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The Dartmouth
April 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Bushong: An Ode to the Wilderness

The intrinsic value of wilderness is increasingly essential to humankind in a developed world.

For most people, the term wilderness evokes images of vast, untamed tracts of land rife with danger and mystery, such as the Wild West or the Amazon rainforest. To the more scientifically inclined, it is a natural, often terrestrial environment that is relatively undisturbed by humans. But wilderness represents so much more to those who have experienced it. Wilderness is the myriad stars flickering above like embers from an ancient fire. It is a herd of bison on the prairie, the sound of their hooves rolling like distant thunder. Wilderness is beautiful and sacred, capricious and beguiling.

The aesthetic value of wilderness cannot be quantified by any human construct, and thus is often disregarded. We fail to recognize that wilderness is just as essential to our well-being as land that is harvested for fish, timber, minerals and other resources. Not only does the wilderness provide a refuge for humans in an increasingly developed world where solitude and solace are luxuries, but it has pragmatic benefits as well, such as mitigating the effects of climate change and preserving habitat for threatened wildlife. 

Without wilderness, a thread of our identity is unraveled, and the fabric of humankind becomes more frayed. As much as we may consider ourselves superior to other life forms, we too share an inviolable bond with the Earth that defines us. Wilderness was our first home, and now it is our sanctum. Yet we continue to encroach on what wilderness remains, erecting barriers (both physical and conceptual) between ourselves and the natural world. Physical barriers abound: roads, fences, cities, all meant to keep wilderness out and humanity in. Conceptual barriers are more subtle, like the eurocentric fallacy that nature is inimical to the advancement of humankind, something we must conquer rather than coexist with. This misconception fails to recognize that wilderness will only become more vital to us as urbanization exacerbates the disconnect between humans and nature. In wilderness is the last bastion of our kinship with the Earth. 

Wilderness tends to the soul in a way that a city park cannot. That is because the nature in a city park is boxed in by concrete edifices, the din of traffic, and incessant human interaction. It is a tamed environment. Wilderness is the opposite, requiring that you be alone with your thoughts and channel your inner fortitude. We ultimately need places to escape the chatter of civilized life and lose ourselves in nature’s grandeur. Places of solitude and solace. Places to heal, to learn. We need places where we can feel human again.

Additionally, wilderness is a defining aspect of the American identity. It helped shape our nation’s character, instilling us with fundamental values of ruggedness, independence and freedom that continue to permeate our lives. Historicists propounding the frontier thesis argue that these values are a product of the settlers who pushed west in the 19th century into wilderness sparsely occupied by indigenous people. However, wilderness has sculpted Americans for many centuries prior. It began when the first bands of nomads traversed Beringia, the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, and fanned out across a continent of sabertooth cats and short-faced bears, one where the very term “wilderness” lacked meaning because there was no civilization against which to compare it. 

As long as America has been populated, its wilderness has fostered the innate desire for adventure that lies dormant in every one of us. The West continues to enchant Americans for this very reason. We need raw, unbridled wilderness to keep our trailblazing spirit alive, not dammed rivers, denuded forests or mountaintops turned to rubble. The pungent scent of sage and the falcon’s cry mean nothing if one is not also surrounded by an unbroken prairie spilling out into the soft blue haze. 

Wilderness does not just nurture the human spirit; it has instrumental value as well. For example, it provides a refuge for biodiversity that is increasingly jeopardized by habitat loss and climate change. Endangered species need strongholds where they stand a fighting chance. Take the California condor, the Florida panther, the spotted owl — these “charismatic megafauna” attract public attention, but 20-30% of all flora and fauna will be at an increased risk of extinction should global temperatures rise by more than 2.7 to 4.5 ℉. Wilderness also provides valuable ecosystem services such as flood mitigation, carbon sequestration, and a source of fresh water. And finally, it offers a venue for us to understand the functioning of ecological systems so we can better conserve species and their habitats in the face of a changing climate. 

An important clarification to make is that no “true” wilderness remains that has entirely escaped the pernicious hand of our industrialization. Yes, the jungles of the Congo or the Arctic tundra still harbor vast stretches of land that are superficially pristine, but this is an arbitrary and futile categorization: No place is truly untouched. Penguins in Antarctica, for example, have the insecticide DDT in their fat, and crustaceans at the bottom of the Mariana Trench have microplastics in their gut. However, the value of wilderness is not derived from its virginal state, but from its preservation of a particular type of relationship between humans and nature: an ancestral kinship with the Earth, the place from which we were born and to which we must ultimately return. This relationship is now tenuous because we no longer consistently interact with nature, making wilderness even more imperative as a place to escape to and experience nature on a visceral level. 

At its core, wilderness reminds us of our vestigial connection to the natural world that once defined us. Gone are the days when we could marvel at herds of bison that spill out over the horizon or flocks of passenger pigeons that darken the sky for days, but we have the ability and the obligation to protect what remains. From the polar bear striding nobly across the Arctic sea ice to the millions of warblers migrating north in spring, we must offer them a refuge to escape our avarice, and in turn, provide a refuge for ourselves. This not only involves augmenting the National Wilderness Preservation System, but becoming more cognizant of our tacit contract with the Earth: That so long as she sustains us, we will be faithful stewards of her bounty. The ensuing years will decide what type of planet our children inherit, so we must tread carefully with the conviction that wilderness should be the birthright of posterity, not a memory of the past.