Wilderness Is Everywhere

I used to love solo road trips. A full tank of gas and a destination so far away it needed a full day (or days) of driving—that’s something I always looked forward to. Maybe it was having the time to think. Maybe it was great music you could really, really listen to.

These days, however, long road trips have become painful. The main reason for my new resistance (other than getting old and cranky) is that once I get out into those big spaces between cities, all I really want to do is stop. What I want is the wilderness, and that’s exactly what I can find out there in those not-so-remote spaces. It’s there that a great secret is hidden.

For many people, the word “wilderness” conjures images of towering mountains and deep forests. The word seems to speak to places so distant or hard to reach that they have escaped being deeply changed by human influence.

But I want you to think a little differently about the wild, because my contention is that it’s not really that remote.

A quick search of the word “wilderness” brings up a range of different definitions: “an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region.” Or “a neglected or abandoned area of a garden or town.” I was happy to see “uncultivated” and “abandoned” as defining characteristics because it highlights the fact that wilderness need not be so far away.

That’s good because we need wilderness now more than ever.

In his remarkable book The Practice of the Wild, poet Gary Snyder reminds us that wilderness is everywhere. As a crew member of an oil tanker crossing the Pacific in the 1950s, en route to practice Zen, Snyder tells us that there were crickets in the ship’s paint locker. Those insects were just as much “wilderness” as a bald eagle soaring over snow-capped mountains. For Snyder, “wildness” can be found in any vacant lot where small but complex ecosystems of plant and animal life take hold. Each is the natural world making its own rules and its own intricate webs of energy.

That’s what makes the regions between cities and towns so compelling to me now. If I have to drive any length of time, I find myself looking for state parks, state forests, or conservation lands. Ranging from hundreds to thousands of acres, these are precious domains that have been allowed some degree of autonomy from the heaviest hand of human development. While they may be “managed” in terms of forestry or other concerns, they are ecosystems that are, on a day-to-day level, doing their own thing. They provide wilderness on a wider, richer, and deeper level than what you can find in your local vacant lot or city park. And it’s exactly that richness and depth which makes a walk in these spaces so important.

Looking beyond our machines

In the modern world, most of our lives are made of mitigated experiences. We are deep in an age when machines, of one sort or another, stand between us and the world. Obviously, there are some wonderful things about this; I am thankful for the furnace in my basement that tirelessly keeps my home warm. I am just as thankful for the network of digital machines through which I learn and think and communicate.

But it’s rare for us to spend even a couple of hours in a place where human thought and desire don’t make up a kind of invisible “ether.” But walk down a trail in a state forest a few hours outside a major city, and you get the experience of being alone in the midst of a world that’s happy to go on without you. The trees, the underbrush, the small mammals you see (and the others you don’t)—they may take notice of your passing. But once you do pass, they return to their concerns. There just aren’t a lot of people around.

In these places, we humans, and all our thoughts and worries, just don’t matter that much. That is the secret wilderness is always trying to teach us.

The world was here before us and it will be there long after we are gone. We are not as important as we think.

Gary Snyder is right. If you look carefully enough, you can see wilderness in a vacant lot, or even your own back yard. And if you had the time and money and effort, you could also travel to remotest corners of the planet and learn that lesson in capital letters from dawn till dusk.

But the deep lessons of wilderness are also out there for anyone to see, not far from any city. There’s real silence, real peace, and the great lesson life is always trying to teach us: We are part of this great world, but only a small part.

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Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester.