Nearly everything I know about wildness: the meaning of it, the history of it, and the value of it
History of Wildness
Further Thoughts on the Meaning of Wildness
Pastoral Is Not Wild
Possessing or Being Possessed By
Blaming John Muir
Wildness in the Rest of the World
What People Bring Home from Wildness
The Age of Discovery
How I discovered the Eagletail Mountains and came to realize that the Age of Discovery isn’t over
Travelers and Stay-at-Homes
What each gains and loses, and why we need each other
A confession that I was once a promoter of industrial development, and a discovery later in life that Wallace Stegner and I have something in common
A rant about the most ubiquitous threat to wildness that
I know of
Three mountains in Phoenix/Scottsdale and what they tell us about trespassing and vandalism
I don’t know of anything more interesting without seeming to be interesting than the tropical hardwoods of South Florida. It makes their destruction doubly tragic.
Does It Have to Be Difficult?
Ways of appreciating wildness: assault versus attentiveness
Mountain Film Festival
How could I possibly fail to enjoy a film festival about mountains?
Praise the Lord for Sprague’s pipits.
What the Zuni creation story taught us about religion and nature
The best of times and the worst of times: a reflection on my lifelong relationship with the state of Missouri.
Living Wild on North 12th Street
Where should someone who loves wild nature live?
Wildness and the Colorado Frontier
Exploitation of natural resources
and the love of wild country meet in Colorado.
Immersing ourselves in nature like children do. Except that children don’t do it anymore.
The Eden Temptation
Eros, sublimity, and the Petrarch Effect. Surrounded by paradise, we first recognize it and then turn against it.
Looking for my place in the history of photography.
PHOTOS: header: Evening light, Book Cliffs, CO 11/07 / Kawishiwi River, MN 9/04 / Eagletail Mts, AZ 12/98 / Caney Falls, Bankhead NF, AL 3/07 / Indiana Dunes SP, IN 10/01 / Saguaros, Tucson Mt Unit, Saguaro NP, AZ 10/90 / Summit of Piestewa Pk, Phoenix, AZ 11/98 / Fakahatchee Strand, FL 12/99 / Middle Sister & North Sister from South Sister, OR 8/82 / Moon at sunrise, Gore Range, Silverthorne, CO 7/07 / Gayfeather Prairie, MO 5/06 / Petroglyph, Picacho Mts, AZ 12/01 / River Rd, Missouri R, near Hartsburg, MO 10/06 / Trees in a vacant lot, Grand Junction, CO 1/08 / Zodiac Spires & one of the Willow Lakes, Gore Range, CO 8/08 / Turkey Flat Trail, Pinyon Mesa, CO 10/08 / Rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides), Pershing SP, MO 3/94 / Sunshine Mt & Wilson Pk at sunrise, San Juan Mts, CO 9/07.
and the love of wild country
meet in Colorado
I’m accustomed to assuming that the human appreciation of wild country is always slow to develop, usually emerging only after most of the wildness has already been eliminated. When Laurie and I moved to Colorado in 2007, I looked forward to learning the history of how that state’s mountains, plains, and plateaus evolved in people’s minds from something to be exploited for furs, minerals, and rangeland to something to be cherished for its beauty, spectacle, and wildness. Although I expected to uncover a typically prolonged and contentious process, I learned instead that, in the case of Colorado, exploitation and appreciation occurred at nearly the same time.
For one thing, exploitation came comparatively late to Colorado. “Ironically,” writes William Wyckoff in his geographical history of the state, “though Colorado sat near the physical center of the Transmississippi West, it sat on the periphery of European and Anglo-American development while neighboring regions saw more rapid exploration and settlement” [Wyckoff 1999: 28]. In the seventeenth century, “New Mexico’s Rio Grande and the great Missouri River corridor offered approaches from the south and east, but Colorado remained beyond the pale of permanent European settlement for more than a century longer” . Elevations were high in Colorado, the landscape was rugged, and the state’s rivers—which included upper reaches of the Colorado, Missouri, and Rio Grande—were not navigable. Largely for those reasons, Colorado remained a region to avoid rather than exploit. In addition, Native Americans held out longer there than they did in other areas and continued to be a threat to European or Anglo-American intruders. The Rio Grande valley in New Mexico to the south was settled long before Colorado, and so was Wyoming to the north, where more receptive terrain provided the chosen route for the transcontinental railroad.
Serious exploitation and settlement in Colorado did not occur until 1858 when gold was discovered on Dry Creek in what’s now Denver. “Suddenly, in a span of a few decades, the Colorado Rockies were engulfed by this new, highly unpredictable world of commodity capitalism, of smelters and railroad investments, of boomtowns and sudden busts, of landscape changes so fundamental that they dwarfed the modest human impacts made over the prior ten centuries” . Mining activity initially concentrated in areas directly west of Denver, including Central City and Idaho Springs. In 1878 and 1879, silver and lead production at Leadville resulted in “explosive growth … unequaled in the state’s raucous mining history” . By the late 1880s Aspen joined Leadville to form “a silver mining heartland across what had been one of Colorado’s most isolated and inaccessible regions” [49-50]. Dramatic growth also occurred in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, with Lake City, Silverton, and Ouray becoming major retail and smelting centers. In the early 1890s, silver mining propelled Creede to prominence, and Cripple Creek, west of Colorado Springs, “became the site of the state’s last great mineral rush” .
Mining had a pronounced impact on the Colorado landscape. According to Wyckoff: “Vegetation was radically altered by mining activities. Every phase of nineteenth-century mining consumed wood in great quantities: placer-mining stripped riparian sites within days; hydraulic mining denuded slopes for decades; lode operations demanded wood for headframes, shaft houses, and tunnel supports; milling and smelting plants voraciously consumed whole hillslopes; and mining towns needed large amounts of sawtimber for building and waste wood for heating. In addition, frequent fires, the result of both accidental and purposeful burning, ravaged thousands of acres of high country forests in the last half of the nineteenth century.... [In] milling and smelting centers, ... vast quantities of black smoked filled the sky. Leadville, Durango, and Aspen all suffered, but the most famous vapors lurked above the belching ore-processing facilities at Black Hawk, where travelers reported the atmosphere dank with fumes and smoke” [69-72].
At the same time that all this was going on, appreciation of Colorado's wildness and natural beauty was also developing. In Wyckoff’s words:
Colorado’s mountain core was shaped by more than the miner’s pick and shovel in the last half of the nineteenth century. Even in the 1860s, an alternate vision of the high country appeared in the form of romanticized descriptions and paintings that extolled the health and sublimity of the territory’s rarefied mountainous landscapes. Tourists who wandered the hills in search of mountain pleasures were not disappointed, and soon, with the aid of vigorous promotions, Colorado acquired a national, even global, reputation for its alpine amenities [Wyckoff 1999: 78].
Journalists were prominent among the promoters. Newspaper editor William Byers “regularly entrusted the Rocky Mountain News to his assistants and joined [John Wesley] Powell’s and [Ferdinand V.] Hayden’s survey parties, climbing the same peaks, viewing the same scenery, and reporting his experiences in enthusiastic articles for the News. In August 1868, he accompanied Powell in the first recorded ascent of Longs Peak; a few years later he joined the Hayden party on the summit of Mount Lincoln” [Abbott et al. 1982: 212]. Byers served “as a sort of unofficial tour guide,” leading visitors on a circuit through the central Rockies that included Berthoud Pass, Middle Park, Hot Sulphur Springs, the valley of the Blue River, South Park, and the canyons of the South Platte. Results of those tour-guiding efforts included “a pair of immensely influential books: [Bayard] Taylor’s Colorado: A Summer Trip (1867) and [Samuel] Bowles’s The Switzerland of America (1869)” . Taylor’s “enormously popular [book] attracted thousands to the mining regions, not to get rich but just to look around” .
Resorts were soon developed. In 1871, Colorado Springs was founded by railroad entrepreneur William J. Palmer as “the first genuine resort west of Chicago” [Sprague 1976: 137]. The town was designed “primarily as a place of residence for people of means who liked scenery, pleasant weather, and outdoor sports, or who thought that the climate would cure their consumption or asthma…” . Elsewhere: “By the 1880s, Estes Park had become a popular summer resort, famed for its local hunting, fishing, horse trips, and mountain climbing” [Wyckoff 1999: 83]. “[A]nother cluster of guest ranches, camping spots, and summer resorts took shape in the vicinity of Grand Lake ...,” and, “[f]urther west, Glenwood Springs emerged as a far larger hot springs resort” .
By the end of the century, the Rockies were attracting not only the well-to-do, but also “families and common adventurers on shoestring budgets” [Ferguson 2004: 137]. Gary Ferguson quotes M. A. Cruikshank, who traveled in the northern Rockies in 1883: “We constantly met the most rustic of vehicles drawn by the roughest of farm animal, filled by the genuine sons and daughters of the soil. It was really strange to see how perfectly this class appreciates the wonders of the place and how glad they are to leave for a while their hard labor for the adventurous, the beautiful, and the sublime…” . Ferguson adds: “A Park Service report issued in 1911 estimates that roughly 50 percent of Yellowstone’s visitors were local farmers and ranchers…” .
Considering the negative impact of mining on the landscape, I find it surprising that none of the overviews of Colorado history that I’ve consulted describe serious conflicts between scenery lovers and the mining industry. If, in fact, there was little or no controversy, the only explanation I can think of is that mining activity was sufficiently concentrated that travelers found adequate pleasure in the miles of unaffected terrain between the mining centers. Either that, or the mining activities themselves and their attendant roads and railroads were sufficiently fascinating in their own right as examples of the “technological sublime.” Wyckoff notes that the mining towns, and especially the railroads connecting them, were among the stimulants of tourism. “Colorado’s extensive network of narrow gauge lines, constructed to serve the mining industry, became essential corridors of movement for mountain-bound tourists…. [Travelers] could also marvel at the genius of human developments in such spectacular environments as they gazed upon mountains conquered by mines, smelters, and railroad grades” .
The comparative lateness of Colorado’s development meant that, by the time it occurred, an aesthetic of wildness and natural beauty was already established. The Romantic movement in Europe had changed the image of mountains and other wild landscapes from repulsive places to be avoided to places to be sought out and admired. In America, painters of the Hudson River School had persuaded many people that wildness itself, which the North American continent possessed in abundance, was an asset rather than a sign of inferiority to Europe.
Landscape painters had already been active in the Rocky Mountains. Although no artists accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition, Samuel Seymour and Titian Peale were part of Major Stephen H. Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1820. Seymour’s painting, Distant View of the Rocky Mountains, “provided the earliest known depiction of the Colorado Rockies” [Trenton and Hassrick 1983: 22]. Subsequent government-sponsored explorations and surveys nearly always included one or more artists. Art historians regard many of those artists as “less than competent draftsmen” and point out that many of their works were seen only as reproductions in government publications . John Mix Stanley was the “most celebrated” of eleven different artists associated with the Pacific railroad surveys in the 1850s . Of artists accompanying four major geological and geographical surveys conducted between 1867 and 1879, the work of William Henry Holmes was “unique and seldom surpassed” . Holmes created “extensive panoramic views” which “became his forte and gained him richly deserved recognition and fame” .
Interestingly, although several of the leading Hudson River School artists tried painting the western mountains, the results of their efforts “were never impressive or often repeated” [Flexner 1962: 294]. Worthington Whittredge preferred the plains to the mountains, and John Kensett “[sought] out the less sensational and dramatic subjects as the focus for his simple, gentle art” [Trenton and Hassrick 1983: 219]. John Casilear “was at his best when his canvases were small and his subjects the picturesque and homely landscapes of his native eastern haunts” . Sanford Robinson Gifford found “the monotonous, drab coloring of the plains-and-mountain country … uninspiring, its vistas wanting in picturesque subjects” . Art historian Thomas Flexner speculates that, whereas many of these same artists had painted successfully in Europe and South America, they “felt a greater responsibility towards variant nature within [their own country]. Believing, as they did, that style [should grow] from subject matter, they concluded that to depict the Rockies adequately, they would have to give them study as detailed as that they had given to the Catskills and the White Mountains. A tourist trip would not suffice...” .
The most renowned of the Rocky Mountain painters were Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. “Albert Bierstadt’s grand and impressive interpretations of Rocky Mountain scenery, along with his other western scenes, were … the first paintings to capture successfully the wonder and excitement that the artist and other early trailblazers felt when they confronted the spectacular western scenery” [Trenton and Hassrick 1983: 116]. “Bierstadt’s treatment of light [was] uniquely his own” . He
freely manipulated light effects in his pictures to increase dramatic impact ... [and] judiciously used back-, cross-, and sidelighting to create the highlights and shadows that resulted in a separation of planes and a three-dimensional effect…. Like the lens of a camera, Bierstadt’s eye selectively focused on small flowers, leaves, and grasses in the frontal plane of the picture, magnifying them a hundredfold to show details, shapes, and delicate textures…. Many of these pictorial effects, with their dramatic overtones, are fully realized in the sensational full-length landscapes—often described as his “Wagnerian exultations”—that became Bierstadt’s trademark from the 1860s 
Moran, “[f]rom his earliest days as an artist, … was interested in the minutiae of nature, carefully studying and sketching all its aspects. Despite the wildness and vastness of the western terrain … Moran nevertheless approached it with his eye for detailed accuracy” . In paintings such as The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone , “[i]t is obvious that Moran … altered some of the literal aspects of the scene to produce an idealized version…” . “Many eminent critics have suggested that Moran’s finely orchestrated coloring, seen through floating vapors, mist, and foam, was inspired by [J. M. W.] Turner’s work. But the American artist’s colors were never to explode into Turner’s brilliant and often arbitrary hues—they remained subdued and naturalistic” . “Obviously [he] had assimilated [John] Ruskin’s teachings, believing that, if an artist had an intimate working knowledge of ‘the rocks and trees, and the atmosphere, and the mountain torrents and the birds that fly in the blue ether above,’ he could take any liberties necessary in creating his pictorial composition, as long as the result was true to nature” .
Back east, there was great interest in reports from the West. People looked at the paintings and perused the published reports of government-sponsored expeditions and surveys. “Outside the eastern cities where major exhibitions of Rocky Mountain art took place—nearly always to overwhelming acclaim—much of the public [was] exposed to the mountains by way of the illustrations that accompanied … accounts by government explorers. Such efforts exposed a tremendous number of people to artistic glimpses of the Rockies” [Ferguson 2004: 155].
Regarding the message that these reports communicated, historian John L. Allen observes that the American exploration of the West began with scientific and commercial objectives, but quickly acquired romantic overtones. Although no artists accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition, Lewis and Clark’s journals contained “descriptions of what Lewis referred to as ‘seens of visionary enchantment,’ descriptions which are well within the romantic tradition” . Paintings of the Plains and Rockies by Samuel Seymour and Titian Peale—with the expedition of Captain Stephen Long in 1820—“although primarily reportorial, were the first on-the-spot artists’ renderings of the West” . Alfred Jacob Miller, who traveled west with Scottish aristocrat Sir William Drummond Stewart in 1837, was “heavily influenced by his romantic prepossessions ... particularly ... in his presentations of the native peoples of the Plains and Rockies” . Karl Bodmer's and George Catlin's “portrayals of the native inhabitants [combined] romantic visions of nature with a scientific and ethnological approach to subjects that were, for most Americans, highly exotic” .
“Such were the romantic images of the West in 1840—,” Allen concludes, “blends of the pastoral and dramatically exotic, sometimes comforting in their familiarity, yet, at the same time, full of splendid mystery” . Moreover, by the mid-1800s, just before the Colorado gold rush, “the rapid, even overwhelming loss of wild lands in the East” had already induced many people to believe that “appreciating the American landscape through the beauty and mystery of the Rockies and Sierras was ... the last best chance for [the] nation to save the roots of its identity” [Ferguson 2004: 156]. Paintings and literature increasingly carried a warning that “Americans were ... placing themselves outside the sacred circle of nature” [157-58].
If that was the message, how was it received? How did the public interpret these paintings? Did they see “beauty” and “mystery” and worry about their disappearance? Or did they see mainly resources to be exploited? And, if they did see beauty, what did “beauty” mean? I think of beauty as sights and sounds that please the senses, but, in the nineteenth century, what seemed most beautiful might have been the chance to get rich. Or, if not to get rich, to be independent and free—to be able to do whatever they wanted—to live without constraints. In 1820, Edwin James, writing the report of Major Long’s expedition to the Rockies, tried to account for what he called “a manifest propensity, particularly in the males, to remove westward....” “There was,” according to James, “an apparently irresistible charm for the true Westerner in a mode of life ‘wherein the artificial wants and uneasy restraints inseparable from a crowded population are not known, wherein we feel ourselves dependent immediately and solely on the bounty of nature, and the strength of our own arm…’” [54-55]. Gary Ferguson points out that the economic panic of 1819 had raised “grave concerns about whether capitalism—in particular, the way it seemed to be leading to an unintended concentration of wealth—would one day swallow up the promise of equality” . Consequently: “To dream of the Rockies was for many easterners not just a longing for peace and quiet (that would come later), but a dream of independence—one that showed itself first through images of trappers, then scouts, and finally cowboys” .
I like to think that wildness and natural beauty were also important on the frontier. Certainly, the quest for wealth—or independence, if that was more important—was not the only story. Ferguson notes that appreciation of the beauty and spectacle of the mountains spread beyond the well-to-do elite:
[P]ioneer diaries from the Rocky Mountain portions of the Oregon Trail are in most cases filled with awe and delight. Writing about the range in a letter to his wife in 1850, Pusey Graves tells of “a wildness, richness, and grandeur that seemed to clothe the whole landscape. The beautiful pine trees which filled the air with aromatic fragrance, and the ten thousand flowers that were blooming all about me filling the mountain air with their unfolded treasures, the chatter of the blackbird and the sweet singing of the meadow lark … all this was indescribably grand and magnificent.” Likewise Mrs. E. A. Hadley describes South Pass, at the very crest of the Rockies, as “the pleasantest place I have yet seen.” Velina Williams, scribbling in her diary in 1853, waxes poetic about “the main chain of the Rocky Mountains to the north [of South Pass], with their snow-clad tops towering to a great height … truly grand and worth a journey across the plains” [Ferguson 2004: 22].
Trapper Zenas Leonard wrote in 1839 that “[s]ome mountain men [wanted] to turn in with and live the life of the Indians” , and Ferguson adds: “This reluctance to leave the Rockies, sometimes after being out of touch with civilization for years, was from the very beginning a common theme” .
The tension between exploitation and appreciation characterized Colorado’s response to the setting aside of national forests and other public land. The cutting of timber for mining operations and increasing use of forest land for grazing were already sufficient concerns in 1876 that the first state constitution authorized the legislature to “enact laws in order to prevent the destruction of, and to keep in good preservation, the forests upon the lands of the state” [Wyckoff 1999: 92]. The Colorado Forestry Association and the office of the State Forest Commissioner—both created early in the state’s history—advocated regulation and called on the federal government for assistance. In 1891 and 1892, President Benjamin Harrison used a “little discussed provision in a congressional lands bill” to set up five forest reserves in Colorado . In opposition, “A number of Colorado politicians around the turn of the century built their careers around the anticonservation sentiments of many citizens.... The ‘locking up’ of valuable resources, said many of the state’s leaders, impeded state growth. A policy of husbanding resources was said to strike a blow at every cattleman, lumberman, miner, and homesteader...” [Abbott et al. 1982: 128]. After Gifford Pinchot became chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry in 1898, his policy of “multiple use” softened some of the resistance. But, in 1905, Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt “created eleven new Colorado forest reserves, encompassing almost nine million acres of national forest lands” [Wyckoff 1999: 95]. Moreover, Pinchot “cracked down on illegal timber cutting,” “closed down many small-scale illegal sawmilling and railroad tie-cutting enterprises,” and imposed fees on cattle and sheep grazing on national forest lands .
Opposition crystallized in the first decade of the twentieth century, but, even then, Coloradans were not uniformly opposed to the forest reserves. “[S]maller ranchers led the opposition out of fear of losing access to public lands for their cattle and sheep.... Farming communities, in contrast, saw great benefits in the preservation of forests on the headwaters of Colorado rivers, to hold snow and rainwater and to maintain steady stream flow without erosion. Towns like Fort Collins, Pueblo, Grand Junction, Delta, Montrose, and Mancos were centers of support for Forest Reserves” . After 1907, “Coloradans increasingly recognized the inevitability and even the value of working with the federal government in managing the forests. A growing number of urban residents also recognized the benefits of the national forests in providing protection of urban watersheds and offering a peaceful retreat from the chores of city life” [Wyckoff 1999: 96-97].
When the passing of the frontier is lamented, I’m not convinced that we know what we’re lamenting. Are we lamenting primarily an era of freedom and exploitation or a time when wild country still had significance in our culture? Frederick Jackson Turner, who wrote the famous paper on the “closing” of the frontier in 1893, was not entirely clear on the matter, as Henry Nash Smith discusses in his book, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. The logic of Turner’s positive evaluation of the frontier was that it provided a safety valve for American society. Supposedly, a large measure of equality and democracy was assured by the fact that anyone who was unemployed, poorly paid, or badly treated could take up land of their own in the West. That was the mainspring of American democracy, according to Turner.
So far so good, in Smith’s estimation, but Turner then wrote: “Democracy was born of no theorist's dream; it was not carried in the Sarah Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came stark and strong and full of life out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier” . Smith is troubled by the image of democracy emanating from the forest, calling it an abandonment of economic analysis in favor of “metaphor, and even myth” . “[O]rdinarily Turner kept his metaphors under control,” Smith says. “But sometimes, ... [his] metaphors threaten to become themselves a means of cognition and to supplant discursive reasoning” [253-54]. I would like to argue, however, that the importance of nature on the frontier was more than metaphorical. I think the principal attraction of the frontier for many of its participants was the mix of wildness and civilization that it offered. In any given place, the mix was short-lived, as civilization quickly replaced the last remnants of wildness. Unfortunately, most histories of the frontier say little about the role of nature in attracting people there and keeping them there.
Perhaps I overemphasize the importance of wildness in the appeal of the frontier. But, if it was only the quest for independence that drew people there, then many of them were surely disappointed. On the trapping frontier, according to Bernard DeVoto, “The companies hired [the mountain men]—or traded with the highest order of them, the free trappers ...—on terms of the companies' making, paid them off in the companies' goods, valued at the companies' prices deep in the mountains. They worked in a peonage.... The companies outfitted them and sent them out to lose their traps, their horses, and frequently their scalps—to come back broke and go deeper into debt for next year's outfit” [quoted in Jones 1998: 30]. On the mining frontier, as soon as placer mining gave way to hydraulic and underground mining, “[p]ower shifted to companies and corporations with large labor forces,” leaving workers “with few illusions about their place in the hierarchy or their status as independent, autonomous fortune hunters” [Limerick 1987: 107]. On the agricultural frontier: “As the farmer took up the costs of starting his business, it was an act of optimism to go into debt in order to raise capital and finance a happier future. When those happy expectations proved misleading, the debt became a source of despair, a mechanism for entrapment” [128-29].
The most common image of the frontier, aside from lawlessness (in the movies), has been hard work (on the pages of history). Historian Mary Ellen Jones, for example, writes of the Rocky Mountain fur trade: “Constant danger and discomfort marked life in the field. There are frequent references to frostbite, frozen feet, and snowblindness, voracious mosquitoes and horseflies, and intermittent fever, probably malaria. Grizzly bears were a major threat ... there was often danger from the Indians ... [and] the mountain man was on his own to cure illness or heal wounds” [Jones 1998: 38]. In regard to the mining frontier, historian Patricia Nelson Limerick writes: “Even when things went well, placer mining was hard and wearing work.... The conditions were particularly frustrating as crowds made it difficult to find unclaimed locations" [Limerick 1987: 102]. As for farming: “In early Plains farming, hardship was extreme. The grasshoppers would have been nightmare enough.... Hailstones, drought, prairie fires, and failed adaptations to the semi-arid West brought periodic disaster” . A “constant worry over having enough money” was kept alive “by the uncertainties of crops and prices” .
Despite the hardships, I like to think that some of those people also saw beauty in their surroundings. It may have not been many who saw it, or much beauty that they saw, but we’re already acquainted with trappers “wanting to turn in with and live the life of the Indians,” local farmers and ranchers sightseeing at Yellowstone, and emigrants on the Oregon Trail describing the Rocky Mountains as “truly grand and worth a journey across the plains.” In books about the frontier, the topic of wildness turns up fairly seldom—and usually in the role of providing the bounty that the frontiersman exploits. But I continue to believe that some number of trappers, miners, cowboys, and farmers found something of value in their natural surroundings besides the material means of a livelihood. Surely there were farmers, or their wives, who noticed the prairie wildflowers or heard the songs of meadowlarks. There must have been trappers and miners who appreciated the loveliness of fresh snow on the peaks, enjoyed the background music of cascades and waterfalls, or marveled at distant views on days when the mountain air was so clear it seemed they could see forever.
Smith points out that most novelists writing about frontier people dwelt on their quaintness and backwardness. They missed the more tender aspects of frontier people’s lives, including the warmth and kindness they shared with one another and whatever beauty they may have found in wild nature. Frontier people themselves may have been inarticulate about such matters, but a knowledgeable novelist could have brought them out, and might also have made a persuasive case that such qualities on the frontier were superior to civilized life back east. Little glimmers of the possibilities turn up in Smith’s discussion of the literature about the farming frontier. He mentions, for example, Caroline Kirkland, a native of New York who spent five years on the Michigan frontier. Kirkland “respond[ed] almost in spite of herself to the generosity and kindness of the pioneer farmers. She [said] she always return[ed] from her little excursions about the countryside with an increased liking for the people…. ‘There is after all [she explained] so much kindness, simplicity, and trustfulness … that much that is uncouth is forgotten’” [Smith 1957: 225]. In another example, Metta Victor wrote a dime novel, Alice Wilde, the Raftsman’s Daughter, in which an “elegant and cultivated” New Yorker on the frontier falls in love with the daughter of a raftsman. The young woman later exclaims to the New Yorker: “… you had pride, prejudice, rank, fashion, everything to struggle against in choosing me” . The triumph of love over such obstacles must have been widely approved, says Smith, since the novel enjoyed enormous sales in the U.S. and England [227-28]. Similar accounts of frontier people’s involvement with wild nature should also have been possible.
Although I’m sure that many people on the frontier interpreted freedom as the freedom to do whatever they wanted, it seems clear to me that genuine freedom is something different from that. At a minimum, the exercise of that type of freedom interferes with the freedom of others. Although I don’t have good stories to illustrate my argument, it’s obvious that you can jeopardize my freedom if you’re not attentive and responsible, and I can jeopardize yours if I’m not. Carried to extremes, the freedom to do whatever you want can lead to the overexploitation of resources. If people are free to cut down all the trees, they will do it. If they’re free to plow up all the tallgrass prairie, they will do it. If they’re free to trap all the beaver or shoot all the bison, they will do it. Freedom of that sort is self-defeating and temporary, particularly as the practice of moving on to another frontier as soon as resources are exhausted takes on worldwide dimensions.
For too many people, wildness suggests the Wild Bunch riding into town, whooping and shouting and firing six-guns into the air. Although that’s what our literature and the entertainment industry have taught us, and children who behave that way are said to be “behaving wildly,” none of that is the true meaning of wildness. The truth is that wild things are free (“self-willed”), but everything in their environment is also free. Regardless of whether they’re predator or prey, they need to be quiet, attentive, and ready to adjust to whatever happens. By necessity, they become knowledgeable about their environment, and they learn to live with it. I suspect that successful frontier heroes possessed exactly those qualities. Such are the themes that I wish more novelists had explored.
For Smith, an even bigger problem than Turner’s metaphorical references to nature was his theory of civilization. Turner shared with his contemporaries “the theory that all societies ... develop through the same series of progressively higher stages [from barbarism to civilization]..... [T]he theory of social stages was basically at odds with the conception of the Western farmer as a yeoman surrounded by utopian splendor. Instead, it implied that the Western farmer was a coarse and unrefined representative of a primitive stage of social evolution” . According to Smith, Turner’s “basic conviction was that the highest social values were to be found in the relatively primitive society just within the agricultural frontier. But the theory of social stages placed the highest values at the other end of the process, in urban industrial society...” .
Long-standing suspicion of the city notwithstanding, assumptions about progress toward higher levels of civilization made it seem desirable to replace the frontier condition with civilization as rapidly as possible. Thus was the presence of wildness on the frontier in most cases ephemeral. William Wyckoff writes: “Certainly some people experienced ‘a clean page to begin anew’ as they arrived on the western scene, but collectively the communities and the cultural landscapes these immigrants created were cultural transfers from east of the Missouri” [Wyckoff 1999: 60]. Similarly: “By the early years of the twentieth century, [Denver businessmen] ... very likely took a secret amusement in business visitors who expected a rough week in the ‘Wild West’ and could find nothing to complain about. Civic architecture [in Denver] incorporated the classical revival styles prevalent in the East” [Abbott et al. 1982: 241].
I believe that many of the people living and working on the frontier would have preferred something different. Many of them had left the East at least in part because they were unhappy with it, making it reasonable to think they might not want to see it replicated in their new surroundings. The relentless replacement of wild country by city, farmland, or mines might also not be what they wanted. To my way of thinking, a visitor from the East should have found something different in Denver. The frontier was generally viewed in a positive light in the nineteenth century, and I remain convinced that the mix of wildness and civilization was among the positives. Instead of re-creating Saint Louis or Boston, the people of Denver should have been creating something new. Whatever it was that people on the frontier liked about the wilder country that surrounded their towns and cities (good hunting must have been high on the list), they should have been looking for ways to ensure its survival in conjunction with whatever they valued of civilization.
Too little has been written about the positive aspects of life on the frontier. Of the trappers, miners, cowboys, and farmers themselves, few were writers (and, even if they were, fewer still were captivating and persuasive writers). That left the image of the frontier to be created mainly by writers from the East, in whose hands the frontiers of the fur trapper and the cowboy were romanticized beyond any semblance of reality, while the agricultural frontier failed to capture the imagination of the best writers. Smith: “The Wild West [of the mountain man and the cowboy] lent itself readily to interpretation in a literature developing the themes of natural nobility and physical adventure, but the agricultural West ... proved quite intractable as literary material ” [Smith 1957: 211]. The farmer’s “sedentary and laborious calling stripped him of the exotic glamour that could be exploited in hunters and scouts of the Wild West. At the same time his low social status made it impossible to elaborate his gentility” .
If people living on the frontier had wanted to preserve some of its wildness, a further and bigger problem was that they were not the ones who controlled the way the frontier developed. Development required outside capital. Sometimes the necessary investments were made from Denver, but, often, the capital came from the East or even from Europe. It was outsiders who created the towns, financed the mines, and built railroads, smelters, and processing plants for agricultural products. From their point of view, the West was mainly resources. Having no experience of living there, they had no basis for a conception of development different from what they already knew in the East or in Europe. Even Thomas Hart Benton, the leading advocate of western development in the U.S. Congress for more than thirty years, never saw the West [Smith 1957: 32]. Those who actually lived and worked on the frontier might have imagined different possibilities, but they were not the driving forces.
In the middle third of Colorado’s history, the image of the frontier as a place of freedom and independence retained its hold. At the same time, the economy (in Colorado and elsewhere) became increasingly corporate, and the American legal system instituted a precedent of treating corporations the same as individuals, subject to the same laws and enjoying the same rights. In that context, the presumed frontier values of freedom and independence were (and continue to be) ballyhooed as vital to individual citizens, but it’s corporations that enjoy the greatest benefits.
In the mining communities of Colorado, according to Carl Abbott and his colleagues in their history of the state, “Union leaders of the 1880s decried the concentration of capital among a few large corporations and the disappearance of the independent prospector and skilled journeyman” [Abbott et al. 1982: 141]. Subsequent union activity culminated in a wave of strikes in 1903 and 1904, with Colorado City, Cripple Creek, Telluride, and Trinidad among the affected communities. However: “By 1905 and 1906, it was clear that organized business had won an important war against Colorado’s workers. In scarcely a single mining camp … did a strong miners’ union remain in a position to fight the large companies. Indeed, another wave of industrial violence in the 1910s was little more than a measure of the failure of radical unionism in the previous decade” . “[A] six-month standoff in the [southern Colorado] coal fields ended on April 20, 1914, when a detachment of the National Guard opened an attack on [a] tent colony [of miners and their families] at Ludlow…. [T]he result was ten days of civil war. More than 1,000 armed miners swarmed over the hills to fight pitched battles with company guards and state troops…. Not until President Wilson assigned 1,600 federal troops to southern Colorado with orders to disarm everyone in the strike zone—militia, company guards, and miners—did the warfare cease” . In the aftermath, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the absentee owner of the largest employer, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, responded with a “highly publicized ‘Colorado Industrial Plan.’ ... [But] [u]nderneath the rhetoric about industrial democracy and an ‘industrial constitution,’ the company retained all authority over hiring and firing” . In the meantime, Colorado’s voters failed to support the miners. “In a three-way race for governor in the fall of 1914, Republican George Carlson used a ‘law-and-order’ campaign to pile up 118,000 votes against a combined total of 115,000 for his Democratic and Progressive opponents” .
In the wake of World War I, the “Red Scare” took hold in Colorado, as it did in many other states . Citizens and state leaders interpreted industrial violence as a sign of lawlessness and the work of radicals. Newspapers agitated for control of “Bolshevism,” and state and local laws were passed forbidding “anarchy and sedition,” display of the red flag, and the inciting of rebellion. When the fear of Bolsheviks receded in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan rose to a position of influence in Denver and other cities. Reflecting anger over strikes and violence in Colorado’s mining communities, the Klan’s chief targets were Catholics and the foreign-born. A mayoral candidate in Denver promising to “give the Klan the kind of administration it wants” won seventy percent of the votes in 1924 , and Klan candidates also won the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats. The Klan was influential even in Grand Junction, despite the fact that only small numbers of Catholics, Jews, blacks, and foreigners lived there .
The Klan’s “Invisible Empire” collapsed by 1926, but “more progressive leadership” was not among the results . During the Great Depression, “Colorado politicians were not only concerned to limit state aid to the indigent. They also accepted federal grants, the only source of significant relief funds, with extreme reluctance” . Like other western politicians, they were “[u]nwilling to amend time-honored values of self-help and individualism” and “failed to recognize the passing of the era of frontier booms when natural resources could be skimmed off without thought” . Coloradans “voted for Coolidge, joined the Klan, damned Roosevelt’s socialist meddling, and continued to believe that government’s only function was to provide the individual with the opportunity to strike it rich” .
It should be emphasized that it was primarily corporations rather than independent miners or yeoman farmers who enjoyed “the opportunity to strike it rich” and who “skimmed off the resources without thought.”
The most recent third of Colorado history suggests that Coloradans are still seeking the frontier mix of civilization and wildness and still failing to find it. World War II brought economic and population growth to Denver and Colorado Springs, and “[p]rosperity continued in the two decades after 1945...” . As Abbott and his colleagues point out: “The economic transformation was the result of a revaluation of the amenities of the Colorado environment.... ‘[T]he very factors which were formerly inhibitors of economic activity—climate, vast spaces, mountains, government administered reserves of forest and wilderness areas—have become major stimulants of the new kind of economy’” [281, quoting a University of Colorado economist]. But, despite the appeal of those factors, the desired mix of civilization and wildness has remained elusive.
Out on the Western Slope, where Laurie and I chose Grand Junction as a place to live precisely for its mix of civilization and wildness, we can still spend a day hiking in the canyons, mesas, or deserts and relax over pizza and microbrewed beer on our way home. We can photograph wildflowers or bighorn sheep in the morning and spend the afternoon at an art museum. But long-term success in preserving the mix of civilization and wildness seems no more likely here than it does anywhere else. The frontier mentality is alive and well, but it’s the wrong frontier. The Western Slope has a history of oil and gas companies creating booms, damaging the environment, and then pulling out to leave a devastated economy. Yet bumper stickers still plead: “DRILL HERE / DRILL NOW / PAY LESS.” Environmentalists demand regulations, but the response of the companies seems not to have matured beyond a pattern of pulling out as soon as regulations are threatened. And a common local sentiment is to oppose the regulations rather than blame the companies for failing to figure out ways to comply with them.
The frontier mentality that persists is the one of freedom and independence rather than one where the lessons of wildness have a chance of being learned. Another bumper sticker (post–Obama inauguration) says: “I’LL KEEP MY GUNS, MY MONEY, AND MY FREEDOM, YOU KEEP THE ‘CHANGE.’” The idolizing of guns, money, and freedom reflects the tired old image of a frontier where it’s assumed that everyone cares only about “life’s main chance” and government’s only purpose is to provide “the opportunity to strike it rich.” It’s not a frontier where lessons are likely to be learned that we’re in this together (along with other people and the rest of nature) and can get along all right, not just by conquering and controlling, but by staying attentive and learning to fit in.
Fort Uncompahgre, Delta, CO, 4/09. A 1990 reconstruction of a fur trading fort established by Antoine Robidoux in 1828.
Abbott, Carl, Stephen J. Leonard, and David McComb. Colorado: A History of the Centennial State. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1982.
Allen, John L. “Horizons of the Sublime: The Invention of the Romantic West.” Journal of Historical Geography, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1992), pp. 27-40.
Ferguson, Gary. The Great Divide. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 2004.
Flexner, James Thomas. That Wilder Image. New York: Bonanza Books, 1962.
Jones, Mary Ellen. Daily Life on the 19th-Century American Frontier. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.
Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land. New York: Vintage Books, 1957.
Sprague, Marshall. Colorado: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976.
Trenton, Patricia, and Peter H. Hassrick. The Rocky Mountains: A Vision for Artists in the Nineteenth Century. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
Wyckoff, William. Creating Colorado: The Making of a Western Landscape, 1860-1940. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
like children do. Except that children
don’t do it anymore.
I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil. Hardly anything gives me as much pleasure as walking in wild nature. I prefer that signs of civilization and human impact be minimal. I have little patience with cities and farms, factories and housing developments, shopping malls and manicured parks. I grow weary of human manipulation, control, and destruction. I covet Henry Thoreau’s “holy land.” According to Thoreau, walk means “saunter,” and saunter’s original meaning was to go to the “sainte terre,” or holy land, as in the Crusades. But for Thoreau—and it’s the same for me—the “holy land” is not the Middle East, but nature left to its own devices, and walking there is what I want to be doing. The replacement of wildness by human activity depresses me.
Whenever I have a chance to be in a wild place, I don’t want to be riding a horse or a bicycle. I don’t want to ski, or run, nor do I want a canoe, kayak, or rubber raft. I certainly don’t want an ATV, dirt bike, jeep, snowmobile, or one of those “personal watercrafts” that whine worse than mosquitoes around any sizable body of water in the summer. I want the freedom and independence of walking.
I would like to convey the joy and sublimity I experience when walking in wild nature. Perhaps it would help to describe a particular hike. Let me try telling you about a recent one in western Colorado, following a trail up Lipan Wash and, from there, up to the crest of the Book Cliffs. It was a fairly ordinary hike in the overall scheme of things, which might make it a good example. I could tell you about Hidden Lake Peak, or Railroad Grade, or Mount Whitney, or the time the clouds unveiled the Grand Tetons just as we reached the summit of Table Mountain. But the spectacle in those examples was obvious. What I want you to understand is that the joy is not limited to selected occasions. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this holy land from the hands of the infidels.
Let me start with my expectations about the hike. I get most of my ideas for hikes from books and maps. This particular trail leads up one of the many canyons exiting from the Book Cliffs. It was said to encounter a thirty-foot dry waterfall where ropes have been installed to aid in climbing. Somewhere beyond the waterfall, the trail would hook back to the south to climb sloping rock layers to the crest of the Book Cliffs, where I anticipated wide-ranging views. As usual, I looked forward to the experience of having maps and words transform themselves into my own experiences and memories. Also, as usual, I assumed that a number of surprises would turn up along the way.
Getting to the trail requires a drive across the desert north of Fruita, Colorado. The last few miles call for slow and careful driving, the dirt road being badly rutted and studded with rocks. As I moved closer to the Book Cliffs, the terrain became hillier. I looked forward to parking our van and getting out to walk. Sometimes, if I’ve driven a longer distance, the sense of release on getting out and walking is even greater. I grow restless being in the vehicle, viewing my surroundings through the windshield. I long to get deeper into the desert, mountains, woods, or whatever. On this day, as soon as I put on my pack and started walking, I was in the presence of sagebrush, greasewood, and other vegetation. Birds flitted away. I inspected the lay of the land and started down a ravine that led to Lipan Wash. But the ravine was choked with boulders, so I chose an animal trail on the slope of the ravine. So far, there was nothing of special interest, but it was better than being in the van.
What happened next happens every time I leave the vehicle and start walking: an upwelling of sensations—of sounds and smells and textures—even of sights. I had seen things from the vehicle, but now I was among them and closer to them. Laurie and I have often had the experience of stopping along a road to look at wildflowers. I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at windshield botanizing, and we stop when I see something interesting or when the number or diversity of flowers becomes compelling. It never fails, on those occasions, that we find a great number of species while walking that we hadn’t seen from the vehicle. (If I had better notes or a better memory, I could quantify the increase in perception between vehicle and footpath.)
Lipan Wash, when I reached it, was dry, and it wound through foothills below the Book Cliffs. I followed it upstream, enjoying the changing scenery as I walked. The wash followed a winding course. Sometimes, there were views out of it to nearby hills or to the Book Cliffs rising to the north. Other times, the walls closed in. In places, they were shaly and almost black. Some people are good at sitting still on a clifftop, say, or beside a creek, and they wait for and watch whatever comes their way. I’m not good at that. I’m too restless. I want the scenery to change and would rather meet whatever comes along than wait for it. But I like the pace of walking because it not only allows the scenery to change, but does so slowly enough that I don’t miss much. Underfoot, where the clay of Lipan Wash was dry and hard like concrete, I discovered multitudes of tiny craters left behind by raindrops that had splashed onto the clay during some summer rainstorm. The clay was fairly much moon-colored, and the little craters reminded me of nothing so much as photographs of the surface of the moon. There were ATV, dirt bike, and perhaps mountain bike tracks in the wash, and I wondered if any of those people had noticed the little craters.
When the canyon deepened significantly after I passed the face of the Book Cliffs, the scenery continued changing. The canyon walls were higher now, formed of multiple layers of tan and beige rock interlayered with stony slopes, and the layers—as always with the Book Cliffs—were tilted upward from north to south—in other words, upwards behind me. Views up and down the canyon changed as I walked, and there continued to be details to watch for and pay attention to. In places, overhanging ledges that I walked beside were intricately eroded into miniature alcoves and windows.
As on many hikes, there were also disappointments. I had already noticed that the air was hazy, so the views from the top of the cliffs might be disappointing. In addition, the constant tracks of vehicles in the wash diminished the sense of wildness by reminding me of the noise of machines.
The gorge narrowed immediately below the waterfall, which descended in two tiers of polished grooves worn into the rock. The rope was there, as promised. I gave it a half-hearted try and retreated in order to follow a bypass trail that climbed past the falls. Views into the gorge below the falls were fairly impressive. Above the falls, the wash narrowed and became brushier.
Eventually, the trail left the wash to the right and made a winding climb out of the canyon. The trail conformed to curves made by bikers—graceful, but telling of the movement of machines rather than people on foot. The trail climbed through a forest of junipers and a few pinyon pines, and I soon noticed that many of the junipers were truly impressive. They were old trees, large for junipers, and they possessed character and dignity. They were also close together, and I loved the way the trail wound among them. Like the little raindrop craters, this was another of the hike’s unexpected pleasures. I did, however, think of dirt bikes coming up or down the trail, shattering the silence that the trees seemed to deserve.
The trail soon adopted the general slope of the rock layers and climbed at a steady grade until it arrived at a jeep road along the crest of the book cliffs. Here were the views that I anticipated. The air was indeed hazy, and I noticed a thicker bank of haze or fog at the foot of the San Juan Mountains, a hundred miles to the southeast. I followed the jeep road east until it climbed to a high point, and then turned around and walked west until the road ended. Along the way in both directions, I checked out various viewpoints. Despite the hazy air, the view of the Grand Valley was impressive. It seemed vast. My location was, in fact, near the northernmost point of a big sweeping curve made by the Book Cliffs, so that my views followed the Grand Valley southeast toward the San Juans and southwest into Utah. The Uncompahgre Plateau rose across the valley, and—still farther away—the tops of the La Sal Mountains were visible in Utah. Both left and right, the layered and indented face of the Book Cliffs swept away from me, with red color here and there brightening the beiges and tans.
Once, where I left the jeep road to climb to a high point, I couldn’t help but notice the way dirt bikers had ridden to the high point. Where the jeep road ended to the west, additional vehicle tracks extended in various directions. It seemed as if the drivers or riders couldn’t bear the thought of parking their vehicles and walking. It seemed pathetic. Was it too painful to walk? Too humiliating?
On my way back down the trail, scrutinizing the complicated topography behind the Book Cliffs, I was startled by two mountain bikers coming down the trail behind me. They were nice people, as mountain bikers almost always are. Even ATVers and dirt bikers are nice people. I hate their machines, but, even when I expect to dislike the riders, I never do. A few minutes later, down in Lipan Wash, I met the mountain bikers again. One of them had bent some part of his bicycle’s gears. In trying to straighten it, he needed a tool that was “long and skinny” to poke through the spokes, and I loaned him my walking stick. I don’t think it was actually helpful, but I rather liked the symbolism of using a walking stick to repair a bicycle.
I’ve watched mountain bikers and tried to envy what they’re doing, but I can’t do it. I don’t have to load and unload bikes from a rack on my car. I certainly don’t need the trailers that many people use to tow their ATVs and dirt bikes. I hardly need special equipment at all. I hoist my pack on my back, grab my camera and walking stick, lock the van, and I’m on my way. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession. Once in motion, it’s true that I have to watch where I’m walking, but mountain bikers move faster than I do. It appears to me that they need to pay too much attention to where they’re going and too little to ancient junipers or the marks of raindrops preserved in hardened clay. As for the motorized machines, their noise alone is enough to repel me. The only use of one that I can remotely imagine is to ride along a bad road in order to get to a place where I can leave the racket behind and go for a walk.
I fear that walking is disappearing as a human activity. The pleasure of walking is too deeply ingrained in my psyche for anything to discourage me from doing it, but sometimes I feel like an eccentric old man. No one else seems to be walking like I do. If I meet other people, most of them are mountain biking, horseback riding, or running. If they’re walking, they have a dog with them. I sometimes think that, if it weren’t for dogs, nobody would walk.
Before 1800, says Rebecca Solnit in her fascinating book, Wanderlust, only paupers walked in public. “Travel itself was enormously difficult until the late eighteenth century in England. The roads were atrocious and plagued by highwaymen and their pedestrian equivalents, footpads” [Solnit 2000: 83]. People who lived in castles, palaces, or mansions sometimes walked indoors for exercise. As early as the sixteenth century, “galleries—long narrow rooms like corridors, though often leading nowhere” , were a part of residential design. Gardens were also walked in for exercise, and Solnit notes that “some kind of pleasure must have accrued there” . Out in public, however, only necessity compelled people to walk. A vital precursor to walking for pleasure was the development of painting and poetry with nature or landscape as the subject matter. “Until the surroundings became important, the walk was just movement, not experience” . The English poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were among the first to walk on roads, fells, and byways for pleasure. When English people were forced to do more of their traveling at home during the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, they “traveled by coach, then train.... And when they arrived, they walked. Originally, the walking seems to have been incidental, part of the process of moving around to find the best view. But by the turn of the century walking was a central part of some touristic ventures, and walking tours and mountain climbing were coming into being” . People had always walked, says Solnit, but walking now became a noun. For the first time, people “took a walk” or “went for a walk” .
There followed what Solnit acknowledges as a “golden age” of walking, lasting from the late eighteenth century to about 1970. Guidebooks were published, and “[s]ome of them—notably the work of the clergyman William Gilpin—also [told] how to see…. A taste for landscape was a sign of refinement, and those wishing to become refined took instruction in landscape connoisseurship” . Solnit thinks the golden age peaked around the turn of the twentieth century, when “North Americans and Europeans were as likely to make a date for a walk as for a drink or a meal, and walking clubs were flourishing” .
When Laurie and I first became seriously interested in hiking in the late 1960s, I remember reassuring myself that it was something we genuinely enjoyed doing. The possibility had occurred to me that we were simply following a fad, and I wanted to be sure that our interest ran deeper than that. Now, when I think back on those times, it’s hard to believe we ever thought of walking as a fad. Solnit writes: “Perhaps 1970, when the U.S. Census showed that the majority of Americans were—for the first time in the history of any nation—suburban, is a good date for the golden age’s tombstone. Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination” [249-50].
In his book aptly titled Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv  laments the fact that young people these days watch television or play video games instead of walking or playing in the woods or other wild places. There are many reasons for this.
Schools seldom take kids on field trips to natural areas or offer courses about local flora and fauna. In the words of one educator interviewed by Louv: “Even in the sciences, where nature could play such an important role, the students study nature in a dry, mechanized way. How does the bat sonar work, how does a tree grow, how do soil amenities help crops grow? Kids see nature as a lab experiment” . Students learn about the environment, but more often about threats to the rain forest than about anything local and nearby. One educator says “nature has disappeared from the classroom, except for discussions of environmental catastrophe” . In theory, Louv says, students will learn that “they can help save the planet” and will “grow up to be responsible stewards of the earth” . But it’s also possible that, just as children who are abused physically or sexually may turn off emotionally in order to protect themselves, children depressed by information about environmental damage might do the same thing. “My fear,” says the educator, “is that our environmentally correct curriculum ends up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world’” [133-34].
Meanwhile, summer camps have evolved from places “where you camped, hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountain lions” to places that that nowadays are just as likely to be “a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp” . Organizations like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, faced with rising concerns about liability and desiring to be “relevant” and “up-to-date,” devote proportionately less attention to nature-related programs. Girl Scouts in Louv’s hometown offer programs on tolerance, tobacco prevention, golf, self-defense, and financial literacy . Even parks increasingly have rules against camping, fishing, and other activities that might attract young people. Columbia, Missouri, where Laurie and I lived for three years, maintains several parks that are essentially woodlands left wild, but most city and suburban parklands are devoted to manicured lawns and picnic areas or playfields for organized sports. That’s certainly true in our current hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado. Louv cites research showing that children, “when left to their own devices,” frequently choose the rougher edges of such parks for self-directed play .
“Ordinarily,” says Louv, “the first physical entry point into nature is the backyard; next come adjacent natural areas, if we’re lucky enough to live near them” . When I was a kid growing up in northwest Indiana, I walked north on a lightly traveled road and then across fields, through woods, and along the banks of Salt Creek. There were paths there that I followed and that other local kids also utilized. Who created those paths and who, besides us, kept them open, I have no idea. But, a few years ago, I went back there after an absence of forty years, and those paths weren’t there any more. In the little town of Sweet Springs, Missouri, where my mother used to live, I once walked behind Wilbur and Katy Scott’s farm implement store to explore Davis Creek, which flows past the town. I thought I’d find paths there, kept open by the town’s young folks, but there were no paths. It was a lovely place—a potential asset for the little town—but it seemed that no one went there. Louv: “[M]any parents who live next to woods, fields, canyons, and creeks say their children never play in those areas—either because of the parents’ or child’s fear of strangers, or because the kids are just not interested” .
“My unscientific hunch,” says Louv, “is that since 1980, fear of strangers—and beyond that a generalized, unfocused fear—has come to outrank the fear of traffic” . He quotes parents. One says: “Guns and drugs are the reasons that we say no to things that our kids would probably like to do. There are a lot of lunatics out there” . Another: “Both of my kids have heard my preaching that the world is full of crazy people. And it is. There’s nuts running loose” . It’s true, of course, that the fears are exaggerated. Louv: “In Los Angeles, coverage of violence overwhelmingly outstrips the incidents of violent crime—by a factor of as much as 30 to 1 in the case of murder” . One exceptional woman whose children play in a canyon behind their house laughs about her fearful neighbors. “I haven’t seen a snake down there in twelve years,” she tells Louv, “but custodians kill them over at the middle school playground regularly” . She goes on to relate a time when her youngest son stepped on a rusty nail, necessitating a trip to the emergency room and a tetanus shot. “But other than that,” she says, “my kids’ injuries and their friends’ injuries have occurred playing organized sports” . Louv notes that the Environmental Protection Agency ranks indoor air pollution as a serious threat to health and that indoor play, along with fast food, is a factor contributing to an epidemic of childhood obesity. “So where is the greatest danger?” he asks. “Outdoors, in the fields and woods? Or on the couch in front of the TV?” . Unfortunately, of course, the dangers, though exaggerated, are nonetheless real, and I would have a hard time telling a parent, “Oh, don’t worry about it!”
Additional obstacles in the way of children’s access to wild places include property owners’ fears of liability—Luov says it “ranks right behind the bogeyman” —and the failure of parents to serve as role models. When parents neither enjoy time spent in wild nature nor demonstrate an appreciation of such activity, there’s little reason to expect that their children will. As for changes over time in the significance of property owners’ liability, it occurs to me that I don’t even know who owned the property where we walked when we were kids.
What do children lose when they lack contact with wild nature? Researchers have found that children with play areas dominated by “natural settings” as opposed to “play structures” demonstrate higher levels of language skills, creativity, and inventiveness . By contrast, play areas with play structures are more likely to reward physical prowess. Such findings could be interpreted in two different ways: Either natural play areas encourage creativity, or children who are already creative choose natural play areas. Either way, as Louv notes, there’s a good argument for the provision of such areas. Other research reported by Louv indicates that children with more access to nature near their homes are less likely to suffer from behavioral conduct disorders, anxiety, and depression, and were also likely to score higher on measures of self-worth . In another study, parents or guardians of children with attention disorders reported that outdoor activities tended to relieve their children’s symptoms, and that settings “with trees and grass” were especially helpful [104-05]. By contrast, indoor spaces or outdoor ones “devoid of greenery” left their children worse off. “By this line of thinking,” Louv concludes, “many children may benefit from medication, but the real disorder is less in the child than it is in the imposed, artificial environment” .
Young people participating in wilderness immersion programs along the lines of Outward Bound have reported to researchers that “just being in nature was more restorative than the physically challenging activities, such as rock climbing, for which such programs are mainly known” . Evidently, “just being in nature” promotes “involuntary attention,” or “fascination,” as opposed to “directed attention,” which activities such as rock climbing require . Directed attention can produce “directed-attention fatigue,” which is “marked by impulsive behavior, agitation, irritation, and inability to concentrate” . Louv recalls that school programs in the arts have been shown to stimulate the learning of math and science, and wonders if it wouldn’t prove equally true that “nature education stimulates cognitive learning and reduces attention deficits” .
Of course, it’s not just children who fail to walk in wild nature. “Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail,” writes Bill Bryson, he and his companion “walked farther than the average American walks in a week…. On average the total walking of an American these days—that’s walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls—adds up to 1.4 miles a week, barely 350 yards a day” [Bryson 1998: 128]. Bryson says he knows a man who drives six hundred yards to work and “a woman who gets in her car to go a quarter of a mile to a college gymnasium to walk on a treadmill, then complains passionately about the difficulty of finding a parking space” . The energy expended in gyms instead of out on the trails is one of the hardest things for me to understand. Laurie tries to explain it to me, but I still don’t get it. For the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours, but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.
Rebecca Solnit compares the use of gymnasium equipment to rowing, pumping water, or lifting bales, and wonders:
What exactly is the transformation in which machines now pump our water but we go to other machines to engage in the act of pumping, not for the sake of water, but for the sake of our bodies, bodies theoretically liberated by machine technology? … The body that used to have the status of a work animal now has the status of a pet: it does not provide real transport, as a horse might have; instead, the body is exercised as one might walk a dog .Observing that prison treadmills used to produce power, but the new ones consume it by having two-horsepower engines, Solnit muses:
Once, a person might have hitched two horses to a carriage to go out into the world without walking; now she might plug in a two-horsepower motor to walk without going out into the world .
Even aside from those adults who avoid the natural world because they simply have no interest in it, many others remain too attached to their vehicles. The jeep, ATV, and dirt bike tracks on my hike, climbing to the highest viewpoints and pushing farther into the woods from the end of road, bespoke people who were reluctant to give up the vehicle. Indeed, “reluctant” is too mild a word. They seemed determined to never do it—in perfect contrast to the relief I often feel when I can finally park the vehicle and begin walking. I guess there’s a challenge that some people love in getting a vehicle to attain remarkable places. We once encountered two young men with 4x4 pickups, one of which, with roaring engine, was trying to scale a rock ledge a few feet high. When the second young man walked over to meet us, I’m afraid I was disrespectful by asking, “Is there a point to that?” “Yes,” he replied brightly (undeterred by my disrespect). “It’s a challenge!” I resisted the impulse to walk up the ledge and demonstrate that it was no challenge at all.
I realize that machines can enable people with physical handicaps to see things and get to places that would otherwise be denied to them. I recently encountered a husband and wife on motorcycles in one of our local canyons, and, in talking with them, came to understand that both of them had knee problems. The husband was obviously a lover of the machines themselves, but his wife said at one point, “I hate these things,” and I’m pretty sure she meant the motorcycles. She had acquired one reluctantly (much to the delight of her husband) simply because she was tired of not being able to see the places that her husband was able to get to. I can sympathize with stories like that and would have a hard time demanding no motorized access anywhere. What burns me up is the insistence on motorized access “for the sake of people with handicaps” when you know bloody well that most people who want the access don’t need it for that reason. I’d be happy to tolerate use of the machines by people who need them if I could be relieved of the noise and the assault on the land perpetrated by those who don’t.
As annoying as the “off-road” machines can be, the automobile is probably the most common prison. Once upon a time, while traveling from Evergreen to Boulder, Colorado, with Laurie’s mother, we decided to drive through Rocky Mountain National Park, thinking Laurie’s mom might enjoy the ride. As it turned out, I don’t think it was much of a highlight for her, and it was positively depressing for me. Along Trail Ridge Road, many of the wildflowers had faded, and the weather was uncertain at best. Thunder rumbled and streaks of lightning were visible when we stopped near the road’s highest point. But the weather wasn’t the only problem. A Park Service exhibit pleaded with visitors to refrain from feeding the wildlife and showed pictures of an unhealthy coyote and of trash removed from the stomach of a deer. I had already been looking at the tundra as we drove and wishing I could be walking instead of driving. The exhibit reminded me of the level to which natural history interpretation fell when the parks had to deal with the clientele they got. Instead of edifying people anxious to learn about the natural world, the Park Service struggled to make them behave. More than that, I was depressed by the traffic, the cars and campers parked at the overlooks, the families snapping pictures, and the golden-mantled ground squirrels and Clark’s nutcrackers. Driving through a park like this, stopping with crowds of people at the overlooks, watching the panhandling wildlife, and passing up the hiking trails felt like being subjects in a sensory-deprivation experiment. It reminded me of Edward Abbey’s comment about writing for National Geographic: it was like jerking off with your ski mitts on [Abbey 1994: 316]. What really depressed me was the thought that such an impoverished experience was all that many travelers ever had. I thought of William Saroyan’s comment about a motor trip in Michigan: that he was mostly in his car and “only incidentally in Michigan” [Jakle 1985: 191].
John Daniel, writing about the limits of sightseeing, tells of a trip with his mother and aunt by sightseeing bus in Yosemite. A man in front of them kept saying, “Look at that. Isn’t that a sight. Isn’t that a sight.” But, says Daniel, the man said it “listlessly, like a recorded message” [Daniel 1994: 37]. Daniel reflects that, years earlier, when he had climbed the rocks they were now looking at, the rocks weren’t “sights” but “presences” . Daniel compares sightseers to television viewers, who “give up the active movements of awareness—glancing around, comparing, looking long or only briefly—to the autocratic screen, reducing themselves to mere absorbers of the presented image” . In viewing a wild landscape, the sightseer misses “the unframed sensory texture of the thing itself—the scale of the trees, the pervasive stillness and the filtered ambient light, the dank smells of moss under their feet. They will miss the varying rhythms of their walking and the unconstrained movements of awareness in such a place” . With Edward Abbey, Daniel says tourists need to get out of their cars: “We must take the time to enter the natural world, to engage it, not just run our eyes along its surfaces but to place ourselves among its things and weathers—to let it exert, at least for intervals in our lives, the ancient influences that once surrounded us and informed us” [44-45].
Daniel wants people to perceive nature “as a living system of which our human lives are part, on which our lives and all lives depend, and which places strict limits upon us even as it sustains us” . He tells of learning from rattlesnakes that “the natural world did not exist entirely for my comfort and pleasure,” from thirst that water sets limits on the possibility of life, and from old-growth forests that healthy natural communities conserve and recycle their nutrients . All of that sounds good, but I don’t find Daniel’s examples as persuasive as the rest of his essay. I want, as much as he does, to believe there’s a connection between walking in wild nature and becoming a committed ecologist, but I fear that the connection is considerably more complicated and tenuous than Daniel indicates. I can’t imagine any of us very often drawing ecological lessons so directly from our natural history experiences. On the other hand, I certainly do believe that walking in wild nature—in contrast to windshield sightseeing and mechanized recreation—creates at least a possibility that “ancient influences” will “surround us” and “influence us.”
A major barrier to such influences is the frenzied quality of many people’s everyday lives, which compels them to use nature for solace or relief rather than inspiration. With only precious weekends to get out on the trails, people race their machines or push their own bodies to the limit as if releasing pent-up frustration. By the time they’ve let off enough steam to be able to let something come in, it’s time to go home and get ready for another work week. I struggle to be tolerant of the hikers, runners, skiers, mountain bikers, and others who remind me of John Ruskin’s mountaineers, of whom he said they were always doing things instead of letting beauty come to them [Noyce 1959: 216]. Just as Ruskin wanted people to “rid themselves of the habit of regarding mountains chiefly as places for gymnastic exercise” , I want them to slow down and pay attention. I want the world around them to be more important to them than their own bodies and what they’re capable of doing. But, of course, I’m not them, so I don’t really know what they’re getting out of their experiences. In reference to skiing, our nephew Matt once assured me that he and his friends often pause simply to enjoy the scenery, and I can appreciate that someone running for exercise might rather do it in a beautiful natural setting than on a cinder track or a city street. They might be absorbing as much from their surroundings as I am, although I find that hard to believe. In any case, I know their approach doesn’t work for me. I gave up cross-country skiing many years ago because the challenge of staying upright distracted too much of my attention from the glory of the winter woods around me.
Laurie and I don’t have children, so I don’t worry about our own kids’ involvement in nature. I read books like Last Child in the Woods because I want young people in general to care about nature and wildness and the environment when they grow up. What is it that might get more kids back into the woods?
One thing that Louv makes it clear they need is adult role models: “The most effective way to connect our children to nature is to connect ourselves to nature…. If children sense genuine adult enthusiasm, they’ll want to emulate that interest—even if, when they’re teenagers, they pretend to lose it” [Louv 2005: 164]. He tells about walking with another man and their respective children. “What impressed me most about Jerry Schad was not his formidable knowledge but his infectious enthusiasm” . Louv also recommends reading about nature with your children (for “environmental educators and activists repeatedly mention nature books as important childhood influences” ) and letting them show you their special places. If a child hasn’t discovered such places, he suggests “form[ing] a joint expedition into the small unknowns—not a forced march, but a mutual adventure” . Louv reports taking his own sons “on hikes in the Cuyamaca mountain forests or the Anza-Borrego desert, and let[ting] them run ahead while I purposefully remained just at the edge of sight and sound” .
Parks with more natural areas, and perhaps also with some relaxation of the rules, would be another asset. My first thought in regard to children playing in the wild areas of parks, even in parks that are close to town, was that Laurie and I have rarely seen that happening. Oh, there have been a few exceptions—one that I remember being a kid that I met who wanted to show me his “secret place.” And did. But, overall, I realize that we might not see kids at play in wild parks simply because they don’t do it along the trails that we walk. More likely they do it away from areas of significant public use and, perhaps most likely, on edges of the park closest to their homes. I have wondered, in fact, if the worst rule for the sake of children’s play in natural settings isn’t the one that says “Stay on the Trail.”
Schools could do more to teach kids about their local environment, and to take them on field trips and involve them in outdoor research. Louv says a lot about such possibilities, and tells of teachers and students creating their own nature preserves adjacent to their schools. All of that seems like a good idea to me. We certainly didn’t have things like that when I was in school. And, given my predilections as a child, I would have been immensely interested. How I would have loved to learn about the beach ridges left behind following the ice ages around the southern tip of Lake Michigan! One of them accounted for the sand hills where we used to play, but I never knew that. Imagine being taken on a field trip to the dunes and being shown how Professor Cowles of the University of Chicago developed the idea of plant succession there! And why did I have to live forty more years before learning of the remarkable plant diversity in the Indiana dunes, including representatives—which we could have gone and looked at—of northern, southern, eastern, and western plant species?
I do worry a little, though, that school programs, even ones focused on the local environment, can impose too much structure. We’ve already seen that too much “directed attention” can have negative results. I suspect that kids need time on their own in wild places. They need to be “fascinated,” and to follow their fascination. Moreover, I suspect that some of their exploring needs to be done alone. I know that I valued time by myself along Salt Creek just as much as I did the time that I spent with my friends. Louv includes two poignant quotes in his book: A twenty-year-old says, “It was when I was by myself that the environment meant the most to me. Nature was the one place where, when everything in my life was going bad, I could go and not have to deal with anyone else” [Louv 2005: 50]. And a man whose father was killed in an auto accident when he was fourteen says: “I would find solace by walking by myself to an area of coast oak woodland” . Unfortunately, in these fearful years in which we now live, I can’t imagine parents letting children play alone in a wild place, but my own memories tell me what some of those kids are missing.
I suspect also that there might be great value in helping to link kids’ free exploration and “fascination” with the structured learning that they do in school. I know I would have benefited from that. I was sufficiently interested in wild stuff to have made a leaf collection, and to learn the names of the trees, even though I don’t think that was ever a school assignment. I also have a hazy memory of wandering off the school grounds at Crisman Elementary, into an area of sand hills and oak woods, and being late to class after recess. Knowing me, that must have been mortifying. I have no memory (may have repressed it) of what transpired between me and my teacher, but it’s a hundred percent certain that she didn’t say: “That’s wonderful. Such an experience in a place like that is an important part of your childhood.” As far as I know, schools are no better now than they were in my day at making connections between students’ personal encounters with nature and the larger lessons that science—and the arts and humanities—could teach. We don’t learn how to make those connections as kids, and we don’t know how make them as adults. Consequently, science remains a distant abstraction that doesn’t seem relevant in our everyday lives, and I’m afraid that nature seems the same way.
One day in Ithaca, New York, on a noontime walk shortly before I retired from the faculty of Cornell University, I made a bushwhacking climb out of the gorge of Cascadilla Creek. It was during a week when many parents were on campus, and, when I emerged on Hoy Road, I had a vision of some of the parents seeing me. If I had introduced myself as a faculty member and told them what I had been doing, it was a hundred percent certain that they wouldn’t say, “That’s wonderful. Such an experience in a place like that is an important part of your adulthood.”
I also have some reservations about gardens and pets, which Louv mentions in connection with getting kids closer to nature. He specifically cites the evidence that gardening and pet therapy are helpful for both children and the elderly in reducing illness, speeding up recovery, and lowering stress [44-46]. I have no doubt about the joys and the benefits of both gardens and pets, but I sometimes wonder what children—or anyone—learns from them. Neither gardens nor pets are the same as wild nature—they’re not “self-willed”—and, consequently, caring for them seems as likely to teach lessons about control as it does about respect and accommodation. The same can be true, I’m afraid, of science. Science can certainly be an outlet for curiosity and a source of wonder, but, ever since the days of Francis Bacon, it has also been a primary mechanism in the human effort to control nature. I would like for the principal lesson from renewed contact with wild nature to be that control is neither possible nor necessary, but I'm skeptical that pets, gardens, or science will be very good teachers of that.
One more thing that troubles me is the obvious need for many kids not just to play, but to play actively, in wild areas—to build dams, chop down trees, and to test themselves in various ways. “Being daredevils,” as Laurie calls it. I imagine that most kids would be bored on a hike with me, simply walking, looking, listening, and being as receptive as I can to whatever comes along. I remember building dams, and roads and tunnels in the sand. I climbed trees, and put fireflies and tadpoles in jars. I remember putting out a fire one time that some of us found smoldering through a woodland. I also remember worrying about the fireflies and tadpoles—thinking about how I’d feel trapped in a jar—and letting them go. I knew that other kids fished, but I didn’t want to. On at least one occasion, my dad took me along when he went hunting, but my heart was with the rabbits.
It seems to me that some kids never get past the damming and chopping down—the need to impose themselves on nature. In my case, what I think I retained from the damming, road-building, and fire-fighting was not the desire to dominate, but the texture, the feeling, the intimacy with natural materials (rocks, water, sand, and critters) that we enjoyed then, but lack when we simply look, and tend to lose as we grow up. Some kids give up all interest in nature as they grow older. Their tone is captured in the comments of a ninth grader cited by Louv who says that, on a family vacation, he was initially impressed by the beauty and majesty of the Grand Canyon. “But after seeing the canyon from several different vantage points, I was ready to leave. Although the canyon was magnificent, I felt that I was not part of it—and without being part of it, it seemed little more than a giant hole in the ground” [Louv 2005: 68]. But, later on the same trip, the family visited Walnut Canyon, and the boy described the path, a rainstorm, and Indian caves where they sought shelter and discussed the ancient people who once lived there. “I finally felt that I was part of nature,” he concluded . What I hear in this story is the development of a connection with nature that’s deeper than sightseeing, but different from the aggressiveness and control-orientation of chopping and damming. The critical difference, it seems to me, is that the boy’s family went for a walk.
Our nephew Matt visited recently, and one day he and I walked to a coffeehouse about a mile away. When we headed down a path through the badlands behind our apartments, Matt commented that Laurie and I are like kids in the way we use networks of informal paths through the neighborhood. I regarded that as a compliment. We may be eccentric by some standards, but I will never change, nor do a feel a need to apologize. Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. If children get better access to wild areas, I want to be able to go there, too. If a nature preserve is created at a local school, I’d like to be free to walk its trails. If liability laws are changed so that private landowners allow children to use their land, I’d like to be able to go there, too. Richard Louv says kids need adult role models who enjoy walking, or playing, in wild nature. Well, here I am! I volunteer! I will happily enjoy a wild area and, in the process, demonstrate to kids that adults can do what we’d like them to do. The problem is, of course, that their parents will probably call the police, thinking I’m a sexual pervert or child abductor. To be honest, that almost happened one time. We were visiting friends in Round Rock, Texas, and one day Jacky suggested that I might like to walk down the street to a strip of parkland along a creek in their neighborhood. I had just acquired a new camera and was anxious to try it out, so I had a good time poking along the creek looking for things to photograph. On my way back to the street, I met a man who asked if I was birdwatching. I said, “No, I have a new camera that I’m learning to use.” We talked a bit, and it turned out that he was the president of the local homeowners association, and someone had called him to report a strange man walking in the woods behind their house. I said I was visiting people who lived in the neighborhood and thought it was okay to walk there. He said, “What you’re doing is fine. That’s what the park is for,” and then added: “It’s a sad commentary on our times.”
It is a sad commentary. It’s sad that people are so fearful, and it’s sad that there are reasons to be fearful. It’s also sad that the sight of a man walking in a woods in search of rocks, water, and juniper trees to photograph is so uncommon that it raises flags. While almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society, few are attracted strongly to nature. In their relation to nature men appear to me lower than the animals. It is not often a beautiful relation, as in the case of the animals.
Sometimes I think of things that could be done to encourage walking— such as a new trail, better guidebooks, or sidewalks away from the traffic in town—but then I think, no, it’s not worth it because not enough people are interested. I guess I’ve been influenced by those arguments against wilderness protection that say it’s “elitist” to close an area to everything but walking. As if the simple act of putting one foot in front of another was elitist! But, on some of those occasions, I keep on thinking, and it occurs to me that walking should be a privileged activity, and one deserving active encouragement even if it’s not popular. The mountain bikers, equestrians, and especially the mechanized recreators, who sometimes annoy me, will say it’s a free country and demand equal rights. I try to be tolerant and not to feel self-righteous. But two persistent facts remain true. The first is that our bubbles are not all the same size. I have this idea that each of us is surrounded by a bubble representing the area around us that we affect in terms of other people’s awareness of our presence. When I’m walking, I have a bigger bubble than a person who’s sitting still. But put me and a dirt biker in the same area, and the noise of his machine will leave no doubt that he’s there, while he may not be aware of my presence at all. If challenged, he might claim that we have equal rights to do what we want to do. I feel that way, too, sometimes, and tell myself that I have no right to resent his presence. But the two of us certainly don’t have equal effects on one another. The other persistent fact is that our society has an obesity problem, and walking is repeatedly said to be good exercise. Whenever the ugly thought percolates in my mind that ATV’ers ought to get off their butts and walk, well, there’s some truth to it. So, to be honest, yes, I do feel a bit self-righteous.
But I don’t walk for exercise, nor do I walk for virtuous reasons like conserving fossil fuels or reducing pollution. Those are useful by-products, but I walk simply because I like to walk. Indeed, I’m sometimes struck by the thought that walking in wild nature is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve noticed that, whenever I do it, it never seems like a waste of time. (Unlike, for example, watching a basketball game on TV.) It never feels like I should have been doing something else, or that I could have made better use of my time. This idea frequently occurred to me during our last few months in Missouri before we moved to Grand Junction. We were living there to be close to my mother during her last few years, and, in many respects, they were not happy times. But Missouri was wonderful. Its woods, parks, prairies, cliffs, caves, national forests, natural bridges, and wildflowers sustained us. After my mother died and we made our decision to leave, I often found myself feeling half-guilty, as if I were being disloyal to Missouri which had been so good to us. It felt as if I had a responsibility to stay there and continue to explore its wild places and to learn from them.
The painter Walter Anderson (1903-1965) had a similar idea. Anderson lived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and periodically rowed a dinky rowboat sixteen miles into the Gulf of Mexico to Horn Island where he spent many days painting the island’s plants and wildlife. To be sure, Anderson was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but it seems to me that, if he was mad, he was mad only in the way that many people have a hard time staying sane in a mad world. Anderson kept a log book, which reads as well as his paintings look. “Why does man live?” Anderson once wrote, and he answered: “To be the servant and slave of all the elements” [Sugg 1985: 28]. According to his biographer, Redding S. Sugg, Jr.: “The service which [Anderson] thought nature chiefly required of him was to help nature ‘realize’ itself. Nature, as he remarked in the log attributed to January 1961, ‘is only too glad to have assistance in establishing order’; she will reward the disciplined and attentive eye with ‘materializations.’ As Anderson saw it, the order in nature was merely potential unless realized by [human] powers of perception and observation” , and, at least in Anderson’s case, transformed into a painting or drawing. “One hates waste,” wrote Anderson, “and to have that life and that beauty—that explosion of order—go to nothing is becoming difficult to allow. Nature itself is blamed for the waste—not so—it is man’s relation to nature that is to blame” .
I have mentioned my observation that time spent in wild nature never seems wasted to a few other people. And, despite differences among those people, and differences between them and me, I’ve been surprised to hear them say they’ve had the same feeling.
We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. Laurie and I had driven out toward the Book Cliffs, having made the plan earlier in the day, when it was sunny. It had already become a major frustration that, on certain evenings, the light would become spectacular on the Book Cliffs, but we were in town, and there was no way to get near the cliffs before the light faded at sundown. I would look at the cliffs and curse the circumstances that made me watch them from town instead of being out there, in their presence. On this particular day, clouds invaded in the late afternoon, and sunlight disappeared, but we could see a zone of clear sky far to the west. By the time we approached the ATV- and dirt-bike-assaulted BLM land that lies between the city and the cliffs, sunshine was already lighting up cliffs to the west. The light was very dramatic, with gray sky behind the cliffs, and it was moving rapidly eastward to cliffs closer to us. We drove far enough to get fences, vehicles, and the worst of the battered landscape out of the foreground and stopped quickly, fearing that the light wouldn’t last. I snapped a few photographs and then walked farther east, continuing to photograph the escarpment straight north, the sidelighted cliffs back to the west, and views eastward, where the cliffs evolved into a more regular line of palisades. Far to the east, I could see that Mount Garfield was sunlit, as well as Grand Mesa, but only the tops of them were visible. The light faded from the cliffs to the north and the west, and then from Garfield and Grand Mesa. But then it returned.
Now I started running toward higher hilltops to the east, hoping for a clearer view of Garfield and trusting that the sunlight would reach it. I was following one of many vehicle tracks that crisscross the hills, all the while listening to the revving, roaring, and blatting of dirt bikes closer to the city to the south. I did indeed get a clear view of Garfield and Grand Mesa and good light for photographs. Then, as I walked back to the road, the light around me turned increasingly orange and then pink. Sunlit clouds radiated upward from the cliffs to the north, and others did so more dramatically above the Uncompahgre Plateau to the south.
So we saunter toward the holy land till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, so warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.
Some readers may have noticed that I’ve plagiarized not only Henry Thoreau’s title for this essay, but also several of his sentences. (I prefer to think I’ve co-authored the essay with Thoreau, but I suppose that’s too pretentious.) The sentences—all of them from the essay titled “Walking” —are italicized in the text.
Saddle between Main & Coal Canyons, Book Cliffs, CO 3/09
Raindrop impressions, Lipan Wash, Book Cliffs, CO 11/08
Book Cliffs above Lipan Wash, CO 11/08
Reflections of juniper trees in Lake Ck, Round Rock, TX 2/07
Evening light, Book Cliffs, CO 11/07
Abbey, Edward. Confessions of a Barbarian. David Peterson, ed. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994.
Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
Daniel, John. The Trail Home. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.
Jakle, John A. The Tourist. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2005.
Noyce, Wilfred. The Springs of Adventure. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1959.
Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust. New York: Viking, 2000.
Sugg, Redding S, Jr., ed. The Horn Island Logs of Walter Inglis Anderson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; or, Life in the Woods. New York: Dover Publications, 1995.
Thoueau, Henry David. “Walking.” 1862. http://thoreau.eserver.org/walking.html