Andersen: Big world, small world
December 14, 2015
Globalization has created the big world, defined by dynamic and divergent human connections. It has consequently shrunk the small world of wilderness, rural landscapes and nature.
Most of us live in the big world within a vast, man-made, technological web. What once seemed distant and remote is now close and immediate. What once seemed contained by boundaries is now expansive and open. Connections seem limitless.
The big world has become a battleground for fringe groups that challenge this global hegemony. These groups are impactful but ultimately marginalized by the dominance of the global culture.
I have been living on the fringe of the big world for decades because of a strong allegiance to something the big world typically undervalues: nature. Imagine my surprise when I discovered an attraction to the big world during a trip this fall to Washington, D.C.
Washington seems like a very livable city with a manageable scale that even an avowed country mouse can appreciate. The city imposes height restrictions based on the height of the Capitol Building, so there are no urban canyons like in Chicago or New York. Parks and open places offer breathing spaces throughout.
Flying home over the Rockies, I looked down over our snowcapped peaks with a fresh perspective gained by the pleasurable city I had just left behind. For the first time I can recall, I let go of my geographical snobbery and saw the mountains through city eyes.
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I realized that my coveted national forests, national parks and wilderness areas comprise the small world when compared with the big world of globalism and international culture. With only 2 percent of the lower 48 states as designated wilderness, the big world looms disproportionately large.
According to Wikipedia, the District of Columbia spans 68.3 square miles with a population of 6 million, equating to about 10,528 people per square mile. Geographically, D.C. is small, but its density and connectivity make it feel enormous as the seventh-largest metro area in the U.S.
That's because the District of Columbia contains 176 foreign embassies and many international organizations, trade unions, nonprofit organizations, lobbying groups and professional associations. It includes the city of Washington, home to 660,000, the 22nd most populace city in the U.S.
Pitkin County is more than 10 times larger than D.C., covering 973 square miles with a population of 17,626. The density here is 18 people per square mile. Pitkin County has global reach, at least on occasion, but is parochial when compared with the reach of the nation's capital.
In this context, my mountain home seems diminished by the global scope and scale of the big world. But it wasn't always so. In 1881, when Pitkin County was founded, wilderness and rural landscapes were far more imposing in the U.S. than the urban landscapes they surrounded. Nature was the big world, civilization the small world.
Geographically, the big world remains dwarfed by the small world. The White River National Forest spans 2 million acres. There are four wilderness areas that share borders with the county: the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness at 167,000 acres, the Holy Cross Wilderness at 122,000 acres, the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness at 82,000 acres and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness at 181,000 acres. That's 552,000 acres of wilderness contiguous with Pitkin County.
One can get lost in Washington, D.C., though not for long. Lost in D.C. means standing with uncertainty on a street corner clutching a smartphone linked to global connections like Google Maps and Uber.
One can get lost in our local wilderness areas for days, in many places with no electronic connections. Getting lost in our mountains means separation from the global reality of the big world. Many people consider this a vacation.
The big world is a vast, dynamic topography burgeoning with cultural stimuli. The small world offers an intimate experience in a complex, living topography corrugated with mountains and deserts, much of it buffered from big-world urgencies.
The big world can feel crowded and rushed. The small world gives room to breathe and pause. I appreciate the big world in small doses, but I'll stick with the small world. It is where I live and what I love.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at email@example.com.