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Mar 21 2018

What is Wilderness?

A few of America's greatest wilderness writers can help us understand

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What is wilderness? I can only answer for me.

Wilderness is a 60 mile view without a porch or car light. Wilderness is a rugged two-day hike into a distant basin, where the only eyes you see belong to trout and deer. Wilderness is when you stand on top of a mountain and see nothing except everything. WIlderness is a place to stand in the shoes of our ancestors and look out, see what they see, feel what they felt. It is a place to experience true solitude and the expansiveness of the west. 

Explaining wilderness by way of experiences is one thing. Capturing what it means is another challenge. Writers have wrestled with the idea of wilderness since long before Europeans came to the Americas - wilderness is used as a metaphor throughout the Bible - but the tone was always oppositional. Humans defined themselves by their civilization, by contrasting themselves with nearby wild places. That started to change in the late 19th century as the character of the United States changed, with civilization replacing wilderness as the dominant characteristic of the landscape, and there were numerous voices, most famouly John Muir, advocating for preservation of our wild places before it was too late.

One of my favorite wilderness writers comes later. Wallace Stegner followed in the preservationist tradition, but brought a sensibiity and simplicity that made wilderness seem more vital than ever. 

Just read this passage from Stegner’s Wilderness Letter, published in 1960 as a paean to wild places and a plea to the powers that be to introduce legal protection for wilderness:

“…we need to put into effect, for its preservation, some other principle than the principles of exploitation or "usefulness" or even recreation. We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Of course, while I have a soft spot for Stegner, he wasn’t the first to write about wilderness in this way. Preceding him by several decades, the great conservationist, outdoorsman, and wilderness ethicist Aldo Leopold introduced the idea of a land ethic:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise….When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

While it has a different flavor then Stegner - Leopold was a trained forester, an outdoorsman as much as a philosopher, and valued “usefulness” - the idea of wilderness as something essential, something to which we belong and not something that belongs to us, shaped his writing. 

And, writing after both men but clearly inspired by them, Howard Zahniser, the legendary president of the Wilderness Society, wrote these famous poetic words in the Wilderness Act itself:

“Wilderness is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”


“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.” It’s difficult to explain the truth of this statement. Believing that the world and its people are better off just because wilderness is there, even if we don’t use it, seems to be a matter of ideology as much as anything. But to me, it is important to know that there is land that is untrammeled, where man is a visitor but does not remain, where the views that captured the hearts of the first people of the land are essentially unchanged.  

We need this knowledge and the silent presence of wilderness so that we can remain sane between traffic lights, freeway lanes, and strip malls.  We need to know, even if we can’t afford to travel, or don’t have the proper equipment, or aren’t really inclined to go anyway, that wild places are out there, simply existing as a member of “the community to which we belong”.

And sure, it’s nice to have the opportunity to get away from it all and immerse yourself in the wilderness. There is complete solitude out there, and it’s there for us when we need it. So, even if you never do more than drive to the edge and look in, please, at least do that. 

- Alison Linville is a former MWA state council member