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The Wilderness Next Door

Fifty years ago today, in what has come to be known as the “Wilderness Letter,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner drafted what might be the most famous — and possibly the most eloquent — defense of the natural world ever written.  And, unlike most nature writing which seems to focus, almost obsessively, on the tangible and the material, Stegner’s missive borders on the metaphysical.

The wilderness he conjures is Nature with a capital N, that abstract and virtuous promised land that resides somewhere between the edge of our memory and the pit of our belly.  It lives in the broad and sweeping landscapes of the West, against which we, as a nation, set our shoulders and pushed onward.  It endures in the rugged beauty reflected in iconic images, the saturated blacks and brilliant whites of Ansel Adams’ Half Dome, El Capitan, Lake Tenaya.

He writes:

“We need wilderness preserved — as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there — important, that is, simply as an idea.”

If the wilderness we preserve is the physical manifestation of the wildness within us, then its loss would forever change our very being. This is a real danger, and an insidious one, at that, for it would not come suddenly and calamitously; rather, we would barely mark its passing as we feel the quiet slipping away of our spirit and collectively give up the ghost.

One could argue that we already are.

We casually refer to nature as a balm for the woes of the modern life we have willfully fashioned for ourselves.  And it is.  But that implies a nature at arm’s length, altogether separate from us — something from which we have been removed and to which we must return if we wish to tend to the part of our spirit that is ailing. 

What if there is no balm in Gilead?

For as much as I believe in the letter and the spirit of Stegner’s words, I remain haunted by these dozen words: Even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.

One can’t help but wonder if we have, in our well-intentioned efforts to honor nature, over-romanticized it — relegating it to the realm of mythology and rendering it distant and unattainable.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t revere the natural world — we rightfully should.  And we should, as Stegner observes, take the measure of ourselves in it.  But I would suggest that such measure shouldn’t be reserved only for the occasional or the spectacular.  Rather, it should be taken every day, with whatever yardsticks are at hand.  The humble backyard maple — a festival of buds, leaves, twirling seeds and branches for climbing — can’t match the magnificence of a sequoia, but it certainly can capture a child’s imagination day in and day out, season after season.

But for much of the generation we are now raising, spending free time outside, exploring the natural world in their own backyards, has become an aberration — an accidental pursuit, if it’s undertaken at all. Theirs is an increasingly virtual world divorced from what had long been the landscape of childhood, where time in nature would nurture children — mind, body and spirit. (The Kaiser Family Foundation’s recent research puts the average daily media consumption of today’s youth at more than 7 ½ hours — into which they pack nearly 11 hours worth of media content — a full-time job.)

The front lines of the frontier have moved; they’re right outside the back door.

With apologies to e.e. cummings: Listen. There’s a hell of a good wilderness next door. Let’s go.

Todd Christopher is the author of The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids.