It somehow takes the pressure off public speaking to know that one stands up here, rather than sits out there only by accident of birth. That is to say: my father Howard Zahniser, who died four months before the 1964 Wilderness Act became law, was the chief architect of, and lobbyist for, this landmark Act that created the now 106-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System. I am up here because of his accomplishments.
If I have another credential than birth for being up here, it may be that Paul Schaefer—the late, great, indomitable Adirondack conservationist—was one of my chief mentors, my early hero, and my formative outdoors role model. Paul bought my first fishing rod and helped me catch my first trout. I was seven years old then. That life event took place in what is now the New York State-designated Siamese Ponds Wilderness right here in the Adirondacks.
I worked for Paul Schaefer’s small construction outfit for two of my high school summers. I lived at his home in Schenectady, New York, along with three of Paul and Carolyn’s children, Evelyn, Cub, and Monica. Ev, Monica, and I collaborated on the cooking. And I spent many of those weekends with Paul in the Adirondack cabin land that was his heart’s home. So, in public speaking, as in much of life, it’s not what you know. It’s who you know, or knew.
But it is more than appropriate to talk about wilderness preservation in New York State, for here, in your Adirondacks and Catskills, is where wilderness preservation began, which fact I will return to. It is also appropriate to talk about the Wilderness Act in New York State, because it was here that advocating the preservation of specific wilderness began for Howard Zahniser.
And, although this fact was lost on me until I was an adult, Paul Schaefer was my father’s mentor for learning the ropes of grassroots stumping and lobbying to preserve wilderness. Paul and Zahnie, as my father was known, labored together against dam-building schemes in the western Adirondacks from 1946 into the 1950s. When they took up the gauntlet in 1946, to block the dams was deemed a lost cause. But Paul and Zahnie went from town to town in western New York, testifying at public hearings, meeting with news people, and identifying and cultivating other advocates of saving wildlands.
My father also brought national experts from Washington, D.C. to New York to testify against the dams. So Paul Schaefer was Zahnie’s mentor in sticking with lost causes, too. And that was important mentorship—sticking with lost causes—for a wilderness advocate on the national scene later in the 1950s. That was 20 years before the environmental movement hit. As Olaus Murie would later say—Olaus and his wife Mardy Murie were crucial players in the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—Olaus would later say that “Zahnie has unusual tenacity in lost causes.” That was a New York State skill, unusual tenacity in lost causes. I hope some of your have that skill, too.
The history of the 1964 Wilderness Act is commonly taken to be an eight-year legislative struggle. The first Wilderness Bills were introduced in Congress in 1956, in the House of Representatives by John P. Saylor of Pennsylvania and in the Senate by Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota. The Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964. My mother, Alice Zahniser, stood in my father’s place at the White House for the signing, and President Johnson gave her a pen he used. All I ever got from President Johnson was a letter in 1967 telling me I had been selected, drafted in fact, to serve in the U.S. Army during the Viet Nam conflict.
The history of the realization of a Wilderness Act is more aptly a 100-year struggle, from 1864 to 1964. Two events in 1864 begin a history of the Wilderness Act. The first event is President Abraham Lincoln’s taking time from prosecuting the Civil War to sign an act ceding certain federal public domain lands of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees—Giant Sequoia trees—to the state of California as public parklands. The other 1864 event is the publication of Vermonter George Perkins Marsh’s book Man and Nature.
Historian and planner Lewis Mumford called Marsh’s book the fountainhead of the American conservation movement. Its subtitle is “The Earth as Modified by Human Action.” The verb form of that word, to modify, makes it into the opening paragraphs of the Wilderness Act. This was no literary accident. Howard Zahniser was a keen student of the roots of American concern for wilderness. Marsh’s book Man and Nature was a historical synthesis of humankind’s global assaults on forests. Still in print today, the book has never been out of print. It went through some seven printings in its first nine years. Marsh wrote it in Italy, where President Lincoln had posted him as a diplomat.
Marsh had witnessed the destruction of Vermont’s forests in his own lifetime. In 1856, Marsh and his wife had traveled in North Africa, sent there by Jefferson Davis, then U.S. Secretary of War, to study the camel for use in fighting American Indians in the Southwest. Ironically, as Marsh wrote Man and Nature, Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederate States of America.
Marsh realized that many desert areas they traversed were once sites of great civilizations founded on forests harboring elephants, not deserts with camels. But it did not hit Marsh full-face until he was posted to Italy.
Marsh’s travels there convinced him that the once great civilizations of the northern Mediterranean Basin, like Greece, also declined when their forests were cut down—as Marsh himself witnessed Vermont forests decimated. Marsh’s book marked a watershed event for his thinking. Forests were keepers of watersheds. Forests were keepers of civilizations.
In its broadest sweep, the Wilderness Act is a statement of social ethics. It is about restraint and humility, about restraint and humility for what we do not know about the land organism . . . about which Aldo Leopold wrote. As acid rain, acidic deposition, has forced us to understand soil relationships better, we find in soils the same spiralling downward of complexity that the Hubble space telescope finds spiraling outward as the complexity of the universe—or multiverse.
I belabor this conservation history to show that wilderness preservation was not a new idea in the 1950s. To preserve wilderness, as a future vision for federal public lands has been around a long time. Right across Lake Champlain from Marsh’s Vermont, these Adirondack Mountains testify to Americans’ long-standing concern for wildlands. In 1872 New York State began to move to create an Adirondack State Park. The motivation was clear: in 1871 New Yorkers suddenly found themselves net importers of wood fiber for the first time ever.
Heeding Marsh’s warnings in Man and Nature, New Yorkers, in 1872, moved to protect what forests they had left. Then, in 1885, New Yorkers designated, on state-owned lands of the Adirondacks and Catskills, the State Forest Preserve lands. And in 1894, New Yorkers put in the state constitution the “forever wild” clause. The clause says that forest preserve lands will be kept “forever as wild forest lands.”
One voting member of that 1894 Constitutional Convention was the lawyer, Louis Marshall. Louis Marshall was a renowned champion of Jewish civil liberties, immigrant rights, and all minority rights. And Louis Marshall later led the floor fight, at the 1915 New York State Constitutional Convention, that blocked a move to gut the “forever wild” clause.
In wilderness preservation history, Louis Marshall is best known as the father of Robert Marshall, the indefatigable Bob Marshall who labored within the U.S. Forest Service to protect roadless wilderness in the 1930s. So New Yorker Bob Marshall, who organized The Wilderness Society, was a second-generation wilderness advocate. The urge to preserve wilderness has been around a long time.
Historically we have seen three big conservation movements: first a forests movement, then a parks movement, and now the wilderness preservation movement. All three continue today. However, as movements to preserve wild nature on federal public lands, the forests movement was eventually seen by many conservationists as co-opted; and then the parks movement, too, was seen as co-opted; and so conservationists tried again — most recently with the wilderness preservation movement and 1964 Wilderness Act—creating the National Wilderness Preservation System. One can only speculate about the next major movement: Perhaps something like the Wildlands Project or a Network of Wildlands—some attempt to link, perhaps with green infrastructure, protected natural areas and open spaces so as to preserve and/or restore wildness at the continental scale.
Working through their representatives in Congress, Americans first got forest reserves established on federal public lands — through the 1891 Forest Reservation Act. Forest reserves were true reserves, closed to grazing, mining, logging, homesteading. But, in 1905, Gifford Pinchot convinced Congress to open forest reserves to resource extraction as national forests. That change sparked a national parks movement. Again working through Congress, Americans then bet on national parks to preserve wild nature on federal public lands. Indeed, the rapid growth of the National Park System in the 1920s and 1930s saw many of the new parklands carved out of national forest lands. But the first National Park Service Director Stephen Mather allied the parks movement with automobile tourism. Road and development pressures on park backcountry grew as automobile touring mushroomed. Pressure to road and to develop park backcountry added urgency to the drive to protect wilderness by law rather than by administrative whim.
I said that the Wilderness Act is an ethical statement about our human relations with what Aldo Leopold called the land organism. In fact, wilderness has a deep tradition in Judeo Christian thought of being prophetic for human culture. By “prophetic” I do not mean predicting the future. Prophetic, rather, means a calling back to fundamental, right relationships. Wilderness has been the location for calling people back to right relationship both within the human community and with the divine.
The wilderness sojourn of the Hebrew people fleeing 400 years of slavery in Egypt under Pharoah is reported in the Hebrew Scriptures’ Book of Exodus. These wild settings — desert wilderness, mountain top — like Gothic cathedrals, put us in spatial perspectives that impress on us our true scale in the universal scheme. Wilderness experience calls us back to what my father described as a sense of dependence and interdependence as well as independence. Wilderness experience can call us back to right relationships with what my father called the whole community of life on Earth that derives its existence from the Sun. Wilderness experience can bring us to realize that, as my father wrote, we prosper only as the whole community of life prospers.
Novelist Andrew Lytle writes that prophets do not come from the city promising riches and wearing store-bought clothes. No, prophets have always come from the wilderness, stinking of goats . . . and telling of a different sort of treasure. Wendell Berry writes that “If change is to come, it will come from the margins. . . . It was the desert, not the temple, that gave us the prophets.” And in Hebrew scripture as in New Testament Greek the words we translate as desert and wilderness are the same word.
This prophetic role of wilderness experience — how wilderness can call us back to right relationships, to right living, to social justice — this prophetic role of wilderness also figures in the history of the Wilderness Act. For this we step back to the Transcendentalist reformers Margaret Sarah Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.
Zahnie was a lifelong student of the writings of Emerson and Thoreau. He served as president of the Thoreau Society for the 1956 to 1957 term. One of my father’s public school teachers had her students memorize an Emerson quotation every week. My father’s interest eventually shifted more to Thoreau, who has since perhaps eclipsed his friend and mentor Emerson in the popular imagination.
It was Thoreau who, in his 1862 essay “Walking,” inscribed the Zen koan-like rallying cry of conservation that “. . . in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” In his book Walden, in his books Cape Cod and The Maine Woods, and in his millionous words of Journals, Thoreau meditates on the necessity of wildness—wildness as necessity not luxury. And isn’t it intriguing how Thoreau does not say we preserve wildness. He says wildness preserves the world? And Thoreau, who read French, German, Latin, and Greek, points out in the essay that the word world as he uses it is the Greek word kosmos, meaning not only world but also beauty, pattern, order. . . . in Wildness is the preservation of the World, Beauty, Pattern, Order.
Until women’s studies took hold, Margaret Sarah Fuller was far less well known than Emerson and Thoreau. But some now credit Fuller as the greatest Transcendentalist thinker. (She was the great aunt, by the way, of the wildly inventive R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller.) Margaret Fuller’s book Woman in the Nineteenth Century may be, still, the best statement on that subject. She edited the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial. She was the first female book reviewer for a major New York City newspaper. She was a thorough-going reformer. Fuller even went to Europe to take part in the Italian revolution. She died in a ship wreck just off the U.S. east coast coming back to America. Emerson asked Thoreau to go look for her body and effects, for her manuscript on the revolution. But none was found.
Margaret Fuller is intriguing for Wilderness Act history because her 1840s reform agenda uncannily prefigures the legislative agenda of Senator Hubert H. Humphrey in the 1950s. Margaret Fuller advocated American Indian rights, ending slavery, women’s suffrage, women’s rights, education reform, rehabilitation of women prisoners, and valuing nature. Margaret Fuller’s reform agenda and Senator Humphrey’s agenda, of which the Wilderness Act was one important element, show that wilderness is not at the periphery of society but is a core concern of a whole society, holistically construed.
Fuller’s and Humphrey’s similar agendas round out the truth of Thoreau asserting that “. . . in wildness is the preservation of the World.” The Wilderness Act was part of Sen. Humphrey’s legislative package that also included the National Defense Education Loan Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the landmark Civil Rights Act. Wilderness and wildness are necessity, not peripheral luxuries of a society holistically construed.
Bob Marshall, who was Jewish, early fought for access to wilderness as a minority right. Bob Marshall also fought for a fair shake for labor and other social justice issues. On his death at age 38 in 1939, one-third of Bob Marshall’s estate effectively endowed the Wilderness Society, but two-thirds went to advocate labor and other social justice issues. Again, wilderness and wildness are necessity, not peripheral luxuries of a society holistically construed.
This bit of biography underscores how Congress declares the intent of the National Wilderness Preservation System Act to be “for the permanent good of the whole people. . .” by a House of Representatives vote of 373 to 1 and a Senate vote of 78-12. Isn’t that amazing?
Wilderness and wildness are integral to what Wendell Berry calls the circumference of mystery. Wilderness and wildness are integral to what the poet Denise Levertov calls the Great Web. Wilderness and wildness are integral to what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls our inescapable network of mutuality. Wilderness and wildness are integral to what God describes to Job as the “circle on the face of the deep.” Wilderness and wildness are integral to the bio-sphere, to that circle of life, which is also this circle of life, our circle of life. Our full community of life on Earth that derives its existence from the Sun.
The prophetic call of wilderness is not to escape the world. The prophetic call of wilderness is to encounter the world’s essence. John Hay calls wilderness “Earth’s immortal genius.” Gary Snyder calls it the planetary intelligence. Wilderness calls us to renewed kinship with all of life. In Aldo Leopold’s words, we will enlarge the boundaries of the community—we will live out a land ethic—only as we feel ourselves a part of the same community.
By securing a national policy of restraint and humility toward natural conditions and wilderness character, the Wilderness Act offers a sociopolitical step toward a land ethic, toward enlarging the boundaries of the community.
So, preserving wilderness and wildness is about recognizing the limitations of our desires and the limitations of our capabilities within nature. But nature really is this all-encompassing community— including humans—that Aldo Leopold characterized simply as “the land.” With preserving designated wilderness we are putting a small percentage of the land outside the scope of our trammeling influence.
Terry Tempest Williams titles her introduction to Aldo Leopold’s wilderness excerpts in The Essential Aldo Leopold as “Wilderness: A Place of Humility.” Maybe Thoreau intuited that in Wildness—in recognizing our rightful, ethical place in this broadly construed community—is the preservation of the world, beauty, pattern, order.
Let me share with you how I first grasped my place in this larger community that so concerned Aldo Leopold and my father. In 1961, I and another 15-year-old, Stephen Griffith, were privileged to go to the south slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range with the legendary field biologist and conservationist team of Olaus and “Mardy” Murie. We camped on Lobo Lake near the Sheenjek River in what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. One day Stephen and I took our cameras around to the lakeshore opposite our camp to explore.
After we had traveled some distance from the lake, and I was alone — although mostly, in that treeless country, in sight of Stephen — I came across a pile of grizzly bear droppings. The pile was 18 inches across and stood five inches high. I looked at that pile and thought: “Wow, if I had gone through that bear it wouldn’t leave that much behind!” That necessarily-humbled, gut recognition of my place other-than-at-the-top of the food chain in that wilderness nudged me forever into that larger community that so concerned Aldo Leopold. That was 1961. Twenty five years later I wrote from memory a group of poems about that summer. Here are two:
Wolf tracks on a
silted gravel bar:
I found them just
off camp in a drizzle.
Got the others and
off we went to cast it.
Mosquitoes kept down
by light rain.
Mixing silt and plaster,
Olaus messes his hands.
The sky clears and
mosquitoes come out.
Brushing them off his head,
blood mixes with the mud.
The perfect wolf track
cast in silty definition.
Tonight the river rises
and for the second time
this wolf just disappears.
Fourth of July, hunkered
down in a small depression
on the wide floodplain,
of a Baird’s sandpiper
when a coal black wolf
happens onto us
upwind to 42 paces
measured later but
not until our hearts
and minds have leaped to deep
no fireworks display
will henceforth ever
hold a Roman candle to.
The anthropologist and Alaska resident Richard Nelson says that we are the land as it rises up on two legs for a time and walks around and looks. Nelson says this is very clear when you live a subsistence lifestyle, as Nelson did with Alaska Natives, the Koyukon people, as his book Make Prayers to the Raven records.
Land law expert Eric Freyfogle says that “We remain such a knowledge-focused culture that we have no good mechanisms for taking what we know and then adjusting or supplementing it to take into account what we plainly do not know. [Aldo] Leopold’s land ethic was designed to do just that.”
“Conservation,” writes cultural ecologist E. N. Anderson in his book Ecologies of the Heart, “is not about natural resources. It is about the social contract.” And again, as the Wilderness Act does, Anderson would make the social contract not just with the human world but with the more-than-human world. Recall that the “forever wild” clause of the New York State Constitution, Article XIV, Section 1, does not read simply “wild forest.” It reads “wild forest lands.”
Howard Zahniser was both a writer and a reader—immersed in the literature of Dante, Blake, The Book of Job, and Thoreau. He wore virtual fabric file cabinets, suit coats tailor-made with four, supersized inside pockets well suited to a lobbyist. His jumbo pockets usually held a book by Thoreau and one by Dante or Blake, along with other wilderness propaganda.
Zahnie’s literary interests fed his delight in words that informed his choice of the word untrammeled to define the wilderness ideal. My sister Karen had a teddy bear my father variously nicknamed “Wilderness Bill” and “Gladly, the Cross-eyed Bear.” “Wilderness Bill” is an obvious nickname. The other moniker parodies the Christian gospel song, “Gladly, the Cross I’d Bear.” Carefully mixing metaphors, Zahnie once joked that wilderness was “where the hand of man has never set foot.”
Zahnie fed himself with literature. He kept current with nature writing through his role as books editor of Nature Magazine. He wrote the conservation section for the Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook series. It remains important to feed ourselves with works that reach beyond the limited self to enlarge the boundaries of the community.
In 1955 Zahnie wrote that “It is characteristic of wilderness to impress its visitors with their relationship to other forms of life, and to afford those who linger an intimation of the interdependence of all life.” “In the wilderness,” he wrote, “it is thus possible to sense most keenly our human membership in the whole community of life on the Earth. And in this possibility is perhaps one explanation for our modern deep-seated need for wilderness.”
Howard Zahniser did not live to see the Wilderness Act. He saw only a series of wilderness bills that he shepherded through 66 drafts and 18 public hearings. In fact, my father once said that creating a National Wilderness Preservation System was not even as important in itself as the fact that so many of us would one day take that step together.
That step is now a 42-year journey, a journey toward sustainable inhabitation of North America, of Turtle Island, by the multiple cultures we now so clearly are. The National Wilderness Preservation System—and New York State’s own wilderness areas—exist now to create ethical space for that vision, Aldo Leopold’s ethical space evoking human restraint in our relations with the more-than-human world, that is, the whole community of life on Earth.
The root of the word humility is shared by the word humus, the soil. In the Hebrew Genesis story the Hebrew roots of our words for man, woman, and soil also are very closely related. Humus, humility, soil as earth. Man, woman, ground. But we still put Descartes before the horse—in our overweening consumeristic, materialistic hyper-rationalism. As Bill McKibben has written, if the human people of the world were drawn to the accurate scale of our relative consumption of resources, we Americans would be as big as sperm whales.
We forget that the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan is not a discourse on Middle Eastern sociology or religious competition. The parable is a slant, truth-telling answer to the evasive sophistry of the question that merely poses as an answer: “Yes, but who is my neighbor?”
Preserving some wilderness and wildness in perpetuity, is one way of being a good neighbor to the whole of that circle . . . being a good neighbor to the Bio-Sphere . . . . a good neighbor to the wholeness of that circle on the face of the deep. . . As Thoreau wrote, Walden Pond proved one of his best neighbors.
Bill McKibben says we need wilderness because it is one of the few places where we can still sense our true human scale. Weird inflated pictures of our most base wants and desires are flashed at us as advertising litanies of outsized lust for the ludicrous. McKibben compares wilderness to soup kitchens and hospitals — as other places where transcendent love still plays.
What is our true human scale? McKibben says, existentially, we are so small — but we can matter so much. That is the boldness of human humility. The boldness of human biotic humility. And it is a truism that humility is never gained by seeking it. Humility is worked into our lives by the discipline of service.
When the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote out his profoundly relational view of human life in 1923, he included our I-Thou relationship with nature. Deep subjectivity with the more-than-human world was not invented by deep ecology. You see, time is like a spiral not an arrow. “We are not more elegant or eloquent than our ancestors,” as Barry Lopez points out.
Look! says British novelist Jeanette Winterson, the world contains many things that exist but cannot be collected and put someplace — the set of complex numbers, gravity, dreams, wildness. Beauty hovers still . . . without a dollar sign. Look! If your emotional life had the luxury of critiquing your rational life, it would probably say “Hah! That’s only superstition!”
“What have we lost in this vast hemisphere since the European contact?” asks Barry Lopez—“whole communities of people, plants, and animals. We lost languages, epistemologies, books, ceremonies, systems of logic and metaphysics. How can one compare intimacy with the facets of this knowledge to the possession of gold? How could we have squandered such wisdom in that search, that rush, rush, rush for gold?”
“To acknowledge our interdependence is simply a good and wise habit of mind,” he says. “To know wilderness,” my father wrote, “is to know a profound humility, to recognize one’s littleness, to sense dependence and interdependence, indebtedness, and responsibility.”
“I wonder if the ground has anything to say?” asked Young Chief in 1855, “I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said.”
The Old Testament Hebrew verb we translate as “to know” was often used in a sexual context, Jeanette Winterson reminds us. “It is not about facts but about connections. Knowledge not as accumulation but as charge and discharge. A release of energy from one site to another. Not some hoard of certainties. Not a bug collection. Not taxonomy but a release of energy, the dance. What is the separateness of things when the current that flows from each to each is live? It is the livingness we want.”
Barry Lopez recalls a Nunamiut man in Alaska. He asked him what he did when he went into a foreign landscape. The man said, “I listen.” “We are part of the wildness of the universe,” Howard Zahniser wrote. That is our nature.”
A Koyukon elder told the anthro¬pologist: “The bear can way out-mind you, Richard.”
To enquire after this knowledge, to be intimate with the land like this, is to enclose it in the same moral universe we occupy, to include it in the meaning of the word community.
“We’re here to disappear,” says poet Anne Waldman, “let’s be as vivid and generous as we can.”
The matriarch of wilderness advocacy Mardy Murie died last in 2003 at age 101. Mardy and Olaus Murie had an enormous impact on my life. Memorializing Mardy’s conservation vision, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote that “Over the centuries, the ink has gone to the discoverers, the men who found or claimed or opened new territories. But we’ve gotten to a place in history where the preservers are the ones who deserve the ink.”
So what about you? That’s why I’m really here. To ask you: What about you? Wildness is as close as your carotid artery. The scientist Lynn Margulis says there are more cells of other beings in and on your body than there are cells of your own. You are a wild community within the cosmic community. What about you?
You can step up and be one of the preservers who will one day “deserve the ink.” David Gibson will gladly sign you up with his network of local, state, and regional folks. Ev and Don Greene can sign you up with the Residents Committee for Protecting the Adirondacks. John Davis can sign you up with the Adirondack Council. Aldo Leopold was not a famous ecologist when he died fighting a brush fire in 1948. My father was not a famous conservationist when he died in 1964. Olaus and Mardy were not famous when they grasped the wilderness torch in the 1940s. All of these folks started out as ordinary citizens. Just like you. Now is your chance. This is your time.
If you have ever felt the urge to connect to eternity, working to preserve wilderness and wildness in perpetuity can be your chance to connect. By working for a wilderness-forever future—as my father once wrote—we “project into the eternity of the future some of that precious, unspoiled, ecological inheritance that has come to us out of the eternity of the past.”
You can become, as Mardy Murie be-came, a link between those two eternities—“for the permanent good of the whole people.” Go forth. Do good. Tell the stories. Be one of the preservers. Deserve the ink. Get involved for wildness. Do not miss this rarest of wild opportunities—for the permanent good of our full community of life on Earth—to touch eternity with both hands in the here and now.
Photos: Above, Ed Zahniser (Courtesy Ed Zahniser); Middle, Howard Zahniser at his Adirondack cabin (Photo by Alice Zahniser, courtesy Adirondack Research Library Paul Schaefer Collection; Below, Paul Schaefer (Photo by Paul Grondahl, courtesy of the Schaefer Collection).