The Need for Wilderness

by | February 16, 2012

© Greg RussellIt is my fourth morning waking up in the desert. Red dirt fills my pores, and has combined with sweat to form a sort of “desert varnish” over most of my body—a strangely welcome feeling that instantly evokes memories of summer on the Colorado Plateau during my youth. I climb out of my sleeping bag, fetch my tripod and camera and walk up the ridge. Below me, a deer moves through the willows, startled no doubt by my heavy feet. Moving further up the ridge and out of the shaded valley, the air warms, but last night’s rain has left the smells of dirt and sage heavy in the air.

I am still slightly groggy as I arrive at the viewpoint I scouted last night.  The sun isn’t up yet, but will begin to break the landscape very soon. I sit on a rock, surveying the sky—no clouds. The rain had left me hopeful of a dramatic sunrise. No luck today. The distant cliffs begin to light up, bright sunlight working its way down the face, highlighting subtlety in the elegant Wingate sandstone. Sitting on a large rock, I smile…I’m home.

Capitol Reef Sunrise © Greg Russell

Describing the Colorado Plateau to people who do not know it has always been incredibly difficult for me; I search helplessly for powerful adjectives the way one might do if they were telling a friend about a new love. We all know of its immediate beauty, but the subdued details of the Plateau only reveal themselves with time, after you’ve developed a relationship with the place. For me, there is a deeper meaning: most of my life, I have come to this red rock wilderness to celebrate life’s successes, and to allow myself to heal when mourning loss. The only way to experience it is to coat yourself in dust, sit there, and ponder the land.

Perhaps words are not necessary; perhaps allowing yourself to stand silently in awe is what Mother Nature intended. After all, your heart and mind are only truly open when your mouth is shut. That’s the sort of honest silence the wilderness evokes.

Factory Butte © Greg Russell

The clarity and peace of mind that come out of a relationship with the land is the very reason we need wilderness. Looking around us, we see the world changing rapidly; blank spaces on the map are disappearing, and the true fight to save wilderness will begin soon, if not in our generation, certainly in our children’s. Our responsibility is two-fold: we must fight to ensure proper the legislation is in place now to protect these places, and we must also foster a sense of place in our kids so the value of wilderness is realized by future generations. “It is not enough to fight for the land;” wrote Edward Abbey,”“it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.”

This wilderness is the place I have come to heal; where will I go to mourn its loss, if it is not protected now?

Grand Staircase Hoodoo © Greg Russell

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