I’m an avid backpacker. I particularly enjoy the meditative aspects of solo treks, particularly into the mountains, where the challenging geography provides more opportunities for solitude and exciting adventures, and the onslaught of adrenaline and riddance of distractions nurtures an ascetic self-awareness. Most every time I venture out onto the trail, or cross-country, I’m able to construct another piece of my relationship with myself and the world around me. My most recent expedition involved a one-night stay at the backcountry Hidden Lake fire lookout in Washington’s North Cascades, built in 1931 by the U.S. Forest Service and now a backcountry destination and first-come-first-served residence thanks to the Friends of the Hidden Lake Lookout. Needless to stay, the views were stunning from atop the 6,900′ peak, and well worth the steep snowfield climb where I learned to love my ice axe (especially when glissading down the slopes).
Much as I enjoy a primitive campsite, with the reminders of civilization contained within my backpack and tent, there is some comfort in backcountry cabins, beyond the obvious shelter amenities. Long have I fixated upon homes in isolated, scenic locales, such as those featured on one of my favorite websites, Cabin Porn. They provide the best of both worlds — the human and nonhuman seemingly fused together. Up at the lookout, I came to reflect on this further: the presence of something as simple as a 10′ x 10′ box seems to quell some degree of the even entirely welcome trepidation that comes with being separated from the familiar (other humans, technology, creature comforts, etc.). Not that I would’ve minded pitching my tent on a small rock slab, but how could a small piece of civilization bring such comfort? The backcountry cabin, yurt, or other domicile allows retention of a slice of civilized comfort, even if someone is miles away from other reminders of society. Such a combination of rustic repose and rugged peaks, with the sharp contrast of several hours of highway driving fresh in my mind, prompted me to contemplate the nature of our concept of “nature”…
Wilderness is not where we feel the most whole. Instead, it provides a ground for our figure, illuminating the contrasts between us and our geography, or us and what the obsessors of civilization would call nothingness. And in the wilderness, we may feel a nothingness amplified, not because there is a dearth of content ostensibly outside the realm of society, but because we become aware of a nothingness within us. As we escape the trappings of our fellow man — and machine — returning to some sort of primeval form, albeit equipped with nylon pants and waterproof maps, and a lonely primeval being at that, suddenly made aware of not only the world without us (more or less) but us without the world in which we spend our time most, and frames our consciousness: the highway, office hallways, and couches we call home and the people who make them both bearable and dreaded.
People seek to ‘be’ wild, however they miss the main point of our natural identity: we are wild. By denying ourselves our own naturalness, nature becomes a mere commodity, easily brushed aside by those who would rather not be all-“natural” in their lifestyle. Indeed, nature is not something that can be rationalized, only experienced. As one immerses one’s self in the wilderness (which I’d consider a distinctly idealized component of broader nature, defined by its detachment from the usual traits of modern human society), one grows closer to being primal being at peace with sensations, brought back to basics, without distraction. However, one still has the amenities of the modern world one has grown accustomed to. Nature is something to learn from — mistakes and otherwise — and something to get lost in.
Humans are innately anthropocentric, we define nature by what it does for us, in our terms, from our perspective. That is inevitable and seeing as we are part of nature, not altogether fortunate unless we try to detach our civilization from the effects it has the non-human world, and the effects the non-human world has on us. Ignoring nature’s plight would mean sealing the fate of our own humanity, as we are directly dependent upon the ecosystem we are so destructive a part of. We are both nature and at odds with nature. As such, issues like sustainability shouldn’t emphasize the “other,” i.e. wilderness, as much as draw from our own rational self-interest to preserve ourselves. In order for people to be sensitive towards environmental issues (that ultimately affect them as well as their surroundings), they need to be exposed to wilderness, and the phenomenal gap between the seemingly non-human and their familiar civilization must be bridged.
We idealize nature’s constructs as either a sanctuary or something begging to be conquered by man’s force, though neither view represents the full truth of the situation. By bringing ourselves more in line with our basic human forms, we can rejoice in a pleasure so basic, we need not construct it ourselves, only preserve it. For John Muir, this connection is on par with a spiritual ascension, away from the “stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury.” Muir explored California’s Sierra Nevada mountains (which remain my favorite place on earth) with the tenacity of a master alpine explorer, documenting his exploits and warring against the powers-that-be who sought to subsume his treasured wilderness with the mechanizations of industrial development. In a world of unceasing conspicuous consumerism, a back-to-basics mentality is cherished by preservationists like Muir, who saw the pristine sequoias in California as industrialists at the turn of the century saw the mighty skyscrapers in cities like New York: monuments to their time, and timelessness.
Within the Pacific Northwest, where I’ve spent the past few years, nature can almost be seen as a mindset of sorts. Cascadians view themselves as protectors of the great raw beauty with which their landscape is blessed. While this view carries with it a great deal of nobility, there is also the issue of placing the non-human natural realm on too haughty a pedestal. That is, forgetting that humanity, too, is a subset of the natural universe holds a danger of its own. As William Cronon writes, nature “is a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made . . . the nonhuman world we encounter in wilderness is far from being our own invention.” Our view of nature is a human view, and it is lunacy to believe otherwise.
Up until relatively recently, wilderness was considered unwelcoming, a fearful test of spirits. It was the untamed realm that contrasted with the civilized constructions we humans sought for comfort and viewed as the vestiges of progress. By Thoreau’s time in the late 1800s, nature was increasingly being seen as a place where one can come to terms with one’s self. Nature became a refuge for those unable to accept their role in the modern world. And with that view came people like Muir who brought the natural in line with the spiritual. Every national park became a monument to god, as families filled up their RVs and headed to places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, the shift from preservation to accessibility has led to what David Louter calls “windshield wilderness,” and roads have crept into the supposedly protected wild even more (which will be the subject of another essay altogether).
The issue this myth of wilderness creates is humanity doesn’t look at nature through a realistic lens, thus we cannot resolve conflicts we ourselves create. This issue can be extenuated in regions like the Pacific Northwest because even though most people would commit to being “sustainable,” they disconnect humanity’s sustainability with the Earth’s at large, discounting the fact they are one in the same. If this is accepted, we are one step closer to living with as opposed to against nature, which fosters insight on a personal scale as well as a broader system of ethics and incentives informing social, political, and economic policy decisions. This freedom doesn’t come from an idealized wilderness created by weekly pilgrimages to REI and camps about ‘finding oneself’ in the woods, pushing nature back to the level of, as Barry Lopez writes in “The American Geographies,” a “curiously generic backdrop on which experience is imposed.” Constraining our view of the seemingly non-human spaces we’ve preserved may provide what seems like a sanctuary, but it can also “other” those spaces, removing them from the very incentives for preservation we’d be seeking to develop.
I only have a couple months left in Washington before I head to Paraguay, but I’m excited for my love affair with the North Cascades to continue to flourish and inform my inner dialectic concerning my relationship to society and our broader relationship with the planet.