Over the last two weeks I have been involved in quite a discussion in another venue about wilderness as a matter of subjective point of view versus wilderness as an objective designation. Simply put is wilderness only a matter of opinion? Are we left with one person’s wilderness being another’s spoiled back country Grand Central?
At the same time in my last Dispatch I explored Joe Hackett’s point of view about the “stamp of man” being unavoidable in the Adirondacks. The vehicle for that exploration was a trip to Flowed Lands which, for all its seeming primeval beauty and remoteness, has been thoroughly altered by industry of one kind or another. There is no doubt that the imprint of humanity is omnipresent in the Adirondacks, if not always noticed. But does that mean that wilderness is nothing more than an idea in the mind?
The epistemological issues attendant to this question are difficult and deep. But rather than descend into a philosophical thicket denser than a bushwhack from Skylight to Moss Pond (and oh my is that a dense thicket), let me simply state a few things and move on. First, I do not think there is anything like an absolute definition of wilderness. Second, I agree with multiple readers that our experience of wilderness is always subjective. I think the perspectives vary and the more we have of them the better.
Third, and most important, while I embrace the idea that in fact all human knowledge is subjective, I reject wholesale the idea that this means it is all just a matter of opinion. There must be qualities of wilderness that rise above mere opinion lest we give up the ability to make value judgments altogether. I will call these qualities essentials. They are not absolutes and they are not above being colored by subjective interpretation. But they are there to be experienced. In the way that there is something essential about Newtonian theory or hip hop or béchamel sauce, there is something essential about wilderness. If we are to have the best and most informed public policy we need to pay great mind to both the wealth of subjective perspectives about wilderness and the essential qualities of it to which we come.
Let me go way out on a limb here and guess that more than a few readers have had enough of the philosophizing and have a hearty urge to cut through the nonsense. Isn’t it obvious that some places can reasonably be described as wilderness and most places are not? I’m reminded of the famous utterance by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Is it realty that complicated?
Well, apparently it is. I don’t think it gets any more complicated than in this park with its myriad, terms, laws, regulations, opinions and debates over more than a hundred-fifty years. So let’s look a little further. What are these essential qualities? Can we say anything about them?
Let’s begin with the stamp of man. It is admittedly disappointing to discover how pervasive the human effect upon the Adirondacks has been. I think that ignorance is bliss for many lovers of the park, however for me or someone like Joe Hackett that luxury is long gone. But is it a deal breaker?
Is it a deal breaker that in the most remote part of the Arctic you would see frequent jet trails? Or in the Amazon delta you could measure an artificially high level of particulates? Or in Maine you could see the effects of a damaging concentration of acid depositions? Suppose we consider a more immediate example, camping back in the woods. Would a tree blaze really damage the experience of wilderness to the level we would say that it is merely a fantasy in the mind? Would a Mohawk encampment three hundred years ago on the Plains of Abraham have disqualified the area from being wilderness?
It seems to me that the stamp of man does not in and of itself deny wilderness; after all, we are creatures of nature too. I think there are two characteristics upon which the effect of human imprint issue depends, and I think these characteristics point to the ultimate issue for me.
One characteristic is whether the imprint is current or an artifact. In itself this is a subjective question but it is, I think, reasonably clear and common. Consider coming upon the remains of an old lumber camp dump in the woods (not an unusual event if you venture in the back country enough). Think of your reaction to that versus coming to a dumping ground from an irresponsible group of campers that left the area last week.
The other characteristic, not unrelated to the first, is whether that imprint is respectful of the forest. This is subjective too. Most people live with trail markers, find comfort in them, accept them as part of the wild landscape. I myself am jarred by them. Yet I am overjoyed to pass through a section of trail engineering that has arrested erosion, even though such engineering can leave quite an imprint. Certainly good trails are respectful of, even assertive of, wilderness.
Another factor seems to be how far away civilization, that dominating stamp of humankind, is distant from us when we’re in the woods. It seems to be a necessary condition that we be able to get far enough away from our civilized markers that we can ignore them, that we can no longer hear and see them, that – and this seems particularly important – that we can no longer rely upon them. We have to rely upon ourselves. Pete Klein’s comment about the forest being big enough to get lost in, die and never be found comes to mind.
Here, by the way, the Adirondacks have a remarkable advantage over almost any other wild area I’ve been to. The Adirondack forest is so dense, the land so tortured and uneven and run through with a variety of rock and water that it only takes going about fifty yards into the woods and you are remote. But if you only know the Adirondacks you may not realize that just doesn’t happen in, say, Colorado. It’s not even the same in Vermont. The only comparable experience I know is in the Pacific Northwest, especially the Olympic Range which on its rainforest side is a riot of the vertiginous and the verdant.
Combine the dense, immersive nature of the Adirondack forest with its size and large contiguous tracts and you’ve got something. I live most of the time in Wisconsin which is a beautiful state and is renowned for its north woods. Wisconsin is wild enough to sustain a healthy wolf population. But that is more a product of the fact that the wolf was never extirpated from the area than it is a product of the wild quality of the forest, which simply does not compare to the Adirondacks. There is wilderness in Wisconsin to be sure, but with the plethora of roads, towns, logging, powerboats on all the lakes… I sometimes think that Adirondackers don’t know how good they have it.
In the end I think the unifying marker in these various factors is the word I just used, “immersive.” I think that what we most clearly share about the experience of wilderness is that we are immersed in nature’s rhythm rather than civilization’s rhythm. When it is nature’s clock and nature’s cycle that runs the show, when the stamp of man is not enough to prevent it, when the buffer between us and the road where we parked is great enough so that the “outside world” does not interrupt it, then we can justify the calling it wilderness.
I think sometimes in our fixation over our subjective point of view we forget that nature has a point of view, one that when it is preeminent, cares not one whit for our point of view. I think we know what it feels like when we are in a place sufficiently wild and immersive to impose nature’s point of view.
This is where I come to what I think is an essential characteristic of wilderness: natural terrain sufficient in extent and completeness that its rhythm achieves uncompromising primacy over ours.
I always chuckle when I hear that the High Peaks is not wilderness. Maybe the busy trails or environs such as the Lake Colden camp area do not qualify as wilderness. Maybe nature’s rhythm is too compromised in those places. That is debatable. But here’s the thing: draw a straight line from the southern end of Lake Colden to the Upper Preston Pond, just to pick something. Then set off to walk that line. You might well be the first person ever to do that exact route.
If you can, of course. Good luck.
I just came back from a mid-March trip to Lost Brook Tract. The experience of wilderness, as it always is, was overwhelming. Nature had me immersed in her groove, her rhythm. When we set foot into the Adirondacks on its own terms I think we know it, regardless of how we might subjectively interpret our experience. I’ve never experienced anything more wilderness than that.
Photo: An untraveled area in the High Peaks.