After some serious wandering through a thicket of fire-blackened spars, we were able to find the burnt butt of the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness boundary sign and a vague indentation where the trail had been. Some of the great Douglas firs still stood, but their limbs had burned to stubs and their bark hung in scabby patches on the trunks. The wildfire had burned entirely through the smaller trees and toppled them in tangled heaps. I know that forests burn – that’s the way of forests – but this fire hadn’t just burned the trees to the ground. It burned the ground itself and even the roots in the ground, hollowing out a warren of tunnels and caves. My husband and I stepped along the shadow of the trail, careful as cats, but even so we broke through often, sinking to a shin or knee in an emptiness where roots had been. Our boots were dusted white as bones. And even worse: Expecting the usual silence of the wilderness, we were not prepared for the racket of a billion beetles, gnawing dead trees.
We were as gloomy as the day, depressed by the irony of walking through the charred stubble of a so-called “geography of hope.” That’s how Wallace Stegner described wilderness 50 years ago. Designated wilderness areas, he wrote, are a “means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” Exactly so. I, too, believed that the industrialized growth economy was certifiably insane – obsessed with pointless, greedy getting and unable to conform its behavior to standards of right and wrong. And I knew the hope in wildness. I had stood above the tree-line on Mt. Jefferson in Oregon, where snow-capped volcanoes parade the length of the Cascade Range, and I have felt the limitless possibilities and endless expanses that seemed unconstrained even by gravity – the weightlessness of open space. In that wilderness, even avalanche lilies unfurling at the very edge of snowfields testified to deep evolutionary wisdom and time without end. What could be a better marker of sanity than to value and protect places like this?
But dear God, wild places are really taking it in the chin now as global warming strengthens its grip on the land. Because wilderness designation has protected the most vulnerable places, it’s no surprise that these are being hit hard and first – the high airy mountaintops, the steep forests, the coastal marshes and Arctic edges, the last refuges of specialized species, places of high drama and deeply felt significance. From the wilderness mountaintop, the “end of nature” can now be clearly seen. Where is the hope in wilderness now, in the polar bear and rotten ice that have become the face of climate catastrophe? Where is the hope in the orange-needled, beetle-killed forests, facing into a hot wind? Where is the hope in a shrunken, dusty glacier at the base of a raw couloir?
In a time of drought and storm, I am struggling to know what to make of the geography of hope.
At the top of the next hill, we stopped to dig out our water bottles. The incessant assault of beetles’ buzz was driving me mad, and so was the grey and ashen land that seemed to stutter like a silent film as we walked past the framing spars. But here was a flash of movement between the trees. We heard sharp raps, repeated, slowly at first, then gaining speed. Another flick of wings, and a black-backed woodpecker attached itself to the spar I was leaning against. The bird began again to drum. In the hollow of my chest, I could feel the percussion. Bark flakes fell on the brim of my baseball cap. My husband laughed, which sent the woodpecker side-stepping to the other side of the trunk.
There is nothing to do but re-imagine the geography of hope, thinking in new ways about the reasons why wilderness is profoundly sane on a planet reeling under a pathology of greed and shortsightedness. I want to say that the wounded wilderness landscape offers a new kind of hope. It’s a defiant hope, a ferocious hope, sometimes a desperate hope. Also maybe a redemptive hope, a hope that as plants and animals change their very life-ways in a brutal race against climate change, humans also can change their life-ways, reinventing what it means to be human in a finite, deeply interdependent, and generously beautiful world.
A defiant hope. Like a fence, the boundaries of a wilderness area contain a landscape. But, more importantly, they exclude another type of landscape, the rubble of the bulldozer and the drill. A wilderness is testimony to the human will to say, No: the industrial growth economy will not cross this line. Reckless disdain for the natural world has no place here. In this place on Earth, the landscape is valued in itself, for its own sake, not for the profit that might be wrung from it. Fracking pads must stop short of this red-rock canyon. Oil wells must stop short of this Arctic mountain range. Water-sucking mines must stop short of this desert spring. A wilderness echoes with moral outrage: There are business plans that are hideous and cruel; they will not enter here.
A ferocious hope. But even if wilderness legislation can bar the entry of extractive industry, nothing can protect any area from the effects of global warming. No wilderness permit system can exclude the storms. No federal agency can call thunderstorms into a fearsomely parched land. No boundary check-in station can control the tides. The only way to protect the wilderness from global warming is to take ferocious action against the causes of global warming itself. That means that anyone who loves wilderness is called to action against the fossil fuel industries, which have shown themselves perfectly willing to let destruction of wild places be one of the costs of doing business.
Those of us who love wilderness cannot be distracted or appeased by the prospect of climate change adaptation. If a family’s house is on fire, they don’t appoint a committee to study how they might adapt to living in the burnt-out shell of what was once their beautiful house. They put out the damn fire. Those who love wilderness cannot be deceived that ecosystem restoration can keep pace with destruction, unless the destruction is stopped or dramatically slowed. Those who love wilderness cannot pin their hopes on the resilience of the exquisitely balanced ecosystems of the wildernesses. Resilience means to jump back into a former state after a disturbance, like a rubber band – resilience, from re (back) and silere (to jump). At some point, a rubber band breaks, a process better called pre-silience – landscapes leaping into something new and unknown. If conservationists would defend the wilderness, they must join the struggle to stop fossil fuels, and they must be fierce in the fight.
A desperate hope. There is no doubt about the geophysical worth of wilderness in a time of climate change. The desperate hope is that healthy forests and soils can sequester carbon dioxide as fast as humankind can pour it into the air. Obviously, the more healthy ecosystems, the better. So the more intact wilderness, tangled banks, heavily breathing forests, greening jungles, tundra, and dense black soil are present on the planet, the more carbon dioxide they will suck from the air. To the extent that designated wilderness saves intact ecosystems, and so saves carbon sinks, it is the great hope of the reeling world. A sane policy would rapidly expand protected land, not asking, Is it pristine? Is it untrammeled? But asking only, Does it breathe?
A redemptive hope. There is one place you can go on God’s good Earth where you have little choice but to be your best self. That place is the wilderness. It is simply against the law to be a greedy, reckless pig in the wilderness. It is simply against the law to steal or vandalize whatever you want. A wilderness sojourner is called to a kind of self-restraint that is rare in life – a generosity of spirit that takes only what is given and returns it in gratitude and care. This is a fact of great importance: A week in the wilderness is proof that a human being is capable of being a good and decent citizen of Earth.
The surprise is that when travelers cross that wilderness boundary, they have the ability to slip from one level of being to another, from people surrounded and obsessed and dependent on multitudinous stuff torn from the Earth, to people whose greatest pleasures are simplicity and a close connection to something greater than they are, something wiser and more powerful. If there is not hope in this proof of the transmutability of human character, I don’t know where it can be found.
I’ve started to think that I am drawn to the wilderness because I want to free myself to become a person I believe in. I’m tired of doing what I think is wrong. It grieves me. I know full well that my car is emitting carbon dioxide that will create real hardship for my grandchildren. Even as I board the planes, I know that the costs of my cross-country flights will be paid by bewildered children. I do it anyway. A week in the wilderness near my home is a chance to re-create myself, to re-shape my life to express my deepest values, to practice being the person I want to be. The freedom of the wilderness is not that I can do anything I want; it’s the opposite. Here I am free to restrain myself by my own sense of right and wrong, to go AWOL from the industrial growth economy’s war against the world.
In the wilderness I am free to go AWOL from the industrial growth economy’s war against the world.
On the back of a fallen spar, we teetered across a draw, then climbed a small bald. Bare and bristled hills rolled over to grey clouds that obscured the high peaks. In that grey land, I was glad for the red fabric of my husband’s parka. I followed him around a palisade of blackened spars propped against a cliff. In gusts of ash, he traipsed over the rise and stopped dead. I was not prepared for what I saw when I stood beside him: In a low space, water had gathered into a small oval pond that was vivid green, and all the greener for its bed of ash. We hurried toward it – who wouldn’t hurry toward what is green and growing? Green algae bubbled in a broad band around the edge of the pond and spread in green cirrus clouds from its center. Black insects peppered the green billows. So unexpected, so lavishly fecund, the pond could have bubbled up from the welling springs of Life itself. We sat beside it. After a time, we pulled out cheese sandwiches and ate them, picnicking by a pea-green proto-lake in the cinders.
In times that seem grim and rootless, when even the ground gives way under my feet, I will enter a new geography of hope. I have loved this wilderness once, and I love it still. The dark, ferny-kneed forest and shy owls, the soft trails, the smell of pine and bracken are gone – maybe gone forever into a sizzling hot future. I don’t know how to bear the dead weight of this sorrow and of this shame. I do know that what remains is a wilderness of sinewy, raw-boned possibility. Just that – possibility – the creative urgency of life unfurling in the dark folds of the land, the fertility of the human imagination and the expansive embrace of the human heart. The wilderness of possibility is the home of hope.
Philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore is the author or co-editor of many books, including Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril and Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature.
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