“I Wish to Speak a Word for Nature” – Personal Experiences of the Wild Part 1

This essay is based on an address I read to the Thoreau Society Annual Gathering in July 2011. I have divided it into four parts for the blog.

“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” 

These opening words of Thoreau’s essay “Walking” are a manifesto, and an inspiration to all of us who love nature. This essay is a personal response to that statement. 

I grew up surrounded by a forest, and after leaving home, nature excursions have been a major recreation activity. I have hiked trails and climbed mountains across the United States from Maine to Big Sur, and I’ve skied down mountains across North America from Mont Tremblant to Squaw Valley. But three special places have influenced me deeply and brought me back into a kind of apperception, or subjective sensibility for the natural environment. These are: the Adirondack Park; the Walden Woods; and Baxter State Park.

So my essay has four parts. The first three involve my personal experiences of these special places, after which I conclude with consideration of another great natural area that illustrates the dilemma that we, the American people, continue to have in our occupation of this land that we call the United States. In this discussion I will be considering some of the challenges that Thoreau laid out for us with which we are still engaging in our 21st century environmental ethos. These include: What is wildness? How should human beings relate to nature? What are the appropriate uses of wildness, if any?

The Adirondack Park

In 1962 while living in Ithaca, New York, I met and became friends with Sidney who was living in the same rooming house. We went on some hikes in the countryside, and he suggested that in the summer we should spend a week in the Adirondacks. He was from Philadelphia and his family had taken regular summer trips to a campground there. 

We ended up taking three trips together, during the 1960s. Each lasted about a week; the first time we stayed in the Adirondack Loj, and the other two times we did moveable camping and stayed in the lean-to shelters. 

Being in this vast, gentle wildness opened my senses to new levels. The experience was totally different from a day or a weekend. After living for so many years in cities and towns, studying and working, my senses had become dulled and needed this tonic. I remember the clear, still ponds, the rock faces, the white pines, spruces, and firs, the treeless peaks where wind and dryness allowed a foothold only to shrubs, ground vines and mosses. The view from any peak in the High Peaks area was spectacular: a vision of the same rolling landscape as far as the eye could see.

On the trail we built fires for our dinners of canned meat and bean soups, and had bread and water or powdered flavored drinks. Breakfast was cereal and coffee, lunch was cheese and peanut butter sandwiches, fruit, nuts. 

What made the greatest impression on me was the silence. The first day or so my ears were ringing, not used to the low sound level. Then suddenly they cleared, and I heard every murmur: the wind in the pines, a squirrel scampering, leaves rustling, sticks breaking, voices at a long distance indicating that we were likely to meet someone on the trail. Sidney was spooked by the silence at night the first time when we were alone in a shelter. He had a portable radio and turned it on for some connection to the world, but the only station we could get was from Quebec with a French-speaking talk show host. We could not understand the dialogue, but soon learned that the host was partial to women with young-sounding voices; men would get a short amount of polite conversation, while he would talk at length with great animation with any attractive-sounding woman. We had a lot of fun eavesdropping on this activity.

Over the week our bodies strengthened, our endurance increased, we felt more alive. In those days there were not that many people at any one time even in the High Peaks area, and over a week one would meet or hear about most of them. I estimated once that there were about fifty hikers in total in the area who were camping on the trails. We met a lot of characters and have had a lifetime of stories to tell. I’ll put up a blog post later titled “Adirondack Tales”.

The Adirondack Park, established by the New York State Legislature in 1892, is huge, extending over about 6 million acres. Of this area about 2.6 million acres form the Forest Preserve, to be kept “forever wild”. Within the Park boundaries, there are towns and villages and considerable privately owned land. Timber cutting occurs in the Park outside the Preserve, and hikers often hear the sounds of their saws. New York State authorities regulate and manage activities within the Park, which results in constant friction and accommodation of multiple interests of hikers, canoers, landowners and businesses.

My experiences in the Adirondacks have stayed with me and informed my views of wildness and wilderness. Heavy timber operations over the entire area in the 19th century eliminated almost all virgin forest; however, a century of protection has kept the Preserve in a condition that is getting close to what we would consider wilderness. The rest of the Park area is in varying conditions of wildness, and includes a useful forest products industry, sport fishing around Lake Placid, and the Olympic sports complex in the same area. Bill McKibben, who lived in the Adirondacks for much of his life, says that this area is a good model for the human and nature connection in other large lightly developed rural areas. I’m inclined to agree with him; there has to be a balance between full preservation of exceptional areas in their natural state, along with reasonable regulation of human activities in other areas. However, the era of unregulated activity by private owners needs to come to an end.