In the presence of the storm, thunderbolts, hurricane, rain, darkness, and the lions, which might be concealed but a few paces away, he felt disarmed and helpless.
― from In Desert and Wilderness, by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916)
Unlike the majority of people, he did not hate or fear the wilderness; as harsh as the empty lands were, they possessed a grace and a beauty that no artifice could compete with and that he found restorative.
― from Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini (born 1983)
Red in tooth and claw
The wild is not a gentle place.
Wilderness is endangered by those who want to tame or exploit it, but a bigger threat may be those who want to romanticize it. Neither the developers nor the romantics, I fear, have much experience in the wild. The huge majority of people, residents of urban and suburban communities, have only fleeting moments of actual contact with the wilderness, and most of their ventures are vicarious, sitting in front of a television screen.
Watching a video of a thunderstorm roaring across a woodland or prairie is nothing like huddling under a tarp in the dubious shelter of a hillside while bolts of lightning and pelting rain rage all around you. Regardless of the videographer’s commitment and skill in capturing and presenting the reality of that storm in the wild, his effort will fail. All television programs that attempt to depict the reality of the outdoors are predestined to fail because we watch them in the controlled environment and comfort of the indoors, the antithesis of the wild.
We observe, as through a window, the tropical jungle’s stagnant darkness dappled with dim pools of light filtered green by canopies of foliage. But we do not sweat, we do not smell the fecundity of the rotting vegetation, we do not feel the humid heaviness of the rain forest enveloping us. There are no swarms of gnats and mosquitoes gnawing on our skin and boring into our eyes, ears, noses and other tender areas. There is no oiliness to the moisture seeping up into the pad prints of a hunting jaguar that overlay the hoof marks of the deer.
We witness, through this insulating window, the Arctic storm forming over the sea of pack ice, the swirls of snow falling, the thick hair of the sled dogs tousled by the wind, the look of stoic resignation on the face of the Inuit guide. But we do not shiver with bitter cold, we do not feel the sting of steel-hard sleet hitting our face, we do not feel the vertiginous shift of the ice beneath our boots. There is no scent of sea salt, no icy stab in our nose and throat with each breath we take. There is no glare of harsh Arctic sunlight slashing our eyes and blinding our vision.
We are not isolated or vulnerable. We are observers, not participants. We are not walking that slippery ridgeback trail of the wild that winds its narrow way between life and death (sometimes, though rarely, our own life and death).
You can experience more “wild” in an hour sitting quiet and still in a Midwest farm’s woodlot than in a week of watching video productions about the world’s great remaining wilderness areas. But few people do.
A day in the wild is so foreign to city dwellers. Accustomed to recreational activities and pastimes that are fast-paced and provide immediate reward, they are literally in a foreign country when they walk off the beaten path to sample the wilderness. The spectacle of a college football game is noisily and violently thrust upon your senses; the panorama of life in a forest has to be sought out and perceived through quiet observation.
The latter experience is more rewarding to me, but clearly I am a miniscule minority compared to the tens of thousands of people in my part of the country who cram themselves into sports stadiums on an autumn afternoon. Roman emperors knew they could remain in control if they provided citizens with panem et circenses – bread and circuses. Burgers and football games fit the bill for the oligarchs of our civilization.
It works, even for the wilderness romantics in the population. Especially for the romantics. I have learned that many people who express their love of the wilderness actually dread and dislike it. Their fear is not of being devoured by a bear but of being nibbled to death by bugs. Well, I detest black gnats as much as the next person, but I can slap on some insect repellant. Game day traffic jams with cars full of inebriated fans swarming around me – DEET does not keep them away.
So I find myself watching the struggle between the ravagers and the revisionists: those who want to destroy the wilderness to exploit its natural resources for their financial gain versus those who want to nurture some civilized version of the wilderness to exploit its mystical image for their aesthetic pleasure. I can’t abide the plunderers and can’t relate to the preservationists. Neither side seems to have a true understand – or at least my understanding – of the nature and the beauty and the value of the wild.
The best I can do is guard the small slice of the wild on my farm. And enjoy the quiet spectacle of it as often as possible.
If you enjoy my blog essays you might like to read my novel, Hunting Birds, available in paperback and Kindle editions through Amazon.com.