SHANE STEINKAMP'S BACKPACKING BASE CAMP
THE PHILOSOPHY OF WILDERNESSPHILOSOPHY OF WILDERNESS
1. The Wilderness is within you.
At a time when many claim that threats to the physical environment have never been greater, it may be tempting to believe that people need to rebuild the Gates of Eden - and this time lock man out. I think, though, this attitude - while all the while calling for man and his technology to stay out of certain areas in order to protect those areas - fails to consider some very important, if abstract, questions about the human place in nature.
'Wilderness' is often discussed amongst outdoorsy types, but what does it really mean? I have been in biker bars that were much wilder than any remote mountain slope... You can have wildness just about anywhere, but wilderness is all about perception.
I have to go back. Way back to when I first started to learn about the natural world from people who were actually a part of it. I was not then, nor am I now, wholly a perfect part of the natural world because I live in a synthetic environment called a city - but there is a part of me that has been, and still is, a part of the natural world - and I can return to it on a moment's notice.
When I first entered the 'wilderness', it was just that - wild. I was a child set loose among many dangers. It was frightening, stimulating, and awe inspiring. I was a man in the woods. THIS was wilderness. A man against the natural world. Here he would pit his strength, both mental and physical against the rigors of this savage land. He would conquer it - even subdue it - and walk proudly through his domain.
Should I go back in time and meet myself right there at that point, the man I am now would slap the man I was right up-side his fool head.
After so much time spent there, in that wilderness, that man did nothing to conquer or subdue the wilderness - rather the wilderness conquered and subdued the man. Then there was, after many years, a sudden fading of all sense of wilderness and I became a natural creature in a natural world. It faded because I came to realize that 'wilderness' is a man-made idea - a human creation. Before you recoil from that assumption, think it through. Successful and experienced hikers cannot possibly avoid knowledge of what 'wilderness' is, what 'wildness' is, or what being a part of the natural environment means. We have all read Thoreau's definitive statement: "In Wildness is the preservation of the world." The vast majority of us - and I'd bet that all of us - are in love with the natural world. Otherwise, we wouldn't be hikers; rather, we'd spend our walking time on a treadmill while watching TV - but we should ask a very telling question: "When did wilderness become desirable?" It wasn't always desirable. One need only look to classical literature to find that the wilderness we hold so dear was once feared and shunned - a place full of dark spirits that is only entered against one's will; and with much fear and trembling. It only had value in the possibility that it might be 'reclaimed' and turned toward human use - as a tame garden, a new town, or even a city. In its raw state, wilderness had nothing to offer civilized man. Every step of early civilization - up to and including the industrial revolution - was a struggle by mankind against wilderness. In the early days of this country, wilderness meant the frontier - a thing that we had to keep driving back until we drove it into the Pacific ocean. Lewis and Clark weren't sent out to discover natural wonders and good locations for scenic parks; They were sent out to explore how this land could be exploited.
What had changed, then, to prompt Thoreau to declare wildness to be the preservation of the world in 1862? Wilderness had once been the antithesis of all that was orderly and good - the dwelling place of devils and wild beasts. It had been the darkness on the far side of Eden's wall - but now it is likened to Eden itself. John Muir declared, of the Sierra Nevadas in 1869, "No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine." Satan's home had become God's own temple.
Frederick Jackson Turner's famous book, The Frontier in American History (1893), is a revealing picture of the closing of the American frontier - the wildness that Turner believed essential to American culture. This changing attitude began with, and continued through, the Romantic period.
Something changed; not in the nature of wilderness, but in our own culture. Without confronting this abstract notion, it will be hard to know which Gates of Eden to rebuild - and on which side of the wall man should stand. Without understanding not just what wilderness is, but how we think about it, it will be very hard indeed to persuade large numbers of people to protect what had been for so long thought of as a frightening wasteland of demons and beasts. To protect the nature that is all around us, we must think long and hard about the nature we carry inside our heads.
This is something that even the 'greats' failed to do. Thoreau, in the Romantic period, sang the Joys of Nature - but he never really answered some very important questions. MacKaye, a Deconstructionist, drew the common theme that sunshine and fresh air are good for people to the conclusion that outdoor recreation in a wild setting would be beneficial in his 1932 article. This was by no means an original idea. John Muir wrote, "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life." This statement predates MacKaye's article by many years and certainly he was aware of it and drew on it for inspiration, showing that the Romantic period had changed the perspective on wilderness. But what about NOW? Where are we NOW in the Postmodern Deconstruction period? These questions still go mostly unasked: What is man's relationship to nature? What is man's relationship to wilderness?
Do not think that there is no distinction between nature and wilderness, because there clearly is one - and it is this distinction that we, as hikers, backpackers, and trail advocates, must confront if we are to be successful. One of the poorly accomplished tasks of mainstream environmentalists is to reconcile human beings with their environment - of culture with nature. "What is the history of man's relationship with nature?" is obviously a question that goes unanswered in this discussion, but it is a question necessary to answer before we can answer, "What is man's thinking on the nature of that relationship today?" These questions - and their answers - are the very foundation of environmentalism and trail advocacy, but are rarely, if ever, properly explored. Rather, the battle flags are flown, and policy wars rage - to the detriment of both the natural world and mankind.
So, wilderness is a word used by people who are still too far removed from their natural habitat. There is, for me, no place I have visited - and I would hazard to say few places I could visit - that I should consider a wilderness. I have become a natural man, comfortable in my natural environment. (I am also comfortable in my unnatural environment called a 'house'.) Should you drop me, stark naked, into many (not all) kinds of terrain, I would not mind much. I lost my wilderness when I lost my fear. Would I LIKE to have gear and warm clothes and lots of other accoutrements (and sometimes a gun)? Of course, but that is not the point. Once you loose the your 'sense of wilderness' you gain something much more precious - the sense of existing as a part of the natural world.
From that standpoint, the trail itself is an extension of civilization, no matter how faint - but wilderness is a matter of degrees. For families who drive to scenic overlooks, stop for 2 minutes, then drive off without ever getting out of the car, that is as much wilderness as they can handle. The trail is as much as some others can handle, but for still others, wilderness does not begin until they leave the trail behind. To do so does not require any great skill - or any great length of time, even though the 'thruhike' seems to be seen by many as the holy grail of hiking. For some, I am sure it is.
None of these, to my mind, is better or worse than the other - they all just experience the world in their own way. Some people, however, have noticed the curative effects of the outdoors on the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual heath of men and women. Henry David Thoreau was not the first to take 'air baths', nor was he the last. The turn of the century saw many such 'discoveries' and many took this idea to new levels. The Nacktkultur movement in Europe was the epitome of such a natural philosophy. It stressed naked healthful living, which included daily calisthenics, a vegetarian diet, and Spartan outdoor living. I have studied this movement, its history, methods, and practices. I was astonished when I read Mackaye's article because what he has to say mimics exactly much of what can be read in a book entitled "Among the Nudists" by Merril Frances & Mason. Aside from the practice of nudity, the ideals are identical: The enrichment of humanity by interaction with the natural world in a natural way. I wonder if Mackaye and Merril, being contemporaries, knew one another. The natural movement was a phenomenon of the times - and it still occurs in cycles. It is certain, to my mind, that Mackaye was aware of the natural movement both here and abroad, because he was certainly involved in it. (Not the naturist movement, the natural movement for any confused by the last sentence.)
I have read much lately about 'preserving the wilderness'. I think this is on some level a fine goal, but I should like to redefine it. Environmentalists and other concerned people who seek to preserve 'wilderness' cannot do so. They can never do so, because 'wilderness' is not a real thing. It is a phenomenon created by perception. This is, in fact, by their own admission. What they are doing, however, in a very real and important way is preserving the natural world - even though they often miss the mark because they fail to ask the right questions.
So, "If the sense of wilderness is to be found in our heads, then what is the importance of protecting trails and their corridors?" The answer is quite easy. The preservation of the trail and its view shed, as a part of the natural world (scenic vista being an important part), is important for the perception of being in nature for most people. Just because I personally do not NEED such vistas to experience the natural world, does NOT mean I do not desire them greatly. On the contrary, I desire them quite a lot.
In some sense, the AT and (it's corridor) isn't really a trail. It's a very large, very long, museum that preserves a very precious kind of natural 'art'. I should no more desire the building of condos across the trail than I desire to allow children to scribble on the Mona Lisa.
So, now, I have come down to it; Why bother to preserve wilderness at all? For what point, and to what end? You may as well attempt to preserve the flat earth theory. To preserve the natural world? Yes, in part - but to what end that? I am with Mackaye: The natural world, and the trail allowing easy access to it, is necessary not for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of mankind. For the sake of allowing those few souls who choose to, to discover, in the natural world, in a natural way, their own humanity. A trail - the AT or any constructed trail - isn't about the trail, it's about people and about humanity.
Now, should you ask me to define humanity, I shall have to refer you to the wilderness...
Having read this far, though, I won't turn you away empty handed. Here's a little something that some of you already know, but I suspect some don't: Find a comfortable spot well off the trail. Sit perfectly still for five minutes. PERFECTLY still. See how quickly the natural world comes back in around you - and how quickly the wilderness dissolves. The longer you can sit there, the better it gets, until you actually completely blend in and become part of the terrain. Very easy to do. The hard part is to be able to walk along like that - perfectly blended in. The longer you stay in the woods, the easier it becomes. You can eventually blend in so perfectly that you will walk right past deer, rabbits, and other wildlife and they will pay you no more mind than another deer or another rabbit. You can become the critter that you are. Unfortunately, those things that eat deer and rabbits may also decide to eat you - but that's what makes the place a wilderness...
If you want to really experience some wilderness, you can try hiking naked...