Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: A Wilderness Primeval Aesthetic

Lost Brook Tract is a miracle both modern and ancient. Steeply situated on a high ridge in the central Adirondacks, miles from the nearest road and with no trail to it, it is a sixty-acre swath of Adirondack territory virtually unknown to all but a handful of people. That it exists today, an utterly unspoiled piece of high mountain boreal forest tracing unbroken lineage all the way to the ice age, can only be explained as a remarkable accident of fate.

As it turns out, that is indeed how it is explained. In future posts I’ll tell that story, how this little jewel came to be spared and saved from the debilitations that were suffered by most of the Adirondacks. For now it is simply there, a virgin forest never logged, never burned, largely spared even from the depredations of acid rain. Surrounded on all sides either by strict conservation easements or by New York State lands designated as Wilderness, it is in the fullest sense primeval.

But why tell the story of Lost Brook Tract at all? It is certainly not to encourage the curious to flock to its borders, to offer a challenge to latter-day explorers to attempt to locate what is indeed a very hard patch of land to find; we’d rather keep our solitude, thank you. But if the purpose of these dispatches is not to advertise the land itself, it is to advertise the value of it, to suggest through the stories something of the power and preciousness of pristine wilderness. I do so in the heartfelt belief that experience of the primeval is more than a privilege in this rapidly changing American culture: it is an imperative.

We can visit wilderness in many places in the United States. But it is another thing to live in the primeval long enough to have its clarifying, restorative purity work its magic upon us. It takes but a few days of acclimation to be receptive to the primeval’s aesthetic directive to us to simply inhabit, to be and breathe and deliberate. In the primeval wilderness we are given to remember that our collective humanity is not goal oriented. We are reminded that we can stop deciding things all the time, that we need not always rush headlong to the next answer, the next new improvement. We are reminded of the incredible richness in the truth that the most meaningful matters of our humanity have no answers, that their true value is rooted in something else. We are reminded that simplicity is a virtue. We remember that we are in fact wild creatures, removed from our forests by no more than a blink in time.
If you believe as I do that we are all too quickly leaving part of ourselves behind in our headlong plunge towards progress, then I am preaching to the choir and the importance of these primeval experiences needs no further argument. But be that as it may, there is a problem with the size of the choir and the size of the audience, and that is worth talking about.

Lost Brook Tract could no more hold a hundred people to experience the primeval than it could all three hundred million Americans. It is a small piece of real estate; just our family of five alone could ruin it with careless stewardship. Not a day goes by that I do not think with humility how lucky we are to have acquired it, how privileged we are to be able to experience it, to write about it. But we cannot share it further without compromising its intrinsic value. Therefore if the experience of the primeval is to be available for more than a few of the privileged, America needs a lot more wilderness preserved, literally every piece possible. Even if it is compromised, incomplete or second-chance, wilderness offers us the chance to reconnect to the primeval aesthetic. To champion this aesthetic is the “raison d’etre” for these dispatches.

There is no greater exemplar of wilderness preservation and recovery than the Adirondack Park, but even here the struggle rests upon a knife’s edge, as it always has. The economic conditions in the park are poor, there is no question of that, and the pressure to improve them is appropriately high. While there is universal appreciation of the Adirondacks’ natural beauty, I read in newspapers and hear from the lips of strangers and friends alike that “there is enough wilderness here,” that we can afford to tilt the balance more towards development in order to sustain the lives of our towns and hamlets. Certainly this is understandable from the perspective of the Adirondacks themselves. It seems a little silly even to me to worry about whether we have enough wilderness in the park when I traverse the Blue Ridge Road, for example.
But this is a myopic, park-centered view. Amy and I live in the Midwest when we are not on our land and we have a fourteen hour trip from our doorstep to the Adirondack Park boundary. Not a single part of our route crosses or parallels wilderness. Apart from a wildlife refuge that Interstate 90 bisects for a short distance (and which is nowhere near wilderness in any case) there is not one foot of remotely wild land in nine hundred miles. From the park border on Route 28 we travel for roughly eighty miles before we arrive at the trailhead we take to get near Lost Brook Tract. In so doing we pass by the homes of perhaps ten thousand park residents. But on the trip from our home to the park border, traveling through Chicago, Gary, Cleveland, Buffalo and Syracuse, we pass by roughly twenty million people. Consider the magnitude of that difference, and consider that almost all of those people will never set foot on land like ours. There must be enough Adirondacks – enough wilderness – for them as well.

I happen to align with Bill McKibben in my conviction that the Adirondacks can have their cake and eat it too, that they can simultaneously sustain vibrant communities and an uncompromising commitment to protecting and restoring wilderness. The debate about whether and how this can be done belongs in another venue. But McKibben is interested in the Adirondacks as a global laboratory, an example to the world of how to do it, and that laudable interest is pointless if we do not have enough wild land with which to execute the arrangement. Measured on that scale, measured on the scale of twenty million people we pass on the way to our paradise, every single acre of wilderness is precious.

I offer an ongoing chronicle of our sixty acres as a small gesture, a celebration of primeval land in the modern world meant to help tip the scale McKibben’s way, and also to push back a little bit against the relentless, short-sighted consumption of the wild heritage that is the ancestry and heart of all of us.

Photo: Red Spruce on Lost Brook Tract

Pete Nelson is a teacher, performer and writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. He is also a lifelong explorer of the Adirondacks who recently purchased unspoiled acreage deep in the back country. This is one of an ongoing series of dispatches for Adirondack Almanack chronicling his adventures with Lost Brook Tract.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

3 Responses

  1. JSB says:

    This is possibly the best Wilderness writing I have encountered in a long, long while. I anxiously look forward to the next installment.
    I, too, have felt the power of the Primeval on my psyche and can count myself as one of the choir.

  2. Timothy says:

    I don’t know…this piece seems a little self-serving. I don’t quite understand praising the Park and its availability to all at the same time he is enjoying his secret hideaway with one of the few stands of old growth, no visitors allowed, thank you.

  3. Pete Nelson says:

    I think that Timothy’s criticism is valid. In fact this is one of the reasons I’m writing about the land in the first place. But rather than respond here via comment, I think that the issue Timothy raises deserves more attention. So I’m going to shuffle my columns around a little and write about this subject for next week’s posting. Timothy, I hope you’ll read it and comment. The tremendously difficult questions of balance in the Adirondack Park got a lot more real for me when we purchased this land. I am very interested in the opinions and guidance of others about how to balance our interests, the park’s interests, the interests of the population at large and most of all the interests of this virgin stand itself.

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