Right now, I’m sitting in a big house on the coast of Maine. The breeze is coming off the water, and when the tide goes out again, I’m planning to kayak out to say hello to the seals on the nearby rocks.
And, in the meantime, I’m checking the news and seeing nothing good. Charlottesville is happening—I’ve just read about a car plowing into the crowd of KKK, Neo-Nazis, and their counter demonstrators, showing up for equality. One person has died, and more are injured, and it’s only mid afternoon.
Yesterday, the news was full of the President talking about using fire and fury and something even worse against North Korea.
And that this was, again, the hottest year on record. And refugees are still dying to leave their homes, and unwelcome on more and more shores.
The news, my dear, is as bad as I’ve ever known, and this is not the first time I’ve thought so. The weather is hot, the planet is crowded, resources are scarce, and we are all so frightfully on edge that damages that cannot be undone will be, are being, done.
What place, then, do words about seals and terns, stars and pine martens have? The more I know, the more frequently it feels like treason to still love wilderness, to still use the privileges of my skin and geography and lineage and education and bank accounts to go places, to watch for tides and scramble up mountains. Sometimes I worry that caring about the natural world and ecosystems and wilderness is very much rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic—if humanity does itself in with race wars or nuclear explosions or anthropogenic catastrophe, how much will the golden slant of sunset or the relationship between blackflies and blueberries or the calming transcendence of being a wild place matter?
I sure as shit don’t think we need a Wilderness Matters movement. Unless the bears and toads and birches are going to start rioting against the rank injustice of how they’ve been treated by humans, that’s just comparing sunlight and humans—as false a dichotomy as pro-life and pro-choice. Personally, I’m both. I’m for all of it. Sunlight and humans, life and choice, nature and culture, town and country, women and men, white and black and all the shades and variances between all of the supposed end points of spectrums.
A renewed appreciation and commitment to all the things is what I get from being out in the world. The scope and scale of the world will blow your mind—we operate so far from mere binaries and three-dimensionality. Recently an old friend and I hiked in the White Mountains. We passed through three major ecosystems and innumerable microhabitats. We’ve hiked the same trail together several times in the fourteen years of our friendship, and each have hiked it other times, with other friends. Our conversation was thick with their names, with stories and catching up have to tell, with the revelations and inanities that accompany any good hike. In one breath, we talked about the alpine plant community and the ways in which media is improving at portrayals of brown women. We hiked a busy trail on a beautiful summer Saturday and the trail was thick with other folks, all out for something like the same reasons we were, all passing over the same roots and stones with different stories and words and histories. All in the same place, yet each hike was distinct to the hiker.
And that’s just the human aspect. The mountain avens—subalpine flowers with a bright yellow buttercupish flower and leaves like spiky strawberry leaves—experienced the same day however flowers do. Maybe that’s just taking in sunlight and nutrients to pump out buds and blooms and fruit and propagate their species as best they can. Maybe plants do more than that, feel more, but even if not, that’s a remarkable amount of life happening in a little patch of the world.
The water rushing by the trail—frigid at the waterfall we stopped to swim in—all of that gushing and glugging along has little bits of life in it as well. And the rocks that the water runs over, that we clamber over—I draw some line at geologic sentience, but still, glaciers passed over those same stones before we ever did and snow sits on top of it every winter, waiting to hatch the mountains anew each spring. There are layers there.
I know, we all know, that human activities are changing the world, the ph of snow and ocean, the climate that ecosystems evolve with, the creation of trails, the pollution of water and air. And yet, I get great, humbling pleasure out of the reality that the mountains and the sea do not care about humanity. If I have a god, it is the ways in which I don’t matter to the rocks and the sea. The world means the world to me, and it doesn’t know or care what I do.
In the Scientific and Industrial Evolutions, there was an idea that God was nothing but a watchmaker, and that if the world could be picked apart and explored and investigated from the largest cogs to the smallest bolt and screw, the world could be known and Man (never Woman—we were busy with herb gardens and healing and raising babies) would be equal to the Divine.
This, I think, is horseshit. Even if I can think of all the cogs and wheels and layers and threads and fantastical tapestry of a single moment of my hike on that busy trail, if I can contemplate the lives of the seals and seabirds and tidal creatures and plants that I have been kayaking out to each morning while I housesit, my head and heart start to explode. If I add in the lives of all the people on the trails, the summer people owners of the moored boats and summer cottages, the people who live here always and maintain the docks and lobster buoys that I see as I sit as the lone human among twenty seals—well. The world is too big and beautiful to be understood taken apart like a simple watch.
I know enough to know I do not know a damn thing. That variety of ignorance brings me the greatest joy, allows me the space to fall in love with the world and all that it holds. Maybe there is something primal out there that rips a few layers of protection off my eyes, off my heart, but I come back from wilder places more able to see the complexities of life where humans live. And that helps, enormously, when reading the news and trying to figure out how to be in a fraught world.
Pine martens will not stop racism. Knowing the constellations will not erase the American caste system. Watching a seal dive will not calm the political discourse. The smell of salt water, of balsam fir will not stop nuclear proliferation.
What the wilds may do is open your eyes to the world so that you may better participate in the wider world.