By Al Kesselheim for The Daily Climate

BOZEMAN, Mont. – It's spring and the rivers are up, so a couple of times a week I trot my canoe down the street and put in on the East Gallatin River. It's a town stream, running through golf courses, trailer parks, past the wastewater treatment plant, through subdivisions, just below the old city landfill. I paddle stretches between bridges, an hour or two at a time, like going to the gym.

Nothing about this stream qualifies it as wilderness or a recreation area. There is no protective line drawn around it on maps. Old cars sit layered like fossils in the banks, the flotsam of city trash washes up on gravel bars. Nobody else goes there. I might rarely see an angler, maybe a person walking on a trail. Mostly I startle folks in their breakfast nooks, or a golfer lining up for a putt on the 9th hole. That stealth quality gives me great, smug pleasure.

Wild and vibrant

Here's the thing. This winding, willowy, heads-up ribbon of spring current is more wild and vibrant and risky than most designated wild places I know. There are always surprises — a new beaver dam, a cottonwood down across the river, a line of fence someone decides to string across the flow. On almost every run I'm forced out of the boat to navigate some new gnarly problem.

Resident wildlife never got the memo that this is not designated for nature either. White-tail deer bound into the brush, red-tailed hawks scream overhead, sandhill cranes and Canada geese nest along the banks, warblers are busy in the underbrush. Muskrats, beaver, skunk ... more critters per mile than anywhere I else I paddle. 

The delicious thing is that I drop off of the urban radar, as if popping down a manhole, and an hour later, at a bridge, I pop back up to load my canoe.

Nature scene

Photo: Pavel P./Flickr

Lesson reinforced

More to the point, these runs reinforce an important lesson. I am reminded, each time out, not to separate myself from the world. Not to forget that nature is all around, all the time — in the deer who browse in my backyard, two blocks off Main Street, in the bears that come to town, in the birds and butterflies and mammals that thrive, surprisingly, in our cities. In the air I breathe and water I drink and trees shading my yard.

Modern industrialized life has brought us to the point that we set aside parcels of land as protected enclaves, that we separate ourselves from nature, drawing lines around sacred sites, places beyond the reach of our everyday lives. Aboriginal cultures everywhere on earth have no concept of wilderness. They are part of the web of life. Nature is the world they live in.

In his 1995 essay, "The Trouble With Wilderness," environmentalist Bill Cronon wrote that  "wilderness poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the 20th century."

That statement made me angry the first time I read it, but the more I've thought about it, the more I think he's on to something. He doesn't advocate doing away with protecting wild lands, but he argues that by setting aside wild places, far away from our towns, where people don't live, we "leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like."

"The place where we are is the place where nature is not," he says.

Nature with a fence

Photo: Matthew Hiller/Flickr

Separating ourselves

The problem is by separating ourselves, and assuaging our guilt by establishing far-off preserves, we don't have to think about the consequences of our actions the rest of the time.

It is that very separation that allows us to trash the places where we live and work. It is that separation that permits punching thousands of holes through he crust of the Earth, pumping millions of gallons of pressurized hot water and chemicals miles down so we can drive our cars and power our computers. It allows us to strip layers off of mountain tops, pour pesticides into rivers, belch smoke into the air, lay concrete over topsoil, build mansions on ridge tops, raze forests and dam rivers and mess with Mother Nature.

New England writer and environmental advocate John Elder said recently, "To find the sacred only in the wilderness would be like finding it only in a beautiful church on Easter. Unless the sacred is imbued in your day-to-day life ... its value is limited."

And so, every spring, when the Montana snowmelt engorges the creeks with muddy torrents of headlong current, I set my boat in the flow just down the street. My heart rate ticks up in anticipation, a killdeer calls from the far bank, and I disappear into the wild gauntlet through the oblivious thicket of my hometown.

Alan Kesselheim is a writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

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This story was originally written for The Daily Climate and was republished with permission here. The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change.

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What good is wilderness if we can't appreciate the nature in our backyards?
Writer Al Kesselheim explains how national parks, nature reserves and the like are isolating us from nature.