Recently I sat down with a book that within a chapter or two had me reanalyzing that every opinion I hold about what nature is, what wilderness is and what we can, can't, should and shouldn't do to our planet. This book is "Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man" by Jason Mark.
To most conservationists, there's nothing more sacred than wilderness and no act more honorable than to preserve and protect it. But what exactly is wilderness? Is there a way to use it that is of benefit to both humans and the environment? Mark goes looking for answers, searching out any remnants of untouched wilderness, exploring the various sides of controversial projects that help or hinder the health of an ecosystem, unraveling this oddly complicated relationship we have with trying to micromanage wilderness in an effort to perpetuate it and celebrating wilderness's wily ability to escape even our most valiant efforts to contain it.
The book is a conversation. Readers sit down and listen as a friend narrates adventures and ideas, and there's plenty of room to pick up threads of ideas brought up in the book and run with them on your own. Even as you turn the final pages, the book feels like the beginning of a long and very necessary discussion.
And who better to elaborate on the discussion than the author himself? We talked with Mark about some of the most prevalent concepts in the book, and where a reader can pick up the trail in discovering wilderness for themselves.
MNN: To most of us, the world is a place where nothing has been left untouched by humans. From trails cut through forests to trash on the ocean floor, it's hard to believe there's anything called "wilderness" anymore. What is wilderness to you, and is there any left?
Jason Mark: Well, if you understand "wilderness" to mean untouched, then you're right, there's not much left. For the book, I traveled to some of the most rugged and remote places in America: I went river rafting through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I tracked Mexican gray wolves in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico and I explored the Badlands and the Black Hills in Lakota country — and I can tell you the human fingerprint is everywhere.
But if you understand "wilderness" to mean a place that's un-dominated — a place where the rest of life is basically allowed to run free — then, yes, there's a lot of wilderness still out there. That's what's so important to understand about wilderness today. It's not about whether something is pristine; we live in a post-pristine age. It's about whether something — an animal, a forest, a river, a desert — is allowed to remain autonomous from civilization's desires. I went into the etymology, and that's what wilderness means: "self-willed," uncontrolled.
You talk about the need of an Other that can be found in wildlife and wild landscapes, writing, "By opposing humans' instincts for control, wild things put our desires in perspective." What perspective is this, and do you see us as ever figuring out how to keep our need for control in check?
One of things I'm trying to do in the book is figure out where wildness fits in what some people are calling the "Anthropocene," or the Age of Man. The Anthropocene is this idea that we have left the epoch in which civilization evolved, the Holocene, and have entered a whole new epoch of geologic time.
The arrival of the Anthropocene would seem to make all of Earth into a human garden. Now, don't get me wrong, I love gardens as much as the next enviro. But I don't think we want every landscape to be shaped by and for us.
If that were to happen—well, I think we'd find ourselves in a hall of mirrors. We'd see our own human reflection everywhere we looked. So when I say we need the Other, what I mean is that wild animals and wild things help remind humans that it's not all about us.
The great biologist E.O. Wilson has said that instead of the Anthropocene, we should call this new age the "Eremozoic" — the age of loneliness. If we somehow abolish the wild, I'm afraid that might be true.
You mention the field of eco-psychology in the book. What exactly is eco-psychology?
Eco-psychology is a branch of psychology that examines how our relationship (or, for too many of us) our lack of relationship with wild nature affects us emotionally. In recent years there has been a raft of new research that confirms what many of us know in our bones — being outside in nature is good for us.
We know that hospital patients recover faster if they have a view of trees. We know that time outside improves children's attention spans and reduces their stress. A Washington, D.C., pediatrician has made walks outside a routine prescription for patients in his practice.
I've got a baby daughter, and I make it a priority to get her out to the woods or the seashore or the backyard vegetable garden as much as possible. I'm just trying to be a good dad and follow the best new science: being outside is essential for children.
In the book, you discuss quite a few fascinating stories that illustrate our confusion about what is wild and what isn't, what is necessary and what is lost forever. These stories underscore that finding a balance between "real life" and having the wilderness that we crave can be really tough and even divisive. In a world with billions of people who all want modern comforts and also (seemingly) untouched nature to enjoy, is there a way to have our cake and eat it too?
Well, I personally don't believe you can ever have your cake and eat it, too. Whenever anyone tells me that, I start sniffing the cake to make sure it's okay …
But seriously, as to your larger point … Yes, we need to "find a balance" between our daily appetites and our desire to not eat the whole world. In the book I quote the Potawatomi biologist and essayist Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of "Braiding Sweetgrass," who writes movingly about Indigenous views on wild nature. Robin points out that balance is not a passive act; balance takes effort and intention.
Similarly, I guess, finding a balance between our conservation values and our consumption instincts requires work. The irony of the whole thing is that if we really want to keep some places wild, we'll have to domesticate ourselves. We'll have to share space better with other critters, including carnivores. We'll have to shrink our environmental footprint. We'll probably have to have fewer babies and take the bus more … honestly, it might not be a piece of cake.
Aldo Leopold wrote, "All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish." What's your take on this idea?
Hmm. Well, Leopold is a hero of mine. But I'm not sure I agree on this one. I think there's a big difference between "cherish and fondling" a place and actually domesticating a landscape — that is, taming it. I mean, we don't want to keep wilderness under a glass, like a museum piece. We want to be able to touch the thing: After all, the wilderness is the world itself.
The more pertinent question is how not to overuse. How do you allow for engagement without destroying it? The most obvious answer is: Leave no trace/Take only pictures.
And still, just watching wild nature can be a powerful interaction. Some of us go into the wilderness as pilgrimage, as private meditation, and in doing so we give back to the land. We do one of the things that humans do best: Invest a place with meaning and with myth.
As someone who spends as much time out in nature as possible, what advice do you give to people who want to get outside and explore nature for the first time? How do you suggest "city folk" approach the great outdoors to get the best experience?
You know, in some ways the 20th century conservation movement did folks a disservice by holding up big, remote landscapes as the pinnacle of nature. That's changed, especially when you see how groups like the Sierra Club (full disclosure: I'm the editor of Sierra Magazine) are trumpeting the "Nearby Nature."
The Nearby Nature is the place where most of us have our most regular, most intimate, most emotional connections to wildness. It could mean the beach right off the parkway, the state forest preserve at the edge of town, the urban farm.
Start in your backyard. Find a place close to home where, as one of the characters in Satellites in the High Country says, "You're not just around everything that man has made." Then get your boots on the ground.