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A Few Words on Wilderness

In a previous post I contemplated the nature of wilderness and isolation. Having grown up in Flagstaff Arizona and having lived on the edge of the National Forest I had ready access to wilderness and isolation. I was a shy and introverted kid at the time. Tall and skinny, always with long hair.

The awkwardness of those pre-teen years assuaged by the quiet forest, the sounds of wind in the ponderosa, the call of the Steller's Jay, that dry pine scent-filled air of northern Arizona. For hours after school and on weekends I wandered this patch of wood and knew every aspect of it. The place we buried our family dog. Where a skinned mountain lion was lying stiff, red-muscled in the grass, and then days later not a trace. Elk or deer stalked, then startled, bolting and bounding through the woods over the gray dead trees with their yellow pitch-striated knots. The hidden delicate vanilla smell of the ponderosa pine when a nose is pressed into its cracked bark.  On warm days the richer scent of the pitch warming and oozing from a pine.

Years later I wrote a poem recalling Flagstaff.

Jays and Life

The air is cold and dry and still.
Warm and bright, the sun's heat beats against face and arms,
From a cloudless sky of such dark blue.

The clean cold air is scented by juniper and pinion
Scattered over the hills like a retreating army.

A gust of wind flushes the warmth from the skin.
A reminder it is still winter.

Pinion jays compete with sky for brightness and the silence for din.
Their sound is as isolated as the wind stirring the sage.

It is on such a day that the sun's warmth and jay's call reminds one of life.
And the sterile blue sky and chill air reckon that death is always near.

And one remembers to celebrate the sun,
And the good cheer of the jays.

Wilderness Revisited

I find now as time has advanced that cities are larger and more populous, social media has made isolated places more popular, and technology and wealth have made places more accessible to more people. It was probably not a fair test, but my recent visit to the desert outside of Las Vegas not far from Red Rock Canyon put me in mind of this idea. There was the monotonous buzz of private planes overhead and to a lesser extent the human voices that break the kind of reverie that wilderness can provide. That essential refuge from the human world.

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. -- Edward Abbey

This kind of discussion can lead one to be accused of a kind of elitist thinking about access to the wilderness and one should perhaps be conscious of this. However, this gets extended to great extremes where our democratization of wilderness or, if you will, the socialization of the same wilderness leads to it ceasing to be wilderness. The inevitable arguments arise about the handicapped, the elderly, the infirm into these areas of beauty. Surely, we should provide roads and transport and access to everyone. I argue, we do not. It is antithetical to the notion of wilderness this creation of unfettered access and it would by definition not provide access to the wilderness experience.

Wilderness from a UK Perspective

Peak District--Above Edale looking towards Mam Tor and Winnat Pass beyond

I also contemplate this from my adopted home of the United Kingdom. Here the concepts of wilderness and public lands are very different.  Extremely different. In some ways this is an example of American exceptionalism; sometimes misunderstood and misinterpreted as American arrogance. Properly understood is that the nation formed in exceptional (and yes often tragic) circumstances. To live in the UK as an American is to encounter a different world with remarkably different social interactions around class and history and these reflect on the concept of Wilderness here.

With respect to wilderness, I am reminded a conversation I had with someone who asked what at that point I missed most about America. I responded simply ‘public land’ and he asked ‘What is that?’ I said ‘precisely’. I then went on to explain the complicated overlay of different government jurisdictions and their ownership, particularly in the Western USA, of vast tracts of land that were almost all accessible to the public.

In Britain the amount of land in public hands is really very small. And this includes what are referred to here as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. That is to say these places have very little actual public land in them. This is of course based in history; virtually all land of any economic value in Britain is privately owned and usually has some economic purpose with the exception of military bases and practice ranges. A few organizations such as National Trust or the Woodlands Trust are private charitable organizations that take land out of one form of private ownership into another operated on some conservation principles and generally to allow access to the public though often for a fee or donation.  (The Nature Conservancy is a similar American organization.)

In a very rough sense, the land here has always been occupied for longer than history can recall. Britain is an island whose people and land are formed by a succession of invasions. Each set of invaders laying claim in various ways to the economically or militarily useful parts of the landscape.  The king and crown and their supporters of course owned vast tracts of land and there were tenant farmers and gamekeepers. Along with this came the penalty of death or prison for poaching or trespass on parts of this private land.

Land was held by the crown and then by a lord of the manor who held a grant to allow use of the land. The lord in turn granted rights to individuals as part of the feudal system. There was also common land (land held in common by and for the use of the community) for the use of anyone in a community. Primarily for grazing rights and mowing for hay.

As agricultural technology advanced the land holders looked to make their manors more efficient and lucrative and from 1773 a series of enclosure acts were passed that allowed local decisions to remove common land from common use and force the sale of tenant farms. Enclosure is often seen in political terms today as the aristocracy forcing tenants from the land but their tenancy was enshrined in law and this meant that many of those subject to enclosure were in favor of it as it offered substantial compensation. To be sure, though, the Enclosure Acts did allow people to be forced from their land if they did not cooperate.

The implication of this was that common land became less common and the large landowners consolidated their land and and control over it and therefore the access to rural land for the general public. By the time of the industrial revolution there had been a flight to the towns and cities for industrial jobs. Suddenly over a relatively short time people who were majority rural dwellers became city dwellers. Eventually there arose interest in the land and access as leisure time increased. Enclosure restricted access to the countryside.

The northern cities of Manchester and Sheffield are nestled in the moorland of the Peak District. The workers and their families in these northern industrial cities began to look to this moorland as a source of recreation and respite. The result was the trespass movement. At Winter Hill in Bolton in 1896 was the first trespass where a group of people trespassed on private land. Others followed, Bleaklow in the Peak in 1907 and finally by 24th April 1932 a mass trespass was organized.

Three groups of walkers converged on Kinder Scout, as part of a deliberate trespass. Kinder Scout is the highest point in the Peak District. The trespass was meant to call attention to the unfairness of the lack of access for working people. The land was owned at the time by the Duke of Devonshire and used primarily for Grouse hunting. The groups approached from three different sides. One group had a violent scuffle with gamekeepers working for the Duke of Devonshire. There were arrests for ‘riotous behaviour’ as trespass was not a crime.

Subsequently more mass trespasses occurred including one at Winnat’s Pass not far from Kinder Scout.

The legacy of the mass trespass and high-profile court cases was that by 1949 the government passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Acts. (There are now 13 national parks in England and Wales.)

There is a parallel set of rights regarding public footpaths that establish the right to travel on specified paths in England and Wales that cross private property. The Countryside and Rights of Way legislation of 2000 regularized this long tradition and establishes the extent for the public footpaths.
These create a very different walking experience for an American who is more accustomed to the absolute right of landowners to control access to and through their land. In the UK one more often than not walks on private land and can find oneself walking right through a farm yard or right past the windows of some farm house literally able to touch the walls of the property.  It has taken me some time to shake the feeling of violating this person’s property and privacy.

So I find the access to wild lands and wilderness in the UK is tangled up with the class system, feudal landownership, the industrial revolution and non-violent civil protest. There is a much greater association with Socialism that springs from the desire of access by industrial laborers. Indeed, there is a climbing and hiking club in the UK called Red Rope that is a self-described Socialist climbing club.

The result for me is summarized when my wife (who is English) looks at wilderness in the USA. She sees it naturally through a UK lens. She sees, for instance, ranching on public land as natural and of no controversy. Compare the this to the call for ‘no moo in ‘92’ or the proposal by Frank and Deborah Popper to create a Buffalo Commons out of the land west of the 100th parallel. My wife’s experience is of course rooted in an experience where there are no untrammeled lands. Where national parks are dotted with farms and sheep and dry wall enclosures and related buildings.

American Wilderness

The American wilderness experience goes back originally to Abraham Lincoln who set aside the land of the Yosemite Valley as a national park and later to Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, John Muir and Aldo Leopold among others. Some would include Henry David Thoreau who I, perhaps snobbishly, dismiss as someone who expresses sentiments derived from a simulation of the wilderness experience. (Certainly, a discussion unto itself.)

In artistic expression one can find the photographs of Ansel Adams or Eliot Porter as reflective of this romantic view. The exceptionalism of the American wilderness experience is that there were vast tracts of relatively undeveloped wild land. That is not to say it was unoccupied or what happened to the occupants does not consider great regret. Indeed, the Native Americans were often shapers of the wild Landscape themselves; from the burning of forests to create meadows for game in the Willamette Valley or the channeling of rivers for irrigation in Southern Arizona. Never-the-less the extent of occupation of this wild land and its level of pre-industrial development left it virtually untouched by 21st century standards.

This somewhat romanticized view of untrammeled land lead to the creation of wilderness designation in areas defined as roadless in the United States. A further distance from the impact of man and industry. And finally, the restorative power of isolation and nature. A Jungian psychologist asserted to me that the isolated experience of walking in the wilderness puts one in better touch with one's feminine side. (I personally do not find this a strange idea.)

The late 20th century brought about some new and sometimes more radical voices. Centered around the destruction of Lake Powell by the Glen Canyon Dam and related failures by the Sierra Club. New voices such as Edward Abbey, David Brower, Katie Lee, brought a more radical vision.

This line of thinking has been explored by Edward Abbey and Katie Lee for instance. Edward’s vision is stark and radical like the man. Katie’s born of passion and logic.

Abbey’s curmudgeonly anarchistic streak lead to the Monkey Wrench Gang after his much-admired set of essays Desert Solitaire. Here was a voice that invoked action and civil disobedience in the support of wilderness. The Monkey Wrench gang invoked direct-action in the service of defending the environment. This manifested itself in the creation of the Earth First! movement (No compromise in the defense of Earth!) and resulted in so-called direct-action such as sugar in fuel tanks of construction equipment, cutting down billboards along highways, and spiking trees that were scheduled for logging. These activities were all intended to cause economic harm and to avoid physical harm to people.

The older brother of a close high school friend was a follower of this in his youth by chainsawing billboards around Flagstaff. I recall in my youth seeing the downed billboards along Route 66 and other highways around Flagstaff and only later in high school realizing this was the action of my friend’s brother.  Their father was rebellious and actively protested government control of the public lands with his picture appearing periodically in the local paper The Arizona Daily Sun.

Many years later I found myself living and working in Tucson Arizona and I attended an Earth First! Rally. (No doubt I am on some FBI subversive list as a result.) There I listened to Ed Abbey and learned him to be shockingly soft-spoken, almost in betrayal to his radical prose. There was an impassioned plea to restore vast areas of the country to habitat, the idea of big ecosystems of connected wild land in the west that could support large mammals in greater numbers.

Dave Foreman also spoke and there was a message of ‘back to the  Pleistocene’. A little too radical for me that next step, but what a wonderful vision, knitting together a patchwork of wild and empty lands to resurrect what had been lost over the last 100 years. (Within a year Dave would be arrested at his home in Tucson in an act of entrapment that could easily be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate the leader of Earth First!.)

Dave also gave a wonderful slide show of the newly create Cabeza Prieta Wilderness area with its amazing Sonoran Desert flora. Weirdly it encompasses the Barry M Goldwater Air Force Range. In amongst the photos of giant Ocotillo and Magnificent Saguaros were the tail fins of missiles jutting from the gravelly desert floor.

And so, in a sense, we come full circle in this discussion of differing views of wilderness for the public good. America, which tends to think itself less socialist than Britain and Europe, has what is possibly the largest collection of publicly owned land, most of it accessible to those that desire contact with it. This is in itself is often pointed out to me to be a socialist state of affairs and so it is. Furthermore, there has been historic legislation in coastal states mandating public access to coastal and beach land much like the Countryside and Rights of Way legislation in the UK. In many cases this superseded or abrogated private property rights in favor of public access to these scarce resources.

I have to say I am happy with the state of affairs and could only wish for more protections as the ratchet of progress seems to only turn in one direction. In my every encounter with the wild outdoors I am reminded of its inestimable value to this one human and hopefully all. As I get older and the distances I can travel on foot diminish; certainly I will not be able to venture very far at all in time. I am comfortable with the idea. It creates an urgency to do more now while I am healthy and able but I would not ruin some future generations access to this great benefit for the sake of the comfort of driving right up to every piece of wilderness. For it would then cease to exist and I would destroy what I seek to preserve.