Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Exploring the Meaning of Wilderness

As an Upstate Institute Research Fellow this summer I worked with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative (ADI), a program of the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA). ADI’s mission is to create an Adirondack Park and North Country region that are welcoming, safe, and inclusive for everyone. ADI works towards this by creating tools and strategies that diminish the impact of systemic racism in the Adirondack region. With my work this summer, some of the best ways I could help accomplish these goals were through being educated about the area and learning about the different experiences of visitors to the Adirondacks through community-based research.

My summer started off with an exciting first few weeks. I explored the Adirondacks and learned about their rich history with the support of my ADI advisor, Pete Nelson. On my first day, Pete took me on a hike up Cascade Mountain (one of the 46 High Peaks). During this hike, he told me about a town called Ironville, “the birthplace of the electric age.” Naturally, this title would make any good physicist question this proclamation, but it’s true. The birth of the Electric Age in the United States was right here in the Adirondacks. Allen Penfield and Joseph Henry built an electromagnetic separator in 1831, which was the first industrial use of electricity in history. After hearing about Penfield and Henry’s work, Thomas and Emily Davenport developed and built the first electric car in 1834. This is just one of the many cool bits of history I have learned about the area.

Throughout the first few weeks, we also focused on the concept of Wilderness in the Adirondacks. Wilderness is originally a colonial, rich, white concept that promoted the idea that the outdoors was something pristine and untouched. It was an escape from the urban environment, from work, from other people, and a privilege that anyone non-white, non-rich, and non-male didn’t have access to. With the long Indigenous history here in the Park, these ideas of the outdoors are just not true. However, some of these values are still carried today in how people define what Wilderness is and how people go about trying to protect and enjoy their time in the Park. A large part of my research with ADI was influenced by how these ideas of Wilderness differ between people today.

My research with ADI is centered on people’s Wilderness values, experiences, and outdoor motivations while enjoying their preferred outdoor activities. Throughout the summer I’ve been working closely with Pete, crafting the survey, meeting with different organizations in the Adirondack Park, and getting New York State approval of the survey. From International Review Board approval, to insurance mix-ups, and being trained as a Trailhead Steward to be able to conduct the survey — I can say this has definitely been the most involvement I have ever had in a research project. The anonymous 14-question survey finally got approved by the second week of July and asks visitors about their hiker experience, their connection with nature on trails, visitor sense of safety, how visitors were able to find information about the trails/hikes, their different reasons for wanting to spend time outside, and some demographic information. We were able to collect a total of around 150 survey responses by the end of the summer. The data is now being analyzed, and I am excited to see some of the outcomes from it.

Some of my biggest takeaways from this experience include how to curate a living research project, lots of people skills (I had to learn how to be a people person at 7:00 a.m. every weekend for the trailhead stewarding and surveying), and how to support and foster a sense of community with one’s work. As an astrophysics major at Colgate University, this is really far from what most of my peers are doing this summer. I would usually be in a lab running calculations and reading research papers on a certain physics topic, but I wanted to try something different this summer.

What mainly drew me to the ADI project is my interest in the outdoors and activism. I participate in the Outdoor Education program at Colgate, and these conversations about inclusivity, safety, and accessibility to the outdoors is something very important to us and to me as a trip leader for the program. It also seemed like a good fit for me because the Adirondacks is where we usually venture for a lot of our Outdoor Ed trips. So when I heard about the amazing work of ADI, I wanted to get involved.

Overall, this experience was really fulfilling. It was the first time I have so actively participated in the process of research as an intern. I got to meet so many wonderful people, hang out in a place I really care about, and have fun learning about the history of the Adirondacks. I hope my research this summer reinforces the importance of this kind of work and helps make a place as special as the Adirondacks accessible, safe, and welcoming to everyone.

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8 Responses

  1. David Gibson says:

    Your efforts with ANCA and ADI are admirable, important and well expressed. Thanks for your work.

    As to characterizing Wilderness ideas, philosophy or laws as merely “colonial, rich, white, untouched, pristine,” these are arguments against “elites” made years ago to oppose the Wilderness Act (just 3-4% of our national land) by those who, mostly, had vested financial interests in extracting as much lumber, minerals, power, sheep and cattle as possible, and therefore in opposing the idea and legal effect of wilderness. In fact, wilderness in ethics, principle and in law are far more egalitarian, where all can experience our deepest connections to the more than human world. Wilderness was never and is not today intended to set aside untouched lands, but to restore damaged land and our damaged and damaging relations to nature. To quote my wilderness teacher Ed Zahniser, 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,” to the bio-sphere, to our circle of life, to 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 the “Earth’s immortal genius.” Gary Snyder calls wilderness 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.
    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.”

    • Lee Nellis says:

      Bravo Dave, one of the best things you have written in this forum. It is true that wilderness as an institution reflects “setttler” values, but those values extended and extend far beyond the rich and elite (what about the role wilderness has played for those who return from war with PTSD?) and to characterize them so simply plays right into the hands of those who truly are rich, elite, and dedicated to the continuing colonization of nature and rural communities. The friends and advocates of wilderness have a lot of work to do to make it an idea that more people can share, but it is important to remember that the alternative is not more broadly enjoyed public lands, it is the further exploitation of those lands by an even smaller group of people.

      Like others here, I would like to see a link to the survey results.

  2. Dr. Hugh Canham says:

    If you are continuing your research on this topic, I highly recommend you read the following dissertation. It is available in Moon Library at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse:
    Thompson, Roger. The doctrine of wilderness: A study of the policy and politics of the Adirondack Preserve-Park. 1962.

  3. louis curth says:

    It was inspiring to read about your positive experience while working with Adirondack Diversity Initiative and Pete Nelson, one of its earliest and strongest advocates.

    Like you, many of us have arrived at a version of what wilderness means, based upon our own life experiences, especially during our formative years. For some it may just be a passing fancy, but for others, it inspires a lifelong desire to preserve the meaning of wilderness by actively seeking greater protection of the natural world in its many forms. ADI has an important role in that process.

    For more about the history of ADI check out this site:

  4. Bob Meyer says:

    Congratulations on your good work! I look forward to the findings of your research.
    You are also fortunate to have Pete Nelson as a guide and mentor. He is a tremendous asset and promoter of common sense regarding the issues that affect the Adirondacks. Full disclosure: he is a dear friend of mine. 😊

  5. Todd Eastman says:

    Link a copy of the survey please.

  6. louis curth says:

    Exploring the Meaning of Wilderness touches something deep within us.

    In her poem FOREVER WILD, Annette Pisano-Higley begins with the following lines:
    “Striking blues and greens and pristine whites,
    A moving portrait, stirring all the senses.”

    Likewise, Jeanne Robert Foster’s earlier poem THE WILDERNESS IS STRONG ends with these words:
    “Wilderness people are a special breed.
    They have something that’s not hearing or seeing
    Reaching out from the mountains to touch them.”

  7. Mike says:

    Sign of the times, its disheartening to see an astrophysics major believe that around 150 (doesnt have an exact number) surveys will produce any kind of accurate data.

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