The Taming of the WildPrint
As we celebrate the centenary of the National Park Service, a meditation on “the best idea that America ever had”
By David Gessner
June 6, 2016
I am standing on top of Bald Mountain in Sonoma Valley, staring profoundly off toward the far Pacific and the dying sun. I scrunch my eyebrows and squint a little, thinking this will add to my overall air of deep thoughtfulness. My facial muscles are responding not to the transporting magic of nature, however, but to another imperative: I need to look good for the camera. Cameras, actually. Off to my side, a young man named Jimmy, whose easygoing professionalism I’ve come to respect over the past 10 days of shooting, points a surprisingly heavy (I have tried to lift it) camera at my head to film me in profile. Up above, a drone swoops over to capture the full grandeur of the moment. Following instructions, I move closer to the edge of the mountain, striking a pose that is meant to say part world conqueror, part shaman. I am a New Age Cortés.
Later, in search of the perfect shot, the drone will crash into a tree and be rendered inoperable. Later still, when I see the drone footage on TV, I will realize for the first time that I have a significant bald spot.
The idea of the show, put oversimply, is that nature is good and that screens—whether those of computer, camera, TV, or phone—are bad. But of course it takes a lot of screens to get this point across. The irony of this is the sort that is easy for a sixth-grader to comprehend. I know this for a fact, because when I use the TV show as a teaching moment with my 12-year-old daughter, railing against all her texting and phoning and computing, and telling her she should get out in nature more, she rightly points out that the whole time I was out in nature, I was being filmed.
Welcome to the new Nature. This is not Emerson’s transparent eyeball. This is not Muir’s Yosemite.
Keeping Yosemite in mind, I think not of Muir’s ecstatic responses to the place but of my own single experience there, hustling with the take-a-number mob up to the base of Half Dome, jostling and body-checking as if fighting my way onto a New York subway.
And what of beautiful Yellowstone, our first national park, that stunning remote place of fire and ice? I remember being caught in wildlife traffic jams as my fellow tourists took selfies with the elk and bison. Driving through the park, I was reminded not of other times in wild nature but of the van Gogh exhibit I saw in New York, standing four deep in a mob of people, craning my neck in an attempt to glimpse something beautiful. The metaphor can be carried further, much further, because that is exactly what Yellowstone felt like to me that day: a museum. A museum that held works of beauty from long ago, curated for the curious and the many.
To anyone even remotely aware of environmental history, the creation of our national parks is a cornerstone, a rallying cry, a grand achievement. Parks mean Teddy Roosevelt, with a few bold strokes of the pen, taking millions of acres of land from the exploiters. They mean the Wilderness Act, and David Brower and the Sierra Club battles, and the coffee-table books of beautiful places, and the great ecovictories of the 1960s and early ’70s. They are what Wallace Stegner called, paraphrasing Lord James Bryce, “the best idea America ever had.”
At the same time, there exists a sense that parks are, in this, the National Park Service’s centennial birthday summer of 2016, kind of fuddy-duddy. Antiquated, old-fashioned, cobwebbed. Some modern environmentalists, in particular a group dubbed the ecomodernists, think it fitting that the Park Service is turning 100 this summer. Parks seem ready for a retirement home or even that next thing, the one that comes after.
The message is clear: parks are not modern nature; they are old school. Parks are not with it. Parks are where people drive in cars when they go on vacation. Parks are museums that preserve mere remnants of what Earth used to look like.
Parks, according to this line of thinking, have lost their purpose. Yes, they are a good place to take selfies but, really, what else?
And the biggest knock of all?
Parks have no apparent use.
Let me change my tone a little and say this: everywhere we look, the wild is under assault. You will recognize this as the pronouncement of a full-blown Thoreauvian envirotype, and I suppose to some extent it is.
I am pointing not just to bulldozers and chainsaws as the enemy, however, or even to those machines that we stare at and type our furious and desperate communications into at all hours, but to another machine that is certainly a culprit in the destruction of wildness: our own nagging, easily distracted, fearful, order-craving minds. If living wildly is a discipline, which I have begun to suspect it is, it is one that we, most of us, have failed miserably at.
I found myself first plowing this line of thought while spending a week in a landscape that many would consider purely wild, the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon. Here was the very place where the spotted owl drama played out, a sanctuary for Douglas firs that were already growing when Columbus landed and that still stand like sentinels, hundreds of feet tall, over a moss-covered, rain-shadowed landscape, a landscape split by ice-cold creeks and topped by snowy mountain peaks. If this doesn’t stimulate your brain’s nature-romance center, then consider that I lived alone in a cabin and saw practically no one for most of my time there.
And yet it wasn’t quite what you’d imagine. H. J. Andrews is a research forest, not a park, and research makes its own demands on the land, such that walking deep in the woods you would find a fallen fir with an aluminum ID badge on it, like a toe tag for a corpse, or, taking a mossy path you might look up and see that you were being followed by a camera, as if you’d wandered into a slow-paced version of The Hunger Games. And the woods, though deep and beautiful and filled with the haunting call of the spotted owl, were also filled with what my scientist host called “research trash,” the detritus of hundreds of experiments. “Research is an intrusive activity,” he told me. It wasn’t really trash, of course, and it did nothing or little to detract from my nightly experience of having a beer by the creek while watching the little gray birds—dippers—do deep knee bends in the water, but it was yet another indication that we, Homo sapiens, were very much there, and that this place, however seemingly wild, had a purpose. Even the ospreys, familiar birds for me in an unfamiliar place, were involved in a reality show of their own, a TV camera pointing down into their nest atop a dead Doug fir to record their every preen and scratch. In the end, theirs turned out to be a particularly gruesome show, a little-too-wild version of wildness, when the most unmaternal mother cannibalistically devoured the corpse of an offspring that had starved to death. More than one viewer, you would guess, turned off the show, unable to stomach the spectacle of nature at its most raw.
For all this, it was a beautiful week, filled with socked-in sleeps of 10 hours or more and the occasional sunny day when I climbed Carpenter Mountain to stare at the snow-topped mountains known as the Three Sisters, and the real problem of the week had nothing to do with the impingement of research on the world outdoors. No, the real problem was right there in my living quarters, and it was wholly invisible. My generous hosts had only recently managed to provide the place with an Internet signal. This was kind of them, but by doing so they had invited the whole virtual world into my retreat. And so, each day, after my morning coffee, I would head not into the strange landscape outside my door, but into the familiar ether. I had a new book out, and my particular preoccupation that week was checking my numbers on Amazon to see how it was selling.
I was working within a tradition, and the tradition was not Thoreau’s. The previous occupant of my cabin—or more accurately, apartment—in the woods was a multimedia personality and composer of electronic hip-hop named DJ Spooky. He had left right before I arrived, and the word at H. J. Andrews was that Spooky was a master of multitasking, constantly connected, usually to multiple online sources through phones, headphones, computers, and other gizmos, and that during his stay here, while staring up at the same moss-covered trees, he had at one point put in a call to Greece to rent out the Acropolis for the production of his new experimental play.
I spent my time in the Oregon woods in the summer of 2015. About six months later, and about 200 miles due east, on the other, drier side of the mountains, another sort of nature show took place. And it really was a show that was staged there at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, as if Ammon Bundy and the other participants, the so-called rebels, were performing a little play for the nation’s benefit. A few modern twists intruded upon their narrative, like appealing for snacks on Facebook, but for the most part their story was a tried-and-true one, and one that has been played out again and again in the West over the past century and a half.
The story that the rebels told was this: they were taking back their land from the government. Leave aside for a moment the problem that they didn’t actually own the land or that you and I own the public land as much as they do. Focus instead on the bones of the story, the same story told by the Sagebrush rebels of Reagan’s time, by big-business ranchers in the 1950s, indeed by those determined to “open up” the West to ranching, logging, and extracting from the very time that white people began to settle it. We the people want our land back.
Large holes appeared in this story, and inconsistencies, and by the time the play ended, the actors seemed more absurd than heroic, but their last stand did serve the purpose of shining a spotlight on an issue that will become ever more pressing during the coming decades.
Four years ago, I traveled across the American West in an effort to write a book that was in part a meditation on western lands. I had fallen in love with the West as a younger man, and had vowed to live there forever, but life had landed me in North Carolina. Which meant that my western trip began on the East Coast, and that the first stop was not a cowtown but Port Royal, Kentucky, at the home of the writer, agriculturalist, and philosopher Wendell Berry. I thought that Berry, who had farmed the hilly fields above the Kentucky River for a half-century, might give me something to chew on as I drove, and I was not disappointed.
“Land use,” he said near the end of our conversation. “I think the people who confront it are the relevant people today. And the specialists—the preservationists and the literary specialists—are becoming less relevant.”
It was interesting to me that he lumped preservationists and literary specialists together. What I took him to be saying is that we needed to think practically, not theoretically, about land. It was great to write odes to trees and acorns, and to prate on about “wildness,” but how were we, as a country and a people, going to really use our remaining lands?
Intentionally or not, Berry was echoing a theme that is gaining momentum in modern environmentalist circles. The theme had to do with our public lands, including our national parks. Preservation was the great cry of the ’60s and ’70s, but lately it has become something of a dirty word. The thinking is this: in a world that will soon hold nine billion people, in an age that has been dubbed the Anthropocene because of the way man has altered the Earth’s environment, we need new solutions, new alternatives. To believe that we can simply put huge swaths of land aside is naïve, and even when we do, it has quickly become apparent that that land, far from being wild, must be managed. This becomes more pressing in the age of climate change, when habitats are shifting and leaving certain species stranded.
It isn’t just the ecomodernists who believe that parks might have failed. Conservation biologists have long pointed out a crucial problem with parks: wild animals need to roam. Without that roaming, the populations of these animals become isolated, and inbreeding follows. Although the United States has saved more than 100 million acres of land, this may not be enough. Conservation biologists will tell you that parks, even large parks, are islands and that islands are where species go to die.
Berry was certainly not arguing against parks. But he was pushing me to begin to think realistically about how we are going to use public lands for agriculture, recreation, grazing, laboratories, and living space. He was reinforcing a point that he had learned at the foot of his own mentor, Wallace Stegner. That part of thinking deeply was thinking practically.
I am sitting in the writing shack behind my house, sipping a cold IPA and staring out at the marsh as the sun drops below the tree line. This is the place, hidden in the trees, I built to get away from it all, though more and more, “it all” is coming to find me. Take yesterday. I was sitting here in this same spot around the same time of day, when a drone appeared, hovering over the tidal creek. It seemed to turn and head right toward me, then paused and peeked into the shack for a moment before flying off.
And what of it? True, if I’d had a rock handy, I would have thrown it, but should I really be surprised at this point? Is it news that there is almost no place left in this world where you can get away, where you can have space to yourself? John Hay, my old nature-writing mentor on Cape Cod, often told me that his greatest need was “space.” He had lots of it by most people’s standards, more than 50 acres of scrub oak around his house and the cabin where he worked, and he spent a good deal of time alone. But he lived in a different time and a different place. Maybe space, like our national parks, is an antiquated notion and maybe we are evolving into something different, into creatures more social and hivelike. This may not fit with the grand Romantic ideals, but for so many of us, isn’t it practical? We don’t have time for the old clichés, or so we are told. The first things to go during a crisis are niceties of philosophy, and aren’t we in a crisis right now? Could it be that there simply isn’t enough room for each of us to have space?
I am not setting those questions up so that I can knock them down (though I will soon go about trying to do just that). I want to be relevant. I want to think practically about land use and not retreat to my shack and quote Thoreau, clinging to the vestiges of an outdated Romantic philosophy while the world rushes onward and elsewhere. But I also don’t want to throw out Thoreau with the bathwater.
I understand that the American West needs something close to large-scale zoning so that the ATVers can have their patch of land and the hikers theirs and the ranchers theirs and the oilmen theirs, but the individual states’ threat of intrusion into public lands, which is building to a clamor at the moment, feels like part of a larger assault. Take the drone that flew over my shack, for instance. It’s as if we are at war. It isn’t just that the first and most obvious use of drones was military. It’s a sometimes subtle war, a war, it seems to me, against mystery, a war to fill up the very last spot on the map down to the last root and rock. Here are a few important words in this secret war: distraction, control, and use. Let’s start with the last one. If a thing does not appear to have an obvious use, and it goes without saying a human use, then watch out. In this world that thing will not exist for long, at least in its current state.
Fighting back, I have begun to consider the value of uselessness. We all know, for instance, that we need places apart, that we have always needed places apart. Parks provide these places, but so do marshes, stretches of beach, patches of woods, any place where we can get away from eyes and development. We need these in ways we don’t even understand, and in ways in which the benefits are not always obvious and immediate. As it is in ourselves, so it is in the world. National parks, it seems to me, are a larger public expression of this private need. Stegner, defending our need for places apart from the human, argued for wilderness preservation in his famous “Wilderness Letter.” He wrote: “Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded—but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them.”
Perhaps I will become a fighter for the useless. Perhaps I will fight for soft ideals with toughness. Perhaps this is not as absurd as it at first sounds.
I mentioned that the rebels at the Malheur refuge in Oregon had a narrative they stuck to. I didn’t mention that there is a longstanding counternarrative for the same sort of event. Whereas the rebel story is simple, the counternarrative is far more complicated. Luckily for the West, it was taken up long ago by a series of brilliantly articulate, and not entirely uncombative, thinkers. The first of these thinkers was Major John Wesley Powell, who became a national celebrity after leading an expedition of dories down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869 and then parlayed that celebrity into a decades-long attempt to push an agenda of settling the West in a manner that matched the land. As the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, he laid out the bones of the counternarrative: most of the American West is a dry near-desert, exceedingly vulnerable to extractive and exploitive industries, and to treat it like the wet and humid East was idiotic. There are landscapes in the West that are naturally ornery, that ask, in all but words, to be left alone. More specifically, what the land asks for is a clustered population with large buffers where there are no humans at all. This is not only because these lands are vulnerable and difficult to inhabit, requiring government aid, but also because they are open to disasters (think today’s megafires), disasters that often can spread to even the clustered populations. To overbuild in the Colorado foothills, for instance, is to provide kindling, fuel for fires. We don’t set aside land only so people can enjoy a pretty park. We do so because, simply put, it makes sense.
In the late 1880s, Powell came up with a general plan for land use in the West. As Stegner wrote, this plan “reached to embrace the related problems of land, water, erosion, floods, soil conservation, even the new one of hydroelectric power,” based on “the settled belief in the worth of the small farmer and the necessity of protecting him both from speculators and from natural conditions he did not understand and could not combat.” The approach was scientific and sensible, making clear the intimate relationship between the people and the land. Amazingly enough, Powell’s plan very nearly became law, but it was fiercely opposed by all those who hoped to get rich from the exploitation of the land—to say nothing of the boosters and members of Congress who considered it “unpatriotic” to portray the West as some dry expanse.
Powell’s fight was taken up 50 years later, even more fiercely, by the historian Bernard DeVoto, when another band of “rebels” tried to take back public land. DeVoto, always happiest when brawling, pointed out that the loudest voices calling for opening up public land were from corporations, not cowboys, and that the corporations and big ranchers were slathering to get what had been held from them for the public good. DeVoto took aim at “the economy of liquidation” that had ruled the West since the first settlers arrived there. In the West, DeVoto wrote, “the miner’s right to exploit transcends all other rights whatsoever.”
As for agriculture, it soon became clear that to farm without irrigation was impossible, and that irrigation was impossible without massive dams that only the federal government could build. Which, combined with the fact that so much grazing and mining occurred on public land, made westerners chronically dependent on government help. That westerners were more dependent on this kind of help than any other Americans belies the image of rugged individualism. Irrigation, dams, the private use of public lands—all went into the construction of a massive welfare state, beautiful, rugged, and wild.
Powell’s style was restrained and eloquent, but DeVoto was terse, rat-a-tat. He wrote of his Bundy-like enemies in the 1940s and ’50s: “They always acted as if they owned public land and act so now; they convinced themselves that it belonged to them and now believe it does.” And: “Nothing in history suggests that the states are adequate to protect their own resources, or even want to, or to suggest that cattlemen or sheepmen are capable of regulating themselves for their own benefit, still less the public’s.” And, most famously: “It shakes down to a platform: Get out and give us more money.”
A direct lineage runs from DeVoto to his friend and eventual biographer Stegner, who would write, “There are periodic movements … to get these lands ‘returned’ to the states, which could then dispose of them at bargain-basement rates to favored stockmen, corporations, and entrepreneurs.” And: “Take for granted federal assistance, but damn federal control.”
The counternarrative is important, I think, not just for what it says but also for the way it is said. The tone is smart, clearly environmental, but also tough. We often associate the environmental with the soft, the wild with the vague. This narrative is neither. It acknowledges that people must make a living but stresses that some lands need to be taken entirely out of human hands, and that when those seeking profit, seeking uses, get their hands on protected land, they most often core it out and leave a shell. DeVoto described these types as wolves in wolves’ clothing, but in recent years they have taken on more sheeplike disguises, dressing up not just as rebels but as entrepreneurs, writers, and even, sometimes, as environmentalists.
The argument goes like this: there is no wilderness. The age we live in has been dubbed the Anthropocene because nothing, not even the atmosphere, is beyond the human. Earth is a ruined thing, and the old ways of fighting that ruin, through parks and preservation, have not worked. In fact, the old-school way of thinking about nature, the mystic love of the wild of Thoreau and Muir, is of little relevance in this new world. We must embrace new ideas and new technologies if we are to provide the resources to feed nine billion humans. Nature is dead, and Earth isn’t a wild place, but a garden. And like Candide, we must cultivate our garden. We must manage what of Earth is left. If that sounds a little depressing, this line of argument continues, do not fear. Wild nature may be dead, but natural ecosystems are surprisingly resilient. Capitalism and technology, far from being the enemies, are allies in this fight for what is left. Humans got us into this mess, and humans (and their ingenuity) will get us out.
These thoughts might sound like those of Realtors or Republicans, but they are instead the core ideas of an increasingly prominent group of environmentalists. Theirs is said to be a realist’s argument—one name for this informal group of thinkers is the “ecopragmatists.” Other names include neo-environmentalists, green postmodernists, and ecomodernists. Some of the things they say are familiar and commonsensical. They have little use for parks or coffee-table books about nature. The briskness of their arguments, the air of real-world practicality, bears superficial resemblance to DeVoto’s style, and Stegner’s. The ecopragmatists also assert that to think profoundly about the land is to think practically.
When I read through their work, however—their manifestos, as they are inevitably called—I sense a different tone, one that makes me uncomfortable, and I catch a strong whiff of an old way of thinking, that old belief in the perfectibility of man. But I will try to put my reservations aside for a moment and give them their due. The world is increasingly unwild, and we, as a species, have turned increasingly to technology for work and pleasure. It is not impossible that someone could come up with a technological fix, or at least amelioration, for climate change, and what would those in my Luddite tribe say then? If I am perfectly honest, the ecopragmatists’ description of life is closer to mine than that of Muir swaying atop a pine tree during a thunderstorm. Like you, I tweet and text and type my way through my days. Though I claim to love the wild, I am not exactly sure what that means any more. Certainly I spend more time on my screens than in nature. Meanwhile, commuting to and from work, I can only handle so much guilt-inducing talk each day about the doom we face from climate change. I am part of the unwild human swarm.
If a tree falls and is not filmed, does it make a sound? My brief experience hosting a TV show about nature featured, not surprisingly, many staged moments. But during the filming, more than one authentic moment broke through the grid of the artificial, like shoots of grass through concrete. Sitting in a canoe, for instance, preparing for my Kurtz-like journey down a river in Georgia to visit a guy who has lived off-grid for 20 years, and who eats snake and otter for breakfast, I am left alone for a while as the camera people prepare the drone for what I am told is the “beauty shot” of my paddling in. My job for half an hour is to sit in the canoe and wait for the crew to get ready, and while I do, swallows cut through the air above me and a patch of dark sky lightens to pink and blue. A pileated woodpecker flies in front of the boat, from one rotting tree to another, looking almost like the ivory-bills that used to rule these woods. Lifted out of the particulars of the day, I forget I am wearing a mic, and when the bird flies by again, I let out a little hoot, which makes the sound technician laugh. A week later, we are filming in the foothills of Salt Lake City, a long day that ends with my sitting in front of a tent with a beer ranting about Thoreau and Muir—all for the camera. But it is what comes after the filming that I remember. We are walking back to the car in the dark (the tent was a prop—I wasn’t sleeping there that night) and I am helping carry the heavy equipment with the four other men, and we walk quietly and the hills are dark and the city lights shine below and the stars above, and I feel a deep sense of mindless well-being. I am a tired animal hiking through a beautiful place. I sleep well that night.
Authentic moments pop up even out of the inauthentic frame. And so out of the unwild the wild can arise. We try to narrate and control, but always there is something in the world that works against it, that pulls the rug out from underneath our plans. How do we respond? Often by ironing the rug, then nailing it to the floor to make sure it can never be pulled out again. Rarely by laughing and acknowledging how boring life would be with only stable rugs.
Wild is not just acorns and insects. Wild is the surprising, the unexpected, the funny. Wild is understanding just what a comically small role you play in the reality show called Life on Earth. To be wild is to acknowledge that we are just another animal in a world full of animals, an idea that many claim to hold but few live by. To be wild is to at least attempt to think beyond the human, to think biocentrically not anthropocentrically, even in the Anthropocene.
This sounds pretty theoretical. Let me make it practical. We can’t be wild without land. Without the land, we lose possibilities. We lose everything. Videos of the land won’t do. Earlier in this essay, I made fun of my experience in national parks, but now I need to correct that, too. I need to add that after my crowded walk up to Half Dome, I slept in the backcountry that night, far from people, and standing on a shiplike rock, watched the sun sink and the darkness come in like the tide, and thought—or more accurately thought-felt—that I was really just a small animal, an animal that was lucky, miraculously lucky, to be alive on this wild planet. And although I mentioned the wildlife traffic jams in Yellowstone, what I didn’t say was that my daughter and I were then on our way to see Doug Peacock, who was the inspiration for Edward Abbey’s Hayduke character in The Monkey Wrench Gang and who once lived in close contact with grizzly bears in the park’s backcountry. When we later joked with Peacock about the tourist traffic jam, he laughed but also said, “Just go a hundred feet off the road and it’s all still there.” So the next day we hiked in, and, our senses tingling and on alert for bear, we saw elk in the woods, a sudden sight that scared and then delighted us. The reason that we could see the elk, and the reason that our fellow tourists can see elk and bear and moose and bison, is that Yellowstone is a vast place, not big enough yet for some but big enough to support these animals. And the reason the land is there is that some human beings, a century ago, had what was then the very radical idea of putting that land aside, of not letting humans get their hands on it.
We need to remember, on this anniversary, that creating parks was once a wild idea. Wild as in out-of-the-blue, fresh, new, dangerous, intoxicating. Wild as in people thought the idea was crazy. It is hard to remember this in a time when parks seem like museums, patrolled by drones and knowable by Google Maps. But if you put on a backpack and head out into the backcountry, you may discover that these are great, startling, beautiful, and wild museums. Museums that we should be deeply grateful for. And museums that contain something that would not be there without them: wild animals.
There are other ideas out there, relatively new ideas, ideas the ecopragmatists would no doubt sneer at, that are as wild as the idea of creating parks once was. Start with the idea of connecting parks, of putting aside lands that act as pathways between the protected parks, pathways that allow big animals to reestablish their migratory routes. Such an idea seems as absurd to some people as the idea of parks once did, but it has the value of exciting our imaginations, of being something we can picture. What if, instead of packing it in and saying “the world is screwed” and cultivating tiny gardens, we turned around and embraced the idea of not giving up on the wild? If parks were our best idea, maybe connecting parks could be an even better one.
These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas. Environmentalists such as Harvey Locke, cofounder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, have been pushing them for years, and have met with some successes. Dozens of overpasses and underpasses, many of them wooded, now allow animals to cross over and under major highways in Alberta, and pathways have been established that connect one wilderness area to another. For all the talk of the ecomodernists, only one way exists to preserve biodiversity and large species and fend off further extinction, and that is not just conserving large swaths of wild land but also connecting those swaths. Preservation may be a dirty word, some remnant from the ’70s, but all the technology and market analysis in the world cannot rebuild what billions of years of evolution created.
I have wandered pretty far afield, a long way from my promise of being practical. So let me return us to the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, home of research trash, Douglas firs that stand 200 feet tall, and the former temporary home of both DJ Spooky and me. Before I walked through that landscape, I thought I knew moss, but I was just talking Vermont moss, Carolina moss, deep Pennsylvania moss. What I saw in the rain shadow in those Oregon woods was a thousand types of moss, moss that drooped and mottled and dripped. Brittle florescent moss and white wispy beard moss and shaggy green moss that looked like a tacky ’70s carpet. And there, amid this mossy world, in the understory below the giant trees, after I picked up the rough-skinned newt (before I learned its skin was poisonous and began washing my hands like Lady Macbeth), I saw a small Yoda-like tree, covered with shag and yes, moss, that was called the Pacific yew. It is a useless tree, some would argue, certainly not the crowd pleaser that the big firs are, but from that tree’s bark, which is only several millimeters thick, comes a substance found nowhere else on the planet, and from that substance scientists not long ago created Taxol, a drug used to treat various kinds of cancer. I would argue that the tree has a purpose far beyond the human, but in the Anthropocene, your chances of surviving are better if humans need you, and it turns out we need this useless tree. The yew has become a symbol of biodiversity, of the value of not destroying things even when we don’t know they are valuable. Of the uses of the useless.
It goes without saying that a virtual yew tree does no one any good. In our wild places, things can happen that can never happen in a lab or boardroom or even, god help us, on a computer screen. That is because if we continue to protect our parks, and maybe connect them and make them larger, something both everyday and miraculous will occur: evolution will keep on working.
But back to our friends the ecomodernists. I don’t want to (entirely) turn them into straw men. They are right about many things. We will need to manage our resources and employ technology, and if the markets align with our green needs, so much the better. I am not asking for a fully wild world, just for letting parts of it remain wild. And for an attitude toward that world that is congruent with my own experience of living on Earth. Because, while I may not have the skill sets that ecomodernists do, my experience has taught me that as a gardener, steward, and controller of nature, I am laughably inept, and I’m here thinking not of the world, but of my back yard. The idea that we can control the planet seems beyond hubristic. Better, and more practical, I might add, to adamantly defend the places we have already put aside, to protect more places, and in these places let the world do what it does without us. And to connect those places, so that evolution, the only thing that can give us yew trees and rough-skinned newts, can continue.
Luckily, it is not an either-or proposition. Wendell Berry has said that land use will be a necessary component of any future environmental thinking—furthermore, that the wilderness preservationists will no longer be relevant—but he has not given up on the importance of wilderness. After all, Berry’s Kentucky farm contains both cultivated fields and wild woods. To set land aside in this way is one way to use it, and the preservation of wilderness will always be an important part of the larger environmental fight. John Wesley Powell, when drawing up his first maps, knew how crucial it was to set land aside in the West. Ultimately, we need as much land as possible to remind us what the land can do when left alone. How better to prepare ourselves for the numerous uncertainties of our changing climate? These places of wilderness can serve as many things: counterbalance, reminder, baseline, template for recovery.
And those are just the practical benefits. I have tried, to this point, to restrain myself, to not rant, to stay sober. You sensed this probably. I piled up some unwild arguments and gave the ecopragmatists their due (kind of), but as I turn to the deeper, spiritual benefits of the wild, I need to throw off my restraints. So let me end by saying (at the risk of sounding eco-unpragmatic) that a world exists beyond our screens, and it is the world that has evolved for millions of years, and that there might just still be something that world can offer us. Yes, we tweet and text our way through our days, and drones patrol our parks, and most of us spend more time watching TV shows about wilderness than being in wilderness itself. Yes, we are swarming over Earth like locusts and the atmosphere is heating up and the seas are rising and we have to be realistic about all this. But, thanks to some radical-minded humans a hundred years ago, there is still a wild to get out into, and despite what the ecomodernists tell us, wilderness still exists. If you don’t believe this, walk a hundred yards off one of those busy Yellowstone roads, spend a night and see how you fare. You may discover not only a healthy dose of fear, but something in you, in your chest, that will hum like a tuning fork. You might even have a sense, even if you have never been there before, that you are home.
As for what is going to happen in the future, who the hell knows? Anyone who has spent a single day on this planet knows just how unpredictable and uncontrollable life is. Which is the single best thing about being alive, despite all our fretting. Though I don’t know what will happen, I still hold on to a dream of what might. What if, while we cultivate our gardens and check our Facebook pages, we also let the world beyond us go on evolving? What if, just for fun, we say, Screw the Anthropocene? The name may be apt for the way that we have affected the environment, but let one good virus break out and you can kiss goodbye the idea that we are in the driver’s seat. Some of us still believe the world is more than a garden.
In the meantime, what if, while everything and everyone is telling us it is time to retreat, we advance? What if we take a break from our domesticated lives and connect big spaces where big animals can live? What if we do something new, something that others consider as insane as they once did the creation of parks? My dream on this 100th anniversary is that if parks can grow and change, then on the 200th anniversary we can look back and think, yes, parks were America’s best idea, and then we had a better one. We connected the islands of parks with ribbons of migration, with corridors of wildness.
When I am done with this essay, I will check my email, then maybe head over to Facebook for a while. If you want to learn more about me, you can Google my name and find my TV show about nature. There are times when, caught up in my own plans and ambitions, I think I am pretty important. But I am not an idiot. I am not silly enough to mistake my own personal ecosystem with an infinitely greater one. That there is life beyond the personal, beyond the virtual, beyond the human, beyond use, is something that we can consciously try to ignore. But we ignore it at our own risk and to our own detriment. We cut ourselves off from life. We lose our connection to what evolves, to the still-wild world.
David Gessner is the author of numerous books, most recently All the Wild That Remains, and was the host of Born to Be Wild on the National Geographic Channel.