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What is wild?

What counts as wildness and wilderness is determined not by the absence of people, but by the relationship between people and place.  A place is wild when its order is created according to its own principles of organization—when it is self-willed land.  Native peoples usually…”fit” that order, influencing it but nor controlling it…  Jack Turner

I’ve been re-reading ‘The Abstract Wild’ .  Jack Turner is so eloquent and makes such an impassioned plea for wildness.  Neither does he mince words nor ideas.

I find it interesting to consider once again What is Wild?  Turner argues that it isn’t just about the preservation of ecosystems per se, but what wilderness and wildness does for the soul of people.  People need wildness.  We need it to know who we are.  “Something vast and old is vanishing”

Black grizzly

I live in a beautiful and some say remote, isolated place, right on the border of our largest Park.  Yellowstone National Park, and its surrounding region,  is the only intact ecosystem in the temperate world.   I live bordering the Shoshone National Forest, a National Forest with the most designated wilderness area in the U.S.  Many people would say that apart from Alaska, these are truly the last wild areas left.  To me it has a certain wildness; but truly it is not.

Wolves are captured, collared and sometimes killed under a ’10J’ rule; elk, deer, and sheep are carefully counted to keep track of their numbers, then hunts, seasons and quotas are established; grizzlies are either dropped off here or, if they are ‘getting into trouble’, they are captured and moved; studies are conducted constantly on habitat health for different forms of plants and wildlife; commercial logging goes on.

Elk study expedition

There are the public interests as well.  All Terrain Vehicle owners want more roads and access; ranchers move their cattle onto the public lands, want protection and reimbursement for losses, want fences built and water sources maintained; back country horsemen clear trails; hunters blaze new trails; snowmobilers need their winter access; trappers work their traplines; and in every season people shoot coyotes, ground squirrels,  badgers and other ‘varmints’.

In our National Park next door, there is no hunting, trapping, or ATV’s, but there certainly are snowmobiles and biology studies that include collaring animals.  Trails are ‘managed’ for bears to have their privacy in the spring, and for humans to be safe from bears. Aspen or White Bark Pine studies are conducted.  Fish are monitored. Even frogs are monitored.  Backpackers are assigned to specific campsites on specific days, and reservations can be made in advance. And cell towers must go up to appease tourists who complain about poor coverage.

As remote as my cabin may seem to most of my friends and visitors, it is not wild and this place is barely a direct experience of wilderness.  What makes it different is the presence of top predators, especially the Great Bear.  If it were not for the presence of grizzly bears, there would be many more people hiking these mountains, making it even less wild.  The nearby Wind River Mountains or The Big Horns are a perfect example of beautiful mountains without grizzlies that are full of people.  The Winds are considered a Wilderness area, yet sheep graze there in the summer. And although grizzlies make their way down there as it is good habitat, they are endlessly moved because it’s not part of their sanctioned ‘reintroduction area’.  The Big Horns are full of cattle and ATV’s.

Wildness is determined by the relationship between people and place…where people influence but not control it.  Here is the fine line between ‘influence’ and ‘control’.  In order to understand that difference, one must identify with one’s Place.  That takes living there, watching its order, its seasons, its needs, what a Place wants.  An attitude of service to a Place is necessary rather than exploitation for fun or profit.  If one works the land for a living, then a sensitivity must occur where the entire biotic community is taken into account along with ones’ needs.  That is not an easy task when it comes to growing food–no spraying, no rodenticides, protection from deer and bears, rabbits, and frosts.

And if all this is done properly, I still am not sure that Turner’s definition is complete for wildness.  Wildness as a relationship requires an intimacy that we no longer will know ever again.  There may be a handful, if that many, of tribes in the entire world who still know that kind of intimacy.

Intimacy with elk.  The wild herd of Yellowstone in Sunlight in Winter

Turner pleads for a new tradition of wildness. To create a wilder self, the self must live the life of the wild, mold a particular form of human character, a form of life.  Relics will not do, tourism will not do, books will not do.  He does not look to the past– Native American traditions or African bushmen or Australian aborigine knowledge.  The landscape of the past is gone.  Turner says we must consider what our new intelligence of the wild will be today, in this modern age; and then expound it through art and literature.  Although this ‘rant’ of a book might be considered pessimistic by some, it truly isn’t. Turner has hope that as the emergence of new ‘wild’ spokespeople is taking place, others will seek that wild direct experience too; and they will demand it of our culture.  Turner’s is not a lament, but a plea.  In this complex World where economics is the glue that binds all of us, it is difficult to see where wildness will win out in the end.  Even with the ‘good fight’ that takes place day to day,there is a slow (or maybe fast) erosion of places where direct contact with the wild can even occur.  I, unlike Turner, am not so optimistic.

Cub carves out his space in the forest nearby

More BLM thoughts and Jack Turner’s new book

I just love Jack Turner’s writing.  He hasn’t written much, but the stuff he does write is great.  His easy style of writing weaves a lot of good facts, ecological outrage, and story detail.  I’ve just finished his new book “Travels in the Greater Yellowstone”.  Each chapter explores a different area of the ecosystem, either with his wife Dana, or sometimes hiking with a friend.

Turner spurred some additional thoughts on my last entry regarding the Big Horn Basin BLM plans.  The commissioners in the surrounding counties got together and hired, with our tax dollars, a company to do an analysis of oil and gas in the basin; really paying them to turn out a document that would support what the commissioners want.  From the presentation the company gave at the commissioners meeting, they did a good job distorting facts to support massive development as a sound idea.  For instance, they had slides of pronghorn and deer around gas wells.

Now for a pertinent comment by Turner in his chapter on the Green River Lakes, where the Jonah and Pinedale gas fields have taken over the Pinedale area:

“What is the status of sage-grouse populations here?  As usual, none of the interested parties agree about the numbers–counting is political–but no one denies that this basin is one of the species’ remaining strongholds and that it is suffering plenty.  One study suggests that the 1,200 or so sage grouse that live around the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields will be gone in twenty years.  The government, worried sick that Endangered Species listing will radically curtail energy development, has called for a Sagebrush Grouse Summit.  Nor is it just the grouse that are a problem.  The mule deer population has already declined 46 percent in the area around the Pinedale Anticline field.  They are supposed to be protected in the winter by limits on drillings, but the limits are a farce.  The energy companies can request exemptions and the BLM grants damn near every one of their requests.”

Turner is my kind of guy.  He is no-nonsense blunt when it comes to the environment.  For those who are thinking in support of Plan C, the commissioners drilling dream, here’s another wonderful quote:

So…Wyoming has another energy boom–there have been many.  And when the boom collapses–all booms throughout history eventually go bust–the resources and traditions that could have sustained the state for centuries will be gone.  Who will want to vacation in a Superfund site?”

That is my bold and for good reason, because our commissioners have forgotten what we love about the Cody area and why people come to visit here. They also seem to have forgotten the amount of revenue that comes from tourists.

Big Horn Mountains looking from the Big Horn Basin

At one time, I was going to buy land in the Pinedale area.  This was before the boom.  I’d been coming there every summer since 1996.  I’d stay at the wonderful Wagon Wheel motel, a tiny place that’s been there forever.  The town was just one street with no good restaurants, but a great outdoor equipment store.  It was nice and sleepy and I loved it.  Jackson was an hour and a half away, through the Hoback Canyon, “a canyon that in any other part of the country would be a national park“.  Pinedale reminded me just a little of Jackson in 1972 when I first came to these parts.  I could live here, I said to myself.

But then things changed, almost overnight.  The next summer I arrived and there was an Americinn, charging $265/night vs. my little motel at $50/night, and all the hotels were booked.

“What is happening here?”  I asked.  The Jonah field, they said.  It was the beginning.  From what the townspeople told me, Bush/Cheney more than tripled the amount of lease permits allowed to be issued for drilling per year, pushing them through with little regulations, and nixed the required townhall meetings.  That was over seven years ago and back then the townspeople were complaining about the lights to me…”You can see those lights in the oil fields from up in the Wind Rivers”.  There’s been a lot of growth since then, so much so that ozone alerts occur regularly in the winter.  They have worse smog/ozone in that area than the whole of  Los Angeles.  Needless to say, I was no longer going to buy property there.  I began looking around Cody and the first thing I asked my realtor was about oil/gas development here.

“The oil fields are all old and pretty much maxed out”, he said.  What he nor I didn’t consider was new technology and the nation’s thirst for energy.

Last summer I drove, quickly, through Pinedale up from the south on my way back from a trip through Big Sandy in the Winds.  Miles of tacky housing fills the once open spaces, probably houses for the workers.  The growth in just the last seven years, or degradation of the environment depending upon how you look at it, is amazing.

“Seventy percent of the Wind River lakes that are more than 9,000 feet have low alkalinity levels, hence they are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of oil, gas, and coal-bed methane development upwind in the Green River Basin and Wyoming Range, which will disgorge a cocktail of toxic fumes into the air twenty-four hours a day for the next fifty to hundred years.  The Wind River Range and its three crown jewels of America’s wilderness system have the misfortune to be immediately downwind.  Air standards already are being violated with only 600 wells in operation–and with 10,000 more planned, pollution can only get worse.”

Our last wild places in the lower 48, where grizzlies can still roam, and pronghorn can still migrate, are being chopped up and compromised.  If this is not an outrage, then we are not awake.

Hear ye, Hear ye, Commissioners:

“When people ask what Wyoming should do with those billions of dollars in mineral royalties left over in the budget, I say: Invest them.  Future generations in this state are going to need more than billions to clean up their wasteland.”–Jack Turner

The Abstract Wild

I’ve just finished reading The Abstract Wild by Jack Turner. The book is a series of essays, a ‘rant’ for wild Turner says.  Wild, as Turner defines it, is not wilderness, not a managed environment with collared animals, hunting quotas, ‘fun hogs’, 7 1/2 minute maps, gps, cell phone availability, not to mention logging, mining, open grazing or other forms of exploitation.

For Turner, and I agree, wilderness or the wild contains our place in it, not as tourists or observers, and is a sacred experience, defining our place in the world and the cosmos.

A few wonderful quotes:

Maps and guides destroy the wildness of a place just as surely as photography and mass tourism destroy the aura of art and nature.  Indeed, the three together–knowledge (speaking generally), photography, and mass tourism–are the unholy trinity that destroys the mysteries of both art and nature.

The majority of Americans no longer know this experience of the wild.  We are surrounded by national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife preserves, sanctuaries, and refuges.  We love to visit them.  We also vist foreign parks and wilderness; we visit wild exotic cultures.  We are deluged with commerical images of wildness: coffee-table books, calendars, postcards, t-shirts, and place mats….

From this we conclude that modern man’s knowledge and experience of wild nature is extensive.  But it is not.  Rather, what we have is extensive experience of a severely diminished wilderness animal or place–a caricature of its former self.  Or we have extensive indirect experience of wild nature mediated via photographic images and the written word.  But this is not experience of the wild, not gross contact.

Turner’s best essay, in my opinion, is the first one, which relays an experience he had in the 60’s in Canyonlands National Park before it was a park.  After surviving a small plane crash, he wandered around the Canyonlands for days.  One evening he came upon large ancient pictographs of life-size figures.  Their presence, spookiness and power absorbed him.  It formed a sacred and lasting impression.

Years later, he revisited the site.  But now the area was part of the Park, there was a family  picnicking nearby, and signage explained what little was known about the pictographs.  The entire area is now mapped and known.

Humans become foreigners to the wild, foreigners to an experience that once grounded their most sacred beliefs and values. In short, wilderness as relic leads to tourism, and tourism in the wilderness becomes the primary mode of experiencing a diminished wild.

Turner’s book identifies the problem eloquently and articulately.  He doesn’t present solutions.  Are there solutions?  I’ve been pondering this.  It doesn’t seem to take much more than a generation for cultural amnesia to begin settling in.  The loss of wild areas, or the loss of social freedoms, taken away bit by bit, and soon the present generation has no memory of what once was.

Just 200 years ago, not even a blink of the eye in human history, Lewis and Clark came through the West and witnessed the land filled with bison, grizzlies, elk, deer, prairie dogs, clean waters, and people living of and on the land in ways that had preserved it for hundreds if not thousands of years.  The way of life of the native americans was gone a few generations later, as well as most of the abundant wildlife.

I walk these hills and know that I am a pauper.  I have no cultural references for living in ‘wilderness’ as my home.  I have survival skills that might keep me alive for maybe a week or more, but not a lifetime.  Although many people know more wilderness skills then I do, and many know much more scientific knowledge than I do, there is no living culture here anymore that can teach us how to live in the wild, sing the songs, harvest and prepare the plants, give thanks before we hunt, or help clue us in on how to contact the sacred that imbues this place.  As a culture, we are bereft.  As individuals, we are reduced to finding our own way without cultural help.

Turner’s book is a must read for all who love nature and wilderness.  It turns conservationism on its head and offers a new definition and goal. But the vision of ’21st century wild’ must emerge from all of us.