The value of wilderness, free from human interference

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sometimes someone says something that challenges, and changes, all our pre-conceived notions. What they say opens up an entire ‘room’ of thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Millie Pearson did that for me a few weeks ago.

As you probably know, I am active in the activities of the Saluda Community Land Trust (SCLT). One of SCLT’s goals is to get people outside, using the premise that people will save and protect that which they love and value.

If young people and their parents do not have the option of being outside in nature, then that natural landscape will be enveloped by more and more technology, buildings, economic growth, yadda, yadda, yadda. We’ve all heard that technology will save our future; personally I hope to be long gone before that ‘saving’ becomes a reality.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Millie Pearson owns a parcel of land on the Pacolet River that is preserved with a conservation easement held by Pacolet Area Conservancy. SCLT scheduled a Walk in the Woods for a date this fall, and Millie was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of people walking on that land. When she told me that she really does not want anyone walking on that property, it took me a while to understand why.

People mean no harm when they walk in the woods, but their presence inevitably causes damage. We step on precious mosses and wildflowers, we leave debris behind, we pick wildflowers to take home for identification, and we do all sorts of things that cause miniscule alterations to the forest floor.

If there was only one person walking through the woods, that probably would be of little consequence. But there are more and more people coming to this area, eager to get into the woods to enjoy our beautiful natural surroundings, and there are fewer and fewer places for them to go.

If just one of those hikers picks one wildflower each day, the forest will change. (Think about the fact that some well meaning person brought one small batch of kudzu to the US to help us curb erosion; that one small act has changed our landscape forever.)

There are a few places that have escaped man’s exploitation because they are too steep, or too wet, or inaccessible. Millie’s property is one of those escapes, and it is covered with wildflowers delighted with a place to grow without our interference.

Years ago I listened to a letter written by Wallace Stegner on a cassette tape. It was titled “The Value of Wilderness.” Because Mr. Stegner is from Montana, the wildernesses that he was talking about were out west: deserts, open plains, high vistas, the Rockies.

I remembered the letter because it introduced to me the thought that there is real value in that which has no economic or commercial value to us humans. Wilderness represents a timeless and uncontrolled part of the earth; it represents a “bigness” outside of ourselves, and the fact that wilderness survives gives us hope.

If we look at a timeline of American economic growth, we can see a line running from the loss of wilderness, evolving into a loss of hope, leading on to bitterness and a feeling of ‘not enough,’ right up to our modern reality of needing more, more, and more.

The loss of wilderness equals a loss of hope, loss of the feeling of quiet that renews our spirit, restores our hope and belief that there is a whole lot more out there beyond us, greater than us, outside and beyond us.

The connection that Millie made for me is that what we think of as wilderness is not just those huge expanses out west: the few remaining patches of untouched forests around here are our “wildernesses” that we must preserve, respect, and leave in the hands of Mother Nature.

Yes, we can look, but we cannot touch. Let it be.