Time in the Wilderness

Big Bend National Park – photo by Rae Davies

A discourse presented at Red River UU on October 16, 2022.

Our experiences and understandings of wilderness are quite varied. For some, wilderness is a place of life threatening danger. For others, it is a place of trial and temptation. Some look at wilderness as wasted land that needs to come under the control, use, and ownership of human beings. Some see wilderness as a place of great beauty and spiritual inspiration. And some see wilderness as having value for its own sake as a place of biodiversity and flourishing ecosystems. In my discourse this morning, I will explore some historical and contemporary visions of wilderness with special attention given to the importance of preserving wilderness for sake of all life on earth.

As I speak this morning, I am a bit envious of my older daughter Rae, who at this very moment is hiking in Bend National Park during her Fall Break as part of one of her classes at Oklahoma City University. She has been there since Friday, and when she woke up yesterday morning, she texted us these words – “The stars last night were AMAZING!” Yesterday and this morning she sent us dozens of beautiful photos from their hikes, and her descriptions and photos have definitely put Big Bend on the short list of places I would like to visit in the near future.

This is Rae’s third intensive interaction with nature in the past seven months. In March, she spent a week studying gulf coast ecology in south Texas, which included a significant amount of time birding. In June, she spent 10 days studying the ecology of southeastern Alaska near Juneau – logging over 60 miles of hiking. And now she is spending four days during fall break studying the ecology of Big Bend National Park – where she hiked ten miles yesterday alone. In these three experiences, Rae has seen dozens of different species of birds and come across all sorts of animals like deer, snakes, alligators, dolphins, brown bears, and even humpback whales. She has hiked the sandy shores and wetlands of south Texas, the forests and glacier covered mountains of southeast Alaska, and now the desert and mountains of Big Bend. And because these experiences are also classes, she has learned more about the flora and fauna of each of these ecosystems than I will probably ever know. These three immersion experiences in wilderness have transformed and are continuing to transform her perspectives about the world in which we live and about herself and her place within this one world house that we all share.

The inspirational impact that our experience of the awesome beauty of wilderness has on our lives is one of the many reasons wilderness and the preservation of wilderness is so important. Being in wilderness can enliven the human spirit and nourish our souls, and it reminds us of our deep connection with the Earth and the interdependence of all life. It is difficult for me to imagine how different I would be if it were not for my many experiences in wilderness.

It is important not to over-romanticize wilderness. It is important to recognize that wilderness can be…. well… wild! It can be a dangerous place. There is a reason why so many religious traditions have portrayed wilderness as a place of difficulty, danger, and trial; and we can understand why people would not want to wander lost in the wilderness for any extended period of time. It only took me one experience of feeling lost in the wilderness of the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho as a youth hiking with my dad to realize that I would never want to be lost out there again. But we cannot let our fear of the dangers of wilderness to lead us not to see the immense value that wilderness has both for the well being of our human communities and the larger ecological community of which we are all a part.

Nor should we allow a human centered focus on economic gain to lead us simply to see wilderness as a storehouse of natural resources for human use and consumption. The value of wilderness is so much more than a commodity to be bought and sold and consumed. Nor should we adhere to the view of the 17th century English philosopher John Locke who felt that wilderness had no inherent worth and was going to waste unless we as humans infuse it with value by mixing our labor with it, thereby making it our property. Such a misguided view of wilderness, combined with Locke’s deeply misguided and racist views of indigenous persons, led him to the erroneous and evil conclusion that European invaders were justified in taking the land which native peoples had inhabited for centuries because in his Eurocentric and racist logic, indigenous persons were letting the land go to waste by not mixing enough of their labor with it to make it their property.

These Lockean views of wilderness and private property have sadly been the normative guide for much of humanity as we have conquered and commodified wilderness over the past three and a half centuries. Such a worldview is one of the reasons why there is very little true wilderness left in the world, and it is a key contributing factor to why there is less than half of the wildlife on earth today than there was when I was born 56 years ago. It is why we are currently experiencing the sixth great extinction event in the history of our planet, and the only mass global extinction event caused by the activity of one species.

There have been wise persons who have recognized the moral and ecological bankruptcy of John Locke’s views about the value of wilderness and our commodification and consumption of wilderness. The life and wisdom of indigenous persons and cultures provide humanity with a radically different vision of our relationship with our ecological communities and with radically different ways of being in relationship with nature and wilderness. Listening to and taking this wisdom to heart will be key to correcting the way we relate with the earth. It is not an accident that indigenous persons are at the forefront of the environmental justice movement and the climate justice movement to preserve a livable climate for all life.

Here in the United States, ecological visionaries like John Muir (the inspiration for our national park system), Aldo Leopold (author of the ecological classic A Sand County Almanac), Rachel Carson (author of The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring) and many other wise persons have warned us about what is at stake for all of humanity and for all life if we do not preserve wilderness. The biodiversity and ecological health of our planet are dependent on the preservation of large areas of wilderness.

When we destroy wilderness, we interfere with the balance, stability, and integrity of ecosystems that have taken ages to develop. We disrupt the collaborative and mutually beneficial relationships among species that have often evolved over great periods of time, but that are being wiped out before our very eyes. This is a significant loss to ecosystems and to both human and ecological flourishing. In the end, it is also a devastating loss for the human spirit as there are fewer and fewer opportunities to experience the great wonder and beauty of this awesome planet that is our only home.

We all need to be connected to places where the wild things are, and our lives are enriched when we witness the grandeur of the forests, the mountains, the seas, and the deserts. We all need to see the other animals and all life on this planet as our kin and understand that our well being is connected with the well-being of all life. And we all need a place we can go where when we wake up in the morning, the first thought that comes to our mind is that “the stars last night were AMAZING.”




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