At one point some years ago, I stood on one edge of the Gobi desert and looked out into a vast place mostly ignored, not because it is hard to reach but because it is wide, and dull, and hostile. I found that incredibly alluring; I was seized at the time by an urge to start walking into the dunes and just go, as far as I possibly could.
Of course, I didn’t—the feeling was heady enough. But that, to me, was the feeling of wilderness: a place that doesn’t need you, doesn’t want you, and will scarcely notice your passing.
The relationship between people and wilderness continually pulls me in two directions. On the one hand, I love wild places and want to experience them as fully as I can. On the other, there is something about wilderness that shies away from the presence of people; the more people there are, and the more easily they can get there, the less wild a place becomes.
I’ve written before about curated wilderness: the wild places made just tame enough for us to visit them in safety. We need those places, because we tend to ignore the things we never see. And yet they are also disingenuous—they are as wild as animals in a zoo, and they are all too human. We do not go to see honest wilderness there, we go to see the illusion of wilderness.
But if wilderness decreases the more we experience it, what does it mean to protect it? What does it mean to love a thing that, by definition, excludes you?
A part of it, for me, is the contradiction—to go and explore the places rarely seen, and to bring back in memory some sense of their distance and strangeness.
Another part is philosophy. For some time now we have ethics about preserving the wilderness, most notably Leave No Trace guidelines that tell us how to walk softly and cover up our presence. I agree with and follow LNT ethics, except when I don’t. I carry out my trash, I cover up a campsite, I try not to damage the places I walk. But I also help cut trails, dig open and discover caves, and flag off delicate places as a warning for others to take care. LNT, to me, feels less about protecting wilderness and more about preserving its illusion for other people.
Or maybe the illusion is just part of what it means to be wild in a world as crowded as ours.
The final part, I think, is to recognize that we do not live in a world where wilderness encroaches on our doorstep. The few wild places that remain need a strange balance between our attention and our disinterest. We need the places we can visit and experience to keep our sense of their value alive. But maybe we also need places we can never see or go, places that exist for their own sake and nothing else—places where the contradiction falls in the forest and makes no sound at all.
Image Credit: Me