Why Not Spoil the Wilderness?

If We Could

A rancher in the hills north of San Francisco saw two bald eagles the other day, attacking his lambs. He did what King David, or any other sheepman of old mentioned favorably in our history books, would have done. He killed the eagles. But this was modern America, and there is a law against harming any feather of a bald eagle. The rancher was arrested, and suitably lectured and fined, and for days he was subjected to vile abuse in the press. Right-thinking people rained down such vituperation as is ordinarily reserved for priests who molest little boys or people who send contributions to terrorists. Like them, he had committed a loathsome crime. He was spoiling the wilderness.

The trumpeting voice of the wilderness lover is heard at great distances these days. When he quiets down, he is apt to turn out to be a perfectly decent person, if a bit hysterical. And the causes which excite him are generally worthy. Who can really have a harsh word when he tries to save Lake Erie from the polluted sewers of Cleveland, save the redwoods from the California highway engineers, save the giant rhinoceros from the Somali tribesmen who kill these noble beasts in order to powder their horns into what their immemorial traditions tell them is a wonder-working aphrodisiac?

Worthy causes they are, but why do those who espouse them have to be so shrill and intolerant and sanctimonious? What right have they to insinuate, or proclaim directly, that every one who does not share their passion for a whooping crane or a snail darter is a Philistine and a slob, a pervert biting the breasts of his Mother Earth?

I would like to ask them what seems to me an eminently reasonable question: Why shouldn't we spoil the wilderness?

Have these people ever stopped to ask themselves what the wilderness is? Whatever its aesthetic appeal or spiritual overtones, isn't it what mankind had been fighting since it began its painful, awkward climb to civilization, the outside, the dark, the terrible, the formless, the tohu-bohu of the first chapter of Genesis, the old chaos which our ancestors fought to push back inch by inch to provide us with a minimum of peace and comfort, which surrounds us yet, which will engulf us all in the end when, our scientists say, our solar system implodes about four billion years from now? It is held at bay by constant vigilance, and when the vigilance slackens, or even when it does not, it can swoop down for a melodramatic demonstration of its power and its total indifference to our feelings, as when the jungle took over Chichen Itza or lizards took over Jamshyd's courtyard or Vesuvius took over Pompeii or Katrina New Orleans. And even when it is externally quiet, it lurks in our own hearts, breeding cruelties and wars and oppressions and holocausts. Spoil it! Don't you wish we could?

Of course, when the propagandists talk about unspoiled wilderness, they don't mean anything of that sort. They mean a kind of grandiose picnic ground, preferably in the Temperate Zone, where the going is rough enough to be challenging to the most adventurous outdoorsman without being literally murderous, a place where hearty folk can hike and hobble through spectacular scenery and clean air, face down all the dangers of sheer cliffs and thunderous waterfalls and wild beasts, with a helicopter hovering in the dirty old civilized background to bring in whatever is needed, antibiotics or anaesthetics or preservatives, if a real emergency comes up.

Well, they are estimable people, and there is no reason why they should not be able to satisfy their urge for aping the primitive existence of their ancestors. They ought to recognize, however, that other people -- who used to be called pioneers but are now called louts or rednecks or biofascists - have equally strong and. often equally legitimate urges to carve out roads, plow up virgin land, dig mines, erect cities, build cathedrals and movie houses and laboratories for environmental studies. And they may even have legitimate reason for opposition to efforts to save their environment. Would Little Red Riding-Hood have contributed to a campaign to Save the Wolves?


Clearly, we are faced with sets of conflicting desires, and it is up to us to make a rational choice among them.

The trouble is, it is difficult to make a rational choice when one of the parties insists on wrapping all its discourse in a thick damp metaphysical fog.

Though they have no formal Bible or Koran or Das Kapital, they are religious fanatics, and like all religious fanatics they are arrogant, intolerant, and often, to unbelieving eyes, preposterous while they go about proclaiming, in the tones of John Milton's or Cotton Mather's Jehovah, that they alone know what is good for us.

I treasure the words of the Harvard professor who, when reminded that, despite almost three centuries of havoc wreaked by invasive insensitive white men, there are more trees growing in New England today than there were when the Pilgrim Fathers landed in Plymouth, silenced his interlocutor with curt contempt: "Yes but they are the wrong trees."

There are perfectly rational, if selfish, reasons for civilized people to support the preservation of the remaining pockets of wilderness left on our planet. They help stabilize the climate. The myriad forms of plant and animal life they support may make possible important advances in scientific knowledge. They provide spiritual uplift and increased self-esteem for the back-packers who penetrate them. And, in a free-enterprise economy, they more than pay their way: tourists looking for a spiritual thrill are apt to generate more revenue for the local authorities than sawmills.

But what the wilderness folk prefer is shrill and inaccurate abuse. You cannot talk about bald eagles without being told that man, vile man, has no right to destroy one of the Creator's beautiful creatures, all endowed with an equal right to life and liberty; that the bald eagle, besides being the symbol of the United States of America, represents all the will to be free and the wide-ranging quest which made life worth living for our forefathers; and finally, that killing eagles upsets the balance of nature and threatens the very existence of life on this planet,

These aren't arguments, they are temper tantrums. The radical nature lover who insists like the Ancient Mariner that he loves all things both great and small will think nothing of vindictively squashing one of God's beautiful creatures when the creature happens to be an anopheles mosquito preparing to infect him with a deadly disease. Yet the mosquito in every respect but size is just as awe-inspiring, as intelligently designed by Nature or Nature's God for whatever purpose it has in life, as any eagle. (So, for that matter, is man's oldest and most faithful companion on earth, the louse. Not to speak of his newest companion, the AIDS virus.) The physical eagle you see stretching his great wings as he searches for the signs in the shifting pattern of grays on the ground below which indicate that there is some food down there, is quite unaware that he is a symbol of anything. The eagle on our Great Seal is a perfectly mythical creature, and would go on being a symbol of the United States of America even if all the living eagles in the land were exterminated. The British, after all, have got on well enough for centuries without a single Act of Parliament to protect lions and unicorns.

As for the balance of nature, this is simply an arty phrase to denote the status quo, whatever exists in a certain place at a certain time. And the status quo is always changing. On our Great Plains, for example, the balance of nature consisted for I don't know how many centuries of immense herds of bison browsing thunderously on buffalo grass, deforesting the Great Plains in the process and driving out all other mammalian species bigger than the prairie dog. Then for three centuries or so, the time for Mother Nature to blink an eyelid, it consisted of Indians, who had acquired horses from the Spanish, slaughtering bison wholesale to feed themselves with their flesh and clothe and shelter themselves with their skins.. Nowadays, it consists of farms and ranches, beauty shops, filling stations, beer cans and whatever.

Naturally, some balances are more desirable for interested parties than others. From the point of view of the bison, the balance before the arrival of the Indians and their horses was infinitely preferable to any balance afterward. The Indians surely preferred the balance that existed before the arrival of the pioneer farmers. From the point of view of Mother Nature, it doesn't seem to make the slightest difference. In her bloody blundering way, she has been lurching along for millions of years, wiping out species and genera by the tens of thousands, drowning whole continents, burning, freezing, ravaging, killing and maiming, with no concern for the pain and misery she produces wholesale with every step on the way. Our puny rifles and our whiffs of insecticide are pinpricks compared to the mighty hammer blows that annihilated the dinosaurs and trilobites and so many others of the creatures which once covered the earth with their multi-colored diversity.

The most we can do, it seems to me, is to look after our own interests as best we can, and no more consider the feelings of the eagle and the rhinoceros than they consider ours.

Of course, we make mistakes, and hurt our own interests, as when ranchers kill off the coyotes and then have to suffer from plagues of jackrabbits. But conservationists can make mistakes too. When they saved the beaver in Montana not long ago, the little creatures chewed down so many trees that they caused disastrous floods and wreaked havoc on the balance of nature. When they made deer-killing illegal, immoral, indeed unthinkable, in much of the country, they condemned themselves to a catastrophic rise in the deer population which ravages their gardens and kills their children in highway accidents.

Why not admit that the principal reason people have for saving the wilderness is that they enjoy it? They have a taste for desolate landscapes and lonely nights under the stars which can give them aesthetic raptures and spiritual insights. There is nothing wrong with such a taste. Every one everywhere, in what ever society, needs something to transcend the daily round of work and grief and boredom. Some find such transcendence in driving at illegal speeds on freeways, some by chomping on psychedelic mushrooms. An exultant thrashing through the wilderness, with the wind in your face and snakes at your feet, can be a rich human experience, perhaps as rich as reading Shakespeare or singing in a church choir or listening to gangster rap.

However, let us not lose sight of the fact that the wilderness taste is definitely a minority taste. Tamed and sanitized as modern wildernesses are apt to be, with their paucity of large predatory animals, they are still much too red in fang and claw for the vast majority of people -- people who have worked hard for what comforts they have and do not see why they should give them up, with no thought of material reward, for a mountain-clouded view or an icy dip in a mountain stream.

Wilderness-lovers are strictly a phenomenon of modern times, and they are made, not born.

A splendid passage in Simon Schama's book on mankind's love-affair with landscape tells how he took his little children to a redwood park in California and thrust out an enthusiastic arm toward all those massed mighty trees towering in their dark green majesty,

The children screamed in terror.

I assume he has brought them up since that day to be civilized adults like himself and like you and like me, capable being thrilled, inspired, swept out of our petty selves, at the sight of those great brooding tranquil giants.

But let me put in a word for those little children. They were closer at that moment of all-embracing terror to Mother Nature, and closer to their digging and delving ancestors than their daddy or any of the rest of us spoiled automobile-riding tourists.

For until the coming of the tourists, no human being had a good word to say for the redwoods.

For millions of years these noble giants grew and lived centenarian lives and died without a word being said, because there were no humans around to say them, In the fairly recent past (20,000 years ago according to the latest estimates) humans did turn up in what is now California. When the first human immigrants, now stuck with the appalling bureaucratic epithet Native Americans, came along, they soon leaned to avoid redwoods like the plague. For there was no game under those trees they could hunt for their daily food, for there were no game animals therewith could not even set fire to them as they did to other forests because they are always soaking in the California fog to nourish themselves and will not make so much as a decent campfire. The earliest white pioneers avoided them for the same reasons. Some one in the redwood country once showed me an old book which he said was the record of the first human expedition through the whole length of the redwood forest of northern California. It was led by a Harvard man, who wrote of how at times he would rush forward dancing with enthusiasm at the sight of some new mighty giant never before seen by human eyes and crying out to his companions to share his ecstasy. But the companions, who were running short of food and had been stumbling and climbing and falling and crawling and hacking for weeks through the tangle of gigantic rotten branches and other debris on the forest floor, nervously looking up all the time for possible widow-makers (that is, waterlogged bottom branches the size of ordinary trees which might break off and fall on their heads at any instant) "answered my cries," he said, "with vile abuse."

Later settlers built sawmills and began cutting down the redwoods to build cities like San Francisco, which after the great earthquake of 1906 was one great redwood bonfire.

By that time the tourists, the nature-lovers of the type now called environmentalists, were coming in swarms. Today of course redwoods have been turned into a Holy Cause, and next to Save the Whales the cry of Save the Redwoods has become the great trumpet call to the righteous.

But followers of this cause should at least occasionally recall that the virtuous redwoods do not live by the standards of virtuous environmentalists, whose watchword is Diversity. Yet nothing is more foreign to the traditional lifestyle of redwoods than diversity. They must be the most exclusionary, the most totalitarian form of life that has ever existed on this planet.

When redwoods take over a territory, they take it over in toto. The great canopy of leaves they spread hundreds of feet up in the air cuts off the sunlight that would enable rival species of tree to grow alongside them. Since each tree may live for hundreds of years, it is only rarely that an aged giant crashes to the ground and lets in a little circle of sunlight within which saplings and bushes can hope to sprout, but it is not long before one redwood sapling has shot up enough to spread out his upper branches broadly enough to monopolize the available sunlight, and all the saplings and bushes die of starvation. And no species (another Holy word these days) of plant life higher than lowly ferns, or animal life higher than the still lowlier banana slug, is allowed to survive in the dark dripping gloom which is the exclusive domain of the species Sequoia sempivirens.

And no birds sing. For if there are no bushes there are no berries, and if there are no berries, there are no birds. Spring, like any other season, is silent in redwood country.

The reaction of the children of Professor Schama to the redwood wilderness must have been very like that of the ancient Hebrews when, as recounted in the Book of Exodus, they confronted the wildernesses of the Sinai peninsula after their escape from bondage in the overcultivated valley of the Nile. They hated the place. It was an unremitting source of misery and suffering for forty years. Never mind that God appeared there talking to their leader Moses "face to face, as a man speaks with a friend," and laid down the laws which were to rule their life forever after. They couldn't wait for the forty years to be up and they could go and take over the soil of Canaan which they could torture into overflowing with milk and honey, and they never felt the slightest desire to go back. Three thousand years later when the newborn state of Israel conquered Sinai from the Egyptians following the triumphant Six-day War or 1967, the victors took absolutely no interest in the place except as a site for summer resorts, and felt no qualms about handing the whole territory, its Mountain of the Lord and its Well of Moses and all, back to the Egyptians in exchange for their signature on a peace treaty.

When the hermit saints of early Christianity, like Anthony, went into the wilderness, it was not because they loved it, it was because they hated it. It gave them a chance to show off the strength of their faith by choosing to live in harsh barren hostile places from which all sensible men would recoil in horror.

The first wilderness lover of the modern stamp of whom we have record is the poet Petrarch, who one day in the fourteenth century climbed a mountain in southern France solely for the thrill of the view from its summit.

Petrarch's would remain a distinctly minority sentiment for a good while. Since most people till the day before yesterday had to make their living out of the land provided them by Mother Nature, they naturally preferred fertile lowlands to barren highlands, their views being summarized in the old highland song,

The mountain sheep are sweeter

But the valley sheep are fatter.

We therefore find it meeter

To carry off the latter.

There are millions of people today who can afford to be followers of Petrarch because they live in the richest and most highly developed civilization the world has ever seen, where they have plenty of leisure time in which to become bored by all those riches and development. They affect old rumpled clothes, unshaved jaws, salty language, they spit and sweat and boast of their kinship with aborigines. But this is all veneer; underneath they are decadents, aristocrats, snobs.

I find something quite appealing in this particular form of snobbery. Compared to academic snobs, politically correct snobs and old-fashioned social snobs, they have a certain ingenuous cheerful charm, and I wish them all joy as they follow the spoor of the wolverine and unroll their sleeping bags under the giant ponderosa.

But I urge them to try to avoid the great vice of their kind which is megalomania. A man who has been infected with the wilderness lust is rarely satisfied with one stretch of virgin forest or one giant waterfall or one uncluttered mountainside. He wants hundreds and thousands of square miles of thicket and coulee and beaver dam and white water, and he wants them all for himself.

In the full euphoria which attends this fever, all sense of balance and proportion tends to slip away. You [when I say you I am obviously not talking of the idealistic young hoodlums who drove sharp steel spikes into the flesh of living redwoods so that when the buzzsaws hit them workers in the sawmills would be killed or maimed, thus providing salvation to the wilderness] struggle, maneuvering stubbornly through uneven soil and sharp rock and prickly pear and poison oak, to the top of a ridge, and spread out before you are miles of sagebrush flats with white streaks of alkali, dry lakes, purple rocks, an immensity of desolation, sweet reward for all your strain and all the perils you have overcome. Your heart fills with delight, and then you catch sight of a rickety service-station at a forsaken crossroads, and all the beauty drains out of the scene. A single beer can will spoil a square mile of woods. And when it comes to lovers' initials and fraternity Greek letters scrawled on a rock-face, it takes no more than one such pitiful imprint of humanity to spoil a mighty mountain.

This is very wrong-headed, though it must be admitted that there is something grandiose about a wilderness lover in full flight. No one who reads it can ever forget the passage in which John Muir, the great American naturalist, describes how one night at the height of a tempest in the High Sierra, he lashed himself to the trunk of a giant pine and for hours heaved and swung with the great tree while the wind howled and the whole mountainside quivered to its blasts. The scene has truly majestic absurdity about it.

I am reliably informed that it is impossible to replicate Muir's experience in present-day California. There is not a high tree on any mountainside in the state from which you cannot see the lights of cars stabbing through the night on some freeway or other. And of course that spoils everything. For the particular sensation, the frisson, that John Muir was after, was not simply a physical one. you could get the same sensation by lashing yourself to the mast on top of the Empire State Building above the herds of Manhattan. What mattered was the exultant triumphant feeling of riding the blasts, of soaring over a vast stretch of pure convulsed nature and doing it alone, without another human soul in reach of sight or sound.

I am sure that in giving up opportunities for sensations like this, California has suffered an irreparable loss. It is, however, a loss with which I am afraid we will all have to put up. The population of California, as of the world, is growing, and this population is becoming more affluent and more mobile, and as it expands and covers the world with its detritus of motels and football fields and soda bottles, there are just not enough square miles left to satisfy the wilderness lovers.

I suggest to these worthy people that they bow gracefully to the inevitable, as indeed they have learned to do in their own lives by building tastefully decorated tightly-packed houses and garages and museums of natural history in places like Manhattan where once a mighty forest of oak and hemlock shone in primeval splendor before greedy Dutch hucksters moved in. Let them heed the example of the Kings of England. William the Conqueror and his descendants were great wilderness lovers, they turned half of the England they had conquered into royal forests where, through the brambles and under giant oaks, they could ride for boisterous days chasing the red stag and the wild boar, and any Saxon hind who tried to disturb that particular balance of nature by underhanded search for firewood or rabbits had his ears, or worse, chopped off. Grudgingly, over the centuries, the kings gave up this demi-paradise to the uncouth people of England, who insisted on parceling it out into grubby farms and grimy factories and polluted cities. The loss could never be made good, but the royal huntsmen gamely swallowed their grief, and sought a replica of their old pleasures in tiger-shoots in India and safaris in East Africa.

Just so our modern wilderness lovers may soon have to abandon the whole North American continent to the suburbanite hordes and the oil drillers and the sports utility vehicles. Barring a nuclear war, which would bring back the wilderness with a vengeance, they will have to spread their wings a little and indulge their special tastes in Spitsbergen and the mountains of Papua New Guinea. And when the tides of civilization lap eventually sweep over these too, there should be excursion tickets available to Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Alpha Centauri. And there should be enough unspoiled wilderness there to anybody's taste.

©1968 Robert Wernick

Parts of this text appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, ca 1968