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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Wilderness Mystique

Exploring the Landscape of the Mind

By Tamia Nelson

Farwell's not the only one who enjoys reading our mail. I do too. Acting on the principle that a pleasure shared is a pleasure doubled, we pass readers' letters back and forth. That's how I learned about Dirk's recent paddling holiday in Sweden's "lake district." (Dirk, you may remember, is the genial Dutchman whose well-aimed criticism was the subject of "Straight Talk.") He describes this region as very beautiful—"one of the most beautiful parts of Sweden," in fact—yet still accessible. And the food! Dirk paints a picture of a sort of floating, open-air farmer's market. He had good weather, too: "lots of sunshine" and the wind "mostly at our back." Best of all, he and his wife made the trip in early September, missing the summertime crowds. "No 'fight' for camping spaces!" Dirk exults.

All in all, it sounds like an ideal holiday to me, and I'm properly envious. Only one thing seems to have troubled Dirk. There was, he wrote, no "real wilderness." This didn't seem to bother him too much, though. He and his wife still had a wonderful time.

Not all paddlers are like that, are they? For many, wilderness is the touchstone against which all paddling holidays are tested. If a trip leads to—or through—wilderness, it's a good trip, even if the bugs were all but unbearable and everyone was sick. On the other hand, any trip that doesn't merit a wilderness label is something to be explained away. It's almost as if an apology is needed. No matter that the weather was fine, the food was good, and the company excellent. If it wasn't a wilderness trip, it was second rate.

That's too bad, I think. Not that I'm surprised. I once felt the same way.

The dominant passion in my youth was photography. I worked hard to make photos that were every bit as good as those I saw in the glossy magazines. And I read everything about the subject I could get my hands on, particularly the regular interviews that Backpacker magazine ran, spotlighting photographers and giving examples of their work. I studied the featured photographers' techniques and examined their photos with more care than I reviewed my mineralogy notes.

And I was consumed by the idea of wilderness—those places where, in the words of the act of Congress which created the National Wilderness Preservation System, "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man." Not that there was any wilderness where I lived. What I saw around me were stony, hardscrabble farms and plantations of red spruce. No sweeping emptiness, no spectacular mountain vistas, no lumbering grizzlies or herds of caribou—just shabby, run-down barns and decaying hamlets, former market towns in which nearly everyone who now had a job had to drive at least an hour each way.

I made the best of it. I haunted the hedgerows, stubble fields and creek bottoms, camera in hand. And I wasn't often disappointed. None of these was wilderness, obviously, but they were rich habitats for songbirds, small mammals, whitetail deer, and coyotes. I grew especially fond of the birds, and I came to know them well. Sometimes I surprised myself. Even today I think the best of my early photos were quite good. Still, I wasn't happy. I lived in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. I bought a canoe and for a time was content to poke around in the shallows of a nearby lake, shooting pictures of basking turtles and mallard chicks. But that wasn't enough. Occasional weekends spent rock- and ice climbing in the Adirondack Mountains left me feeling better. Coming back from the Adirondacks, I knew that I'd touched wilderness, at last. But I still wasn't satisfied. The Adirondacks weren't Alaska or the Rockies, were they? I longed to join climbing expeditions and trek through subarctic ranges. I knew that I'd never be able to make really great photos until I could get to a real wilderness. Or so I thought.

Then something happened. An issue of Backpacker arrived in the mail. I can no longer remember which issue, but I remember turning right away to the interview with the featured photographer. I always looked at the pictures first, and this day was no exception. And what photos they were! Immediately, I was struck by a series of extraordinary close-up shots. Insects. Wildflowers and seed cases. Basking turtles ("Just like my turtles!" I thought. "But wild!") There were even colorful abstract compositions of leaves on still water. Every image was infused with a sense of wildness, of untrammeled nature. Here, I thought, were images of real wilderness.

Then I read the interview. What a shock! The photographer was hopelessly ordinary. He had a factory job, and he lived in some bedroom suburb in the crowded eastern megapolis. He drove to work every morning, and every morning he passed a small field and farm pond bordered by hedgerows. ("Just like the places where I take my photos," I said to myself.) One day, on a whim, he left for work an hour early and took a camera with him. For the first time in his life, he stopped his car and walked onto the field he'd driven past so many times. Then he dropped to his knees and started shooting what he saw before him. This was the beginning of his career as a nature photographer. And all of the pictures in the Backpacker portfolio had been taken in that one field and pond. In the interview, the photographer spoke feelingly of the wilderness he'd found there, right on the side of the road, half-way between his suburban house and the factory in which he worked.

This was a revelation. Naturally, I still hankered for the wide-open spaces and the big sky country. Those dreams never left me. But, slowly, I started to see the stony, hardscrabble hill farms that surrounded me in a different light. I realized that here, too, was real wilderness. I no longer viewed my photographic excursions into the fields and creek bottoms as stop-gaps, as nothing more than practice outings for the real thing. I saw them as voyages of discovery. And when, much later, I climbed snow-covered peaks and paddled remote northern rivers, I realized I wasn't doing anything I hadn't done before. Wilderness was everywhere.

Then, later still, I realized that this, too, was wrong. Completely and entirely wrong. Wilderness wasn't everywhere. In fact, there was no such thing as wilderness. Not in the back forty. Not in the Cascade Range. Not on the watersheds that drain into Hudson Bay. There was no wilderness anywhere. No place "untrammeled by man." There hadn't been any such place on earth for thousands of years, and there never would be again—not until the final chapter of the human story was written.

Here's what I learned. The western peaks I climbed were wild, high and rugged, but the paths I walked to get to them were flagged by the manure of pack-horses. I only had to look out from the summits to see jet contrails in the sky. The forests around the peaks were second-growth, most of them, and even the "old growth" timber was shaped and nurtured by man—protected from fire and criss-crossed by maintained trails. The mule deer and mountain goats kept their distance, made shy by human hunters. The grizzlies were long gone. The flesh of the trout in the mountain tarns was tainted by heavy metals from the stacks of factories. The frozen water on the summit snowfields bore the chemical signatures of organic pollutants from half a world a way.

And the rivers—what of the rivers? The northern rivers I ran were wild, fast and free, but their waters were stained by pulp mills located many miles upstream, and logging roads paralleled nearly all of them, pushing north along the river valleys. Wherever the loggers had been, slash piles blocked the portage trails. Even the end of the day brought no respite. On island camp after island camp, the blueberry bushes were buried under heaps of discarded tin cans.

OK. There's no such thing as real wilderness. It's a landscape of the mind. That doesn't mean that we need to resign ourselves to a world of suburbs, shopping malls and superhighways, does it? In the long run, of course, we probably do. There's only so much real estate on planet Earth, after all, and the human comedy's almost certain to wind up its run as an SRO show. But that's years in the future. For the time being, we can still enjoy the wild corners of the world, places that are free of most reminders of the human presence, at least some of the time.

And, even if we're already a few thousand years too late to find a wilderness, there's a hedgerow, field, or swamp near most of us. Sure, they're not the Antarctic plateau or the Mountains of the Moon, but they're not any less fascinating for all that. There's more life in an acre of meadowland or a five-acre beaver pond than you'll find in a ten-foot bookshelf of field guides. So, wherever you live, start getting to know the wild country on your doorstep. It's as "real" as any wilderness on earth—and probably a lot less crowded than the exotic places written up in the glossy magazines.

Looking for a wilderness? Then get to know your neighborhood. You'll be glad you did.

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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