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What is wild?

What counts as wildness and wilderness is determined not by the absence of people, but by the relationship between people and place.  A place is wild when its order is created according to its own principles of organization—when it is self-willed land.  Native peoples usually…”fit” that order, influencing it but nor controlling it…  Jack Turner

I’ve been re-reading ‘The Abstract Wild’ .  Jack Turner is so eloquent and makes such an impassioned plea for wildness.  Neither does he mince words nor ideas.

I find it interesting to consider once again What is Wild?  Turner argues that it isn’t just about the preservation of ecosystems per se, but what wilderness and wildness does for the soul of people.  People need wildness.  We need it to know who we are.  “Something vast and old is vanishing”

Black grizzly

I live in a beautiful and some say remote, isolated place, right on the border of our largest Park.  Yellowstone National Park, and its surrounding region,  is the only intact ecosystem in the temperate world.   I live bordering the Shoshone National Forest, a National Forest with the most designated wilderness area in the U.S.  Many people would say that apart from Alaska, these are truly the last wild areas left.  To me it has a certain wildness; but truly it is not.

Wolves are captured, collared and sometimes killed under a ’10J’ rule; elk, deer, and sheep are carefully counted to keep track of their numbers, then hunts, seasons and quotas are established; grizzlies are either dropped off here or, if they are ‘getting into trouble’, they are captured and moved; studies are conducted constantly on habitat health for different forms of plants and wildlife; commercial logging goes on.

Elk study expedition

There are the public interests as well.  All Terrain Vehicle owners want more roads and access; ranchers move their cattle onto the public lands, want protection and reimbursement for losses, want fences built and water sources maintained; back country horsemen clear trails; hunters blaze new trails; snowmobilers need their winter access; trappers work their traplines; and in every season people shoot coyotes, ground squirrels,  badgers and other ‘varmints’.

In our National Park next door, there is no hunting, trapping, or ATV’s, but there certainly are snowmobiles and biology studies that include collaring animals.  Trails are ‘managed’ for bears to have their privacy in the spring, and for humans to be safe from bears. Aspen or White Bark Pine studies are conducted.  Fish are monitored. Even frogs are monitored.  Backpackers are assigned to specific campsites on specific days, and reservations can be made in advance. And cell towers must go up to appease tourists who complain about poor coverage.

As remote as my cabin may seem to most of my friends and visitors, it is not wild and this place is barely a direct experience of wilderness.  What makes it different is the presence of top predators, especially the Great Bear.  If it were not for the presence of grizzly bears, there would be many more people hiking these mountains, making it even less wild.  The nearby Wind River Mountains or The Big Horns are a perfect example of beautiful mountains without grizzlies that are full of people.  The Winds are considered a Wilderness area, yet sheep graze there in the summer. And although grizzlies make their way down there as it is good habitat, they are endlessly moved because it’s not part of their sanctioned ‘reintroduction area’.  The Big Horns are full of cattle and ATV’s.

Wildness is determined by the relationship between people and place…where people influence but not control it.  Here is the fine line between ‘influence’ and ‘control’.  In order to understand that difference, one must identify with one’s Place.  That takes living there, watching its order, its seasons, its needs, what a Place wants.  An attitude of service to a Place is necessary rather than exploitation for fun or profit.  If one works the land for a living, then a sensitivity must occur where the entire biotic community is taken into account along with ones’ needs.  That is not an easy task when it comes to growing food–no spraying, no rodenticides, protection from deer and bears, rabbits, and frosts.

And if all this is done properly, I still am not sure that Turner’s definition is complete for wildness.  Wildness as a relationship requires an intimacy that we no longer will know ever again.  There may be a handful, if that many, of tribes in the entire world who still know that kind of intimacy.

Intimacy with elk.  The wild herd of Yellowstone in Sunlight in Winter

Turner pleads for a new tradition of wildness. To create a wilder self, the self must live the life of the wild, mold a particular form of human character, a form of life.  Relics will not do, tourism will not do, books will not do.  He does not look to the past– Native American traditions or African bushmen or Australian aborigine knowledge.  The landscape of the past is gone.  Turner says we must consider what our new intelligence of the wild will be today, in this modern age; and then expound it through art and literature.  Although this ‘rant’ of a book might be considered pessimistic by some, it truly isn’t. Turner has hope that as the emergence of new ‘wild’ spokespeople is taking place, others will seek that wild direct experience too; and they will demand it of our culture.  Turner’s is not a lament, but a plea.  In this complex World where economics is the glue that binds all of us, it is difficult to see where wildness will win out in the end.  Even with the ‘good fight’ that takes place day to day,there is a slow (or maybe fast) erosion of places where direct contact with the wild can even occur.  I, unlike Turner, am not so optimistic.

Cub carves out his space in the forest nearby

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One Response

  1. An excellent summary of what our “Wilderness” is truly like today, also a piece to promote thinking about how we as humans manage even that which we deem wild.

    Like

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