Is There Such a Thing as Wilderness?

“A wilderness… is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

– A quote that I don’t really believe anymore.

 

I just got done with a weekend working a booth in the Franklin Mountains. The very first day we were there, my girlfriend and I (she was working with me) got a serious wake-up call with the weather. The wind was so strong that we were constantly chasing after clothes and other product that was flying in the wind. The next couple of days the temperatures hovered in the high 30s and 40s, and didn’t warm up until afternoon.

But the mountains were so rugged and beautiful. Watching from the finish line, we could watch as the runners slowly ascended up the steep slopes and into the mountains above, looking like smaller and smaller moving dots as they slowly receded from view.

 

 

This place seemed like real wilderness. So many of my trail miles are in glorified greenbelts, with only a few yards of trees on either side separating me from civilization. It was a revelation and a reminder that there can be places out here that show much less human influence than the city parks that we normally run in.

But even in the Franklin Mountains, there’s evidence of human use and habitation. On Sunday, I climbed up a slope to the Aztec caves, a short but steep climb to a row of caverns in the mountains. As shown by the smoke on the caves and the markings on the walls, there had been numerous native Americans that had lived here and made their own mark on the land, albeit in a less destructive and pervasive manner.

 

(A view from inside the caves)

 

This is an example of a fact I’ve slowly come to reckon with as I’ve gotten older. If we’re being honest, we need to recognize that there’s no such thing as true wilderness anymore. There are places that have been less disrupted by human use, but at this point, in the Anthropocene, there’s practically no square inch on Earth that hasn’t felt the touch of human involvement.

Since learning this, I’ve lost the sense that wilderness is somehow pure and “untrammeled,” that the dividing line between humans and wilderness is hard and fast. The fact is, we’ve broken a lot of our natural world. And there’s definitely a loss in learning this. We as a species have done things to this Earth that we cannot undo, and realizing that was a shock for me in my teenage years.

But these places that show at least a minimum of human use still have their value. The Franklin Mountains are still a place where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” a landscape that humbles those who enter it, and still holds immense beauty, like a cracked glass that, while broken, refracts a rainbow.

I’ve gotten a lot of insight and strength from parks like these, regardless of whether they actually maintain some pure vision of wilderness that we have in our heads.

I’m really grateful for the brief time that I’ve spent in the Franklin Mountains, cheering on other runners and getting a few miles in for myself. To me, trail running is a perfect example of human involvement in nature that still respects the idea of wilderness, whether or not such an idea exists in actuality.

Philip

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