Why save the wilderness?
The “Maroon Belles” – Connie Harvey, Joy Caudill and Dottie Fox – were honored recently by a huge audience at the Wheeler Opera House for their monumental efforts at preserving wilderness, and in particular for doubling the original size of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.Given the political realities of today, defined by a grossly utilitarian view of natural resources, we need a dynamic philosophy for wilderness that makes preservation a universal cause. It’s time we explore wilderness, not only with our feet, but with our minds.Continued wilderness preservation requires a philosophical thread from generation to generation that elicits wilderness values and imbues them in the hearts and minds of people across all political and ideological spectrums.This requires wilderness activists to become philosophers. Today, however, activists are celebrated more for what they do than for what they think, immersed as they are in pressing legislative issues rather than in broadening the philosophy behind wilderness conservation. Similarly, most wilderness users are more practitioners than ideologues. They immerse themselves in wild nature with a passion that, for some, borders on religious devotion. Their thoughts are assimilated through the cadence of their wilderness footsteps, but often without philosophical clarity or expression.In Aspen, wilderness is a constant influence, a pervasive element that positively influences the popular mood with active recreation and latent spirituality. We feel no need to analyze it but are content to simply resonate with it.This popular view of wilderness is based on the sublime esthetic rather than on deeper issues that need enunciation and expansion. Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius articulated such depth in the 1950s when he climbed to a height of 12,000 feet and described his experience:”I felt elated, like a boy, coming to your miraculous place. … First, it makes one very humble standing on Buckskin Pass and looking from the mighty horizon to the flowers at one’s feet; then these beautiful sensations transform into an incessant stimulus of which I hope to make good use.”Gropius was overcome by a soulful, nature-inspired euphoria that touched every fiber of his being. In that moment of deep inspiration he personified the “Aspen Idea,” channeling the powerful body/mind/spirit synergy into “an incessant stimulus.”Only a few centuries ago, wilderness was the enemy of civilized man, a savage influence to be feared and conquered. The idea of preserving wilderness was ludicrous until man gained dominion over most of the Earth. Only then did he begin to appreciate the sublime esthetic in nature’s unfettered glory.Spiritual resonance with wildness goes back to man’s deepest, nature-based religiosity. After all, that’s where we came from. Today, many of us profess a pagan approach that defines wilderness as a cathedral, much the way John Muir described it a century ago.Wilderness is, by legislative definition, bereft of man’s lasting influence. And yet wilderness influences man with deep and lasting values. Wilderness philosophers see in wilderness a reflection of man in a dynamic, evolutionary panorama. In our utilitarian world, however, that’s not enough to make it sacred.Thoreau famously said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” In this he presaged the science of today, which attributes biodiversity to wilderness and champions the preservation of myriad strains of life. Science is perhaps the most logically defensible and universal reason for saving wilderness today.When we look at wilderness, we must value not only its sublime beauty and recreational challenges, but its global importance. “In wildness lies the preservation of the world,” said Thoreau … and in esthetics, spirituality, philosophy, activism and science lies the preservation of wildness.Paul Andersen is wild about all aspects of nature. His column appears on Mondays.