Andersen: Wilderness turns 50

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

I was 13 when the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964. The only notion I had about wilderness then was as a place where you could be eaten by a wild animal.

Wilderness was something to be afraid of — in the dark, alone, unarmed. Wilderness certainly was not a life experience for a 13-year-old suburban Chicago kid who found adventure in vacant lots.

Looking back 50 years, I now realize that my youthful concept of wilderness had some merit. Wilderness is a place where man is not at the top of the food chain but rather an integral part of a much larger web of life.

Since then, wilderness has taught me to think of myself as part of, not separate from, the natural world. Chief Luther Standing Bear described it like this: “There came a great unifying force that flowed in and through all things … and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man.”

I use Luther’s essay as an assignment during wilderness seminars, whether for thought leaders at the Aspen Institute or for combat veterans in my Huts for Vets program.

Through Luther, we identify wilderness as a mindset, a way of experiencing creation forces that are tangible today. Rather than accepting the notion of biblical dominion as domination by man, wilderness conveys a humble sense of stewardship for a shared inheritance.

Rod Nash, a great wilderness writer and thinker, lists eight values of wilderness: scientific, legacy, spirituality, aesthetic, heritage, psychological, cultural and intrinsic. The last — the rights of nature — is perhaps the most important as a measure of planetary modesty for setting aside wild places as sacred.

If we open ourselves to wilderness, we become what Laurens van der Post described as “wilderness man.” We are modern humans linked to a rich and edifying cultural past that’s buried in our wilderness DNA. As we explore wilderness, we explore our deeper selves.

“Doesn’t the present owe the future a chance to know the past?” asks Nash in a rhetorical truism that speaks to this time element. As the Wilderness Act turns 50, it’s important to acknowledge our debt to the future with future conservation born of foresight and integrity.

With only 2 percent of the lower 48 states designated as statutory wilderness (about equal to the amount that’s paved), our wild lands represent a rare and threatened geography.

We need more wilderness as an antidote to the high-paced, frenetic technological and industrial lives most of us lead. Our species evolved in wilderness — at a walking pace — a thousand times longer than we have lived in the machine age. Our deepest roots are there — and our ancient memories.

The world we inhabit today is often an affront to our wilderness-born sensory systems and to our mental health. Humans are good adapters, but the roots of our being cannot be severed without the risk of losing something seminal about who we are, about our deepest identities.

When I take psychologically wounded veterans into the wilderness, I see a change come over them. They become quiet, introspective, thoughtful, contemplative and playful. They connect with something that is ingrained in all of us, a common fiber of spirit that came out of the wild and was born there.

If wilderness can be proven to be a place of national healing, there will be no stronger argument for more conservation, and there will be no stronger advocates than veterans who find peace and comfort there. “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” Shakespeare wrote.

The Wilderness Bash at Highlands on Saturday is a celebration of wilderness conservation, largely by the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.

We are fortunate in Aspen for the visionary custodians of wild places who set them aside for us and who advocate for more, whether on Thompson Divide or in the Red Rock Wilderness of Utah. This mission is not complete. It needs our support across the West.

That 13-year-old boy is now wearing a 63-year-old body, but he is still eager for wilderness, ever striving for wild places and protection for them.

Join the party on Saturday, and feel the buzz from a dynamic expression of wildness, both within you and without you.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at