This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act. To celebrate, Orion will publish special articles in print and online, including a multi-part series of personal perspectives on wilderness, the second of which is below. Orion is a sponsor of the National Wilderness Conference, to be held from October 15 – 19 in New Mexico; learn more about the conference here.
I took a walk in New Hampshire’s Great Gulf wilderness this spring. At just over 5,000 acres, it’s small by some standards, a glacial cirque surrounded by the Presidential Range. Unlike many wildernesses in the eastern United States, it was designated back in 1964, under the original Wilderness Act. There’s a heavily used trail through the middle of it, along the banks of the West Branch of the Peabody River, which roars with spring rain. The trail rises slowly at first, and then seems to go straight up the Great Gulf Headwall to the flank of Mt. Washington. But I stayed low, watching the emerging flowers. The hobblebush was in bloom; the painted and red trilliums had come up. The yellow violets and the Canada mayflowers were all there after a long winter. The softwoods dripped from days of rain, the moss practically oozed. I wondered how many people had relished this beauty in the last fifty years.
Walking in the Great Gulf, it was hard to imagine that the earth was changing all around me. And yet every day we are bombarded with the changes: record drought and fire, tornadoes, polar vortexes, class-five hurricanes. The imprint of climate change is everywhere, while the global actions to stay its effects seem so minimal and half-hearted, so enmeshed in greed and ignorance.
Climate change: it’s the complete failure to heed science; the complete failure to follow a moral compass that says we should take responsibility for our actions; the complete failure to live by an ethical principle that includes other living creatures in our universe.
For those who think of wilderness as simply areas set aside from human influence, climate change is perhaps proof that the idea of wilderness is absurd at best. There is no doubt, now, that our imprint is literally everywhere. But as I walk through the cool damp of the Great Gulf, I am convinced that wilderness is not about setting aside a geographic area and keeping it free from all human activity. Rather, it is about delineating a relationship. Wilderness celebrates a relationship to the land in which we are not at the center. Climate change, then, is many bad things, but it is not proof that wilderness is meaningless.
As I walk the Great Gulf I am overwhelmed by my love for the land. I know that with love there comes commitment and responsibility. If climate change is a moral and ethical failure on a global scale, the only thing left to me is to respond on a personal scale. I can, and will, continue to do the best I can as a caretaker and guardian of this place.
Rebecca Oreskes spent over twenty years working for the Forest Service in a variety of positions devoted to wilderness stewardship. She is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Wilderness and currently lives and writes in Milan, New Hampshire.