Nature Experience: Wilderness – What is it?

I remember once when a professor of mine asked this question of the class: You’ve just gone to the wilderness. Where are you going?

For most of us the answer was a forested area, sometimes in the mountains, but sometimes not. Within the class of twenty or so, not one person thought of grassland, or desert or seashore as wilderness.

So, where would you be going if you were going wilderness camping?

In my mind, wilderness evokes thoughts of acres and acres of land where other humans are rarely seen. It is an area where both natural flora (plants) and fauna (living creatures) are not just living, but thriving – at least for the most part. The ecosystem is working fairly well, and human interference is minimal. Because of that, there is little air or water pollution, and activities like logging, mining, grazing and farming are kept to a minimum. 

With that definition, who’s to say that a wilderness couldn’t be a native grassland, desert or seashore? Fact is, some places classified as wilderness are those ecosystems.

The United States has many areas labeled ‘wilderness.’ In my home town of Tulsa, we even have a park designated as an ‘urban wilderness.’ In that area, Turkey Mountain, hikers, mountain bikers, equestrian riders and walkers share a heavily wooded mountainside and trails that wind around one of the higher ‘peaks’ to the west of Tulsa. Yes, you can hear airplanes heading to one of two airports; yes, you can hear traffic on nearby highways; but yes, you can see the Arkansas River and the bald eagles that frequently nest along it; and yes, human interference in the natural area is kept to a minimum. However, one rarely visits Turkey Mountain without encountering other people – and often at least a dozen of them during one short hour-long hike.

I find it hard to see Turkey Mountain as a wilderness area, but a key to it might be the designation ‘urban wilderness.’ In that case, it’s pretty special to have such a place in a metropolitan area of more than 750,000 people.

But head out to the western United States, the land of wide open spaces and incredible mountain ranges, and those wilderness areas fit the definition much better.
Maybe there needs to be an element of isolation in the definition as well.

I’m realizing that to me, wilderness can be anywhere. A key for me seems to be lack of evidence of other people. And maybe that’s because typically people are ‘doing’ something to the landscape. I love ‘leave no trace’ camping and other activities. ‘Pack it in and pack it out.’ For me, if someone leaves litter, or evidence that ‘I was here’ behind, the wilderness component is negated.

I look forward to wilderness activities. To see the sky, feel  – and hear – the wind, see native vegetation and wildlife is a regenerating activity for me. The good news: I’m starting to lose the feeling that wilderness must be forest.

Your thoughts?

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