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Which author was right about wilderness?

July 16

A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of laughter more terrible than any sadness-a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility.
— Jack London, White Fang

We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun,—a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal.
— John Muir, In My First Summer in the Sierra

We have been doing a lot of reading this summer. Mostly about the wilderness (with an emphasis on the Arctic) and the North. After seeing Jack London’s cabin in the Yukon, I reread Call of the Wild and White Fang, as well as some of John Muir’s journals. London and Muir have quite a different view of the wilderness, as can be seen from the excerpts above. London views the wilderness as something close to hell and Muir views it as something close to heaven. Some of the difference, of course, might be the difference between the frozen North and the Sierra Mountains of California in the springtime.
Jane and I have been fortunate to spend time in the wilderness, both north and south of the U.S.-Canada border. We have been in the wilderness with skis when it is frozen, even during blizzards, as well as on bright sunny days.

While my views of the wilderness are closer to Muir’s I can understand those who have a sense of foreboding about the wilderness. I know from first-hand experience how quickly a thunderstorm or blizzard can blow up, which is particularly frightening when you are above the tree line. And when you round a corner to find a bear or moose….I know that disconcerting feeling.
Jane and I hiked to Flower Springs Lake yesterday, high in the Northern Rocky Mountains of Canada. It was an alpine lake well above the tree line. Hikes above the tree line are favorites of mine, not only for the unobstructed views, but because of the wild feeling of being in the open, miles from a road.
I have two reactions when I am in the wilderness – a sense of awe at the raw beauty of God’s creation and a sense of humility. Muir is right – in the wilderness we seem as transparent as glass. We know God’s plan, yet we are only a small part of a vast wonderful creation. We know and are known.
(See also Jane Bahls’ Arctic Adventures blog).

2 Responses to “Which author was right about wilderness?”

  1. I say heaven. The day after she graduated from Augustana, which was the May after the Exxon Valdez spill, my sister and I drove to Valdez, Alaska in a Volkswagen Rabbit pickup truck and worked there all summer. One day we took a small boat out on Prince William Sound and a salmon leaped right into our boat. We kept and carried it up a mountain that very day, roasted it in blackened seasoning over a fire and ate it for dinner. The best meal I ever had!

  2. Another interesting view on wilderness – one of stewardship and even militant conservation, from Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” –

    “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

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