's observation that "wilderness can be a ferocious teacher." A foray into the remote wilderness — whether for a single night or an entire week — offers a unique wisdom found nowhere else.

For starters, the wild provides a crash course in humility. Go beyond road's end to where the motor and the engine cannot reach, and you'll be reminded of the self-flattery of human technology. The presence of other apex predators — mountain lions, bears, wolves — is a bracing tonic, evidence of how the wild naturally resists human desires. In the wilderness, we're forced to consider that we're not as all-knowing and as all-powerful as we may think, and that we should be more cautious in believing we can (or should) manipulate every ecosystem for our own interests. The wild is an antidote to human hubris.

The wilderness is also a classroom of ethics. The beauty of the original world encourages us to recognize the intrinsic rights of the other living beings we share the planet with. Sure, we can domesticate any landscape we want — but only at the risk of destroying the homes of other creatures, which is surely a crime.

Just as important, the wilderness is living proof of the power of mystery. In a programmed and micromanaged world, the wild is one of the last bastions of unpredictability. The wild reminds us that the most exciting events often occur out of sight, at the edges: in creek bottoms, along the shoreline, on mountaintops, at the lip of the mesa, in the quickness of dawn and the languor of the evening. In the wild you might discover (or rediscover) the joy of things beyond our control and our understanding.

Together, these lessons of the wilderness can lead to a kind of grace — the grace we'll need to navigate the challenges and tough choices of living on an overheated and overcrowded planet.

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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There’s nothing better than slipping on a backpack and slipping off the trappings of civilization, if that’s what it is. Leave the buzz of the developed world behind and step out into wilderness, where the loudest sounds are water on rock, wind through aspen leaves and the cackling of a scrub jay.

Wilderness is a state of mind, the deep thinkers tell us, but when you’re in it, it’s a state of being… of being alone with the only home we upright bipeds have left, that fragile fringe of undeveloped wild lands in the back of beyond.

By Michael A. Lewis on Mon, July 28, 2014 at 1:30 pm

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