Wilderness experience and the spirit of wild land


Wilderness experience is one of those journeys that people make to find meaning in life. I have done so myself, but I do not use it as a measure of life, its success or failure, because there is no ambition in me except to make sense of existence. What makes me feel this is important is that it is not just about an existence amongst other people, but amongst all species, the land community as Aldo Leopold called it (1). Over the years, as I explored that existence, I have fallen in love with wild nature, and I want to take my place in that land community.

Permaculture was a good schooling for this outlook, not just because it envisions a sustainable relationship with nature based on limiting our impact and use, but because it recognises that humans must have a true value for wild nature that ensures that it has its own space (the Zone 5 in Permaculture, which is analogous in some ways to the designated wilderness in America). When I first learnt about this over 10 years ago, I didn’t realise the full importance of it, and most people learning Permaculture and living in our predominantly urban settings in Britain wouldn’t. But it’s that collision of circumstance, the interest in exploring landscapes for wild flowers and then seeing the context of how and why they flourish, and how all the other species of the land community flourish, that showed me how important wildland is to the sustainable existence of humans. Lose that wildland, as we certainly have in Britain, and we are impoverished in so many ways, spiritually, aesthetically, and in long term sustainability. When we lose wildland, we lose the ability for landscapes to self-renew, to wholly regenerate, and to be supportive of the whole land community. As will become clear later, this is trapping the human species in a tragedy of its own making.

I am drawn also to the spiritual aspect of wildland, but not in the way that a monk seeks a remote place to better commune with his god. The importance to me is more corporeal: it is restorative to the soul, and can be healing for the mind. Thoreau, in Walden: or, a life in the Woods wrote “in wildness is the salvation of mankind”. Richard Mabey would probably agree with this as his book Nature Cure describes how his life fell apart through mental illness, how he threw off the childhood home and landscape of the Chilterns that had nurtured him for so many years, and how in moving to Suffolk it was nature that cured him, eventually dragging himself out from the safety of his room to explore this new landscape, and to find the wildness in it.

I could have done with recognising this “nature therapy” 25 years ago. Staring then at a crossroads in life, I have since grappled with trying to understand why the commonplace tokens for self esteem don’t seem to work for me, and often leave me hollow. I believe it is ego that I am uncomfortable with, and why my greatest satisfaction and release comes where ego isn’t a factor. This is why I am drawn to wildland, and especially wilderness. The natural and physical beauty of wilderness is often breathtaking, and it is all so much bigger and more important than me. I am not thinking there, trying to impose my will. Instead I am in awe. To reach that place has taken some effort. It is a transcendent experience that is not granted lightly and which owes nothing to my existence.

The richness of wild landscapes

One of these places is Missouri Lakes in the Holy Cross Wilderness (2). This is a designated wilderness area in the White River National Forest in Colorado (see the homepage photo). Holy Cross was the seventh in a series of 10 wilderness areas that I walked this summer in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming. The experience of the wilderness trail to Missouri Lakes is given gravity at the outset by having to self-register for a permit at the trailhead. Once “logged in” you can start out on the trail that takes you up to 11,500ft through an ever changing landscape. Water – the abundance or lack of it - is such a driver there, as is the varying soil depth and content, and the increasing environmental stress that comes with higher altitude. The vegetation cover can change from step to step because of these factors, and so you can be walking through a variety of habitats in only a very short space.

As you walk the trail, Missouri Creek falls through woodland and exits onto wet plateaux of willow flats that along with their dwarf alder and birch are a fantastically rich habitat (good for moose if they were there). The creek snakes through that flat landscape before it falls again through woodland, sometimes in narrow box canyons and cascading over rocks and falls. Aspens in the lower altitude montane areas denote moisture (but not wetness) as well as opportunism when the predominant cover of conifers in the Rockies (pine, fir, spruce) has undergone some catastrophic natural disturbance such as high wind, snow/rock avalanche, or fire. In the northern Rockies of Yellowstone, the lodgepole pine thrives on natural fires - their cones release seed after fire and they flourish in the sunny, open locations created after fire has ripped through destroying the canopy. But inexorably when the shade increases from the regenerating pine, the fir and spruce seeds germinate and will eventually grow to dominate again. The same happens to aspen, its glory lasting for perhaps 100 years before it too is subsumed by the regeneration of fir and spruce.

The evergreen conifers do little for the soil other than to create shade and alter hydrology. Soil in this woodland is thin and poor and selects for undergrowth that can cope, such as bilberry, juniper, bearberry and buffaloberry. Dry woodland is the most challenging, but even there it will still have the arterial system of run offs that allow wetland species to exist within inches of dryer land. In contrast, the deciduous shrubs and small trees of the willow flats add to the fertility of the plateau, as does the siltation from the slower running of the creek. Conifers will not grow there. Throw in beaver and these willow flats could be turned within a century into upland meadows as the creek engineers get to work.

As you ascend, the harshness of altitude begins to show it’s shaping force as trees become shorter, one-sided away from the wind (krummholz – see (3)) and skirted as the cover of winter snow protects the branches lower down. Exposure and patches of snow cover, the alpine areas besides the lakes are finally treeless as the treeline is reached (4). The lakes are partially frozen, the summer sun encouraging snow melt and the flush of very low growing, brightly coloured alpine flowers. Moss campion (Silene acaulis) expands there at only an inch or so in five years, taking 20 years before it blooms – it is considered to be a fast growing alpine. A deep tap root tenaciously anchors this cushion-forming plant, and many of the plants are likely to be at least 100 years old. This is a fragile landscape, stable to the marmots, golden mantled ground squirrels and occasional elk and lynx, but absolutely destroyed in places in the past when sub-alpine and alpine areas of the Rockies were run with the sheep of Euro-American settler’s.

Designated wilderness is a gem in the portfolio of publicly owned wildland that Americans furnish themselves with. It has been my ideal since discovering it five years ago. That idealism has been tempered with the greater exposure to its regulatory mechanisms since then (and their abuse) but the essential values of wildland that I admire are still in place, as is the amazing wilderness experience on offer. So, along with the transcendent experience of Holy Cross Wilderness, there was the incredible force of the cascading water of Crazy Creek in Absaroka-Beartooth and the absolute gaiety of the sagebrush wildflowers; the primal appeal of the remote and virtually inaccessible terrain alongside Republic Creek in North Absaroka; reaching the richly flowered Bailey Meadow wetland on the Arizona Creek Trail in Teton; the beautiful lakes and mountain backdrop in Indian Peaks on the Mitchell Lake Trail; finding twinflower at last on the Bowen Gulch Trail in Never Summer (it gets hit with large amounts of rain and snow that collect on its storm-wracked peaks); the fabulous mixed woodland on the Three Mile Trail in Mount Evans, enjoyed in spite of the murderous thunderstorm overhead; the delightful lily pad lakes in Eagles Nest with the yellow lilies inelegantly named spatterdock; the immense expanse of willow flat on the Lost Man Trail in Hunter-Frying Pan; and the scene of destruction from blow down on the mountainside backdrop to Weller Lake in Collegiate Peaks.

Experience, intimacy and exhilaration with the landscape

You don’t have to be in designated wilderness to have this transcendent experience – there are many types of protected area in America, and they can have some of that magic too. Thus a walk up from the Herman Gulch trailhead to Herman Lake in the Arapaho National Forest is a rise of 2,200ft to a stunning alpine lake at 12,000ft. There was more magic in coming across a cinnamon coloured black bear and her two cubs eating dandelion flowers while on the Beaver Ponds Loop trail in the backcountry near Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, and being careful not to disturb them. In the Curecanti National Recreation Area, the Curecanti Creek Trail falls 900ft down the narrow, deep canyon of the creek as it drops into the even more impressive canyon of the Gunnison River. It is a startling descent that seems almost vertical in places. The trailside is a garden of wild fruiting shrubs, and the eagles circle above from their nests on the canyon cliffs. What these places have in common with designated wilderness is that they are where nature is in charge, there is no mechanised transport there, nor any agricultural use, and the only management you may see is repair of the trail from high use.

Something else these places have in common is a physicality that is not just about the rigors of ascent or descent. Trails are “passages through the landscape” weaving and wending through complex landforms and land cover, revealing new vistas along the way. It’s a physical intimacy with the landscape where the mind is less important in negotiating these trails than the body. However, this does not rule out the spiritual in complementing the physical, as all good trail walks have the twin pay off in breathtaking variety and naturalness (the wildflowers, wild mammals, woodland, water and rocks) as well as the physical achievement. I understand what Jack Turner is getting at when he sums up his backcountry walk with two friends along the mountain peaks of the Tetons in the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (5). All three have ample college qualifications, but the hike is about them being "happiest when we completely occupy our bodies".

And I have seen exhilaration when in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, on a trail through the edge of its wilderness (an edge that doesn’t really qualify to give me a count of 11 wildernesses!) I met a father, daughter and son who were coming up the Gunnison route, a backcountry trail that descends into the canyon wilderness ending at the river. It’s a descent of 1800ft over one mile. All three still had their climbing harnesses on as the trail drops 80ft over a rock face on the way down. The girl was maybe 12 and the boy 10. They had spent three nights down there, and the children were comically filthy. It had taken them five hours to get down, and they were hoping that they could get back up in five hours as well. They excitedly told me not to take the trail and go down to the river as it was hard going towards the end. This father and his children are an example of venturing into real wilderness experience. They survived it – they will never forget it!

Where America gets it right - and we get it wrong

All these sentiments come together for me in the short welcoming article published on the front page of a Visitor Guide issued for the adjoining wildlands of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the Curecanti National Recreation Area, and the Gunnison National Conservation Area (6):
“[These wildlands] belong to the American people, and by extension, to the world. Protecting lands of unique character, scientific, scenic, historic and recreational value has been described as America's Best Idea. We invite you to check out your public lands and see how we are doing in keeping them for this and future generations. Rangers at the visitor centers and in the backcountry will help you plan safe and unforgettable experiences”

Too true, and in a remarkable prescience considering the family group I had just met, the welcome goes on to say:
“If you are travelling with children, make an extra effort on their behalf”

But a most telling point comes with:
“We are all stewards of these lands. We hope you discover something you never knew before. It could be something about yourself or a meaningful connection to nature or history. We hope you take a life-long spark of interest home with you when you leave”

Would anyone ever expect to hear these sentiments from our national conservation agencies, national park authorities or Wildlife Trusts? Will we ever come anywhere close to "America's Best Idea" unless we also have their aspirational sense of shared ownership and stewardship of lands untrammelled by exploitation? I have to conclude that we don’t have the philosophy or ethos anywhere near right here for land and wild nature in Britain when there is no central, shared aspiration - no shared ownership in both a physical and a spiritual sense.

The problem is that we are entirely uncritical of the extent of agricultural land use in Britain, and we very much hold ourselves in ignorance of this situation through a state of cultural conditioning. Unthinkingly, our blanding out of landscapes from millennia of farming has taken them to the point where they will no longer support the human species without our continuing that total agricultural domination. Take away the livestock that dominates our landscapes, and there is at present nothing that could sustain us in the grazing land that covers over half our land area. Contrast that with the rich diversity of wild nature in the designated wilderness of America, and which in former times provided succour to the Native American population.

There is an unrelenting pressure for this agricultural domination to continue in Britain, even in our most marginal landscapes (see 7, 8). We are told in one report from Scotland on its hills and islands that (8):
“People prefer a managed, compared with an unmanaged, countryside. They consider that if farming ceased, the landscape would become derelict and less attractive”

But then this same report contradicts itself:
“There are some habitats and landscapes where the interruption of the natural succession by a combination of managed and unmanaged grazing has left the landscape degraded, and there is a strong public desire for it to be more natural”

Our perception of landscape is a pathetically undeveloped area of research in Britain. More commonly, and it seems mostly in Scotland, people are asked about what they want from agricultural landscapes (9) and their perceptions of farming itself (10). Rarely are people asked for their perceptions of wildland in Britain, and when they were in one recent Scottish (again!) survey, the design of the study was so poor as to render it meaningless.

I saw the questionnaire earlier this year that was used in the survey and knew then that the poor range of images, especially for woodland, meant that it was unlikely to advance our understanding of the public perception of wildland from a similar survey 10 years ago (11). Seeing the published report has confirmed this but, even worse, contradictions abound in the report along with an incomplete analysis of the findings it does have (12). Thus when people were asked to describe the characteristics of a wild place, forests and woods featured highly. However, when photos of various landscapes were shown, the image of woodland was rated less wild than other areas, for example, mountains. This is in spite of the fact that the woodland image shown to them of open, native pine woodland would appear unchallenging on the basis of studies in other countries that suggest that it is close-by, dense woodland that makes people feel uneasy (see (13)). In explanation, the authors say that seeing photographs of various landscapes may have clarified respondent’s choices, or that the particular photograph did not match their perception of woods. Well, what is it?

The authors have also recast the responses on wildland characteristics using broad brush categories supplied by Scottish Natural Heritage and the Cairngorms National Park Authority. In this recasting, the category “Naturalness of land cover” comes out first by a large margin. I am suspicious of this for good reasons: they don’t say precisely what characteristics they have lumped together but it must include uplands (hills/mountains) and glens, if not also moorlands and open space. Is this really “naturalness” of land cover when it includes these agricultural landscapes within it?

Here is our tragedy in Britain, no true wildland with which to develop a value system for wild nature. Our ultimate survival independently of that agricultural domination of our landscapes would thus be the selfish motivation to regain wild land, but the moral motivation is that we have no greater right than any other species. We should in all humility give them their space, and we then only get close to that space if we do not threaten it by our lifestyle or exploitation. Will we ever have a wilderness experience in Britain unless we do this?

Mark Fisher, 17 September 2008

(1) Leopold’s Land Ethic, The Aldo Leopold Foundation


(2) Holy Cross Wilderness, White River National Forest, USDA Forest Service


(3) Krummholz, Wikipedia


(4) Treeline, Wikipedia


(5) Travels in the Greater Yellowstone, Jack Turner (2008) Thomas Dunne Books ISBN 0-312-26672-3

(6)Visitor Guide (2008) Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Curecanti, Gunnison Gorge, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, Dept of Interior (large PDF)


(7) Is our taste for Sunday roast killing the planet? Robin McKie and Caroline Davies, Observer 7 September 2008


(8) Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Scotland’s Hills and Islands, Royal Society of Edinburgh, September 2008


(9) Beauty, beast and biodiversity: what does the public want from agriculture? Report to The Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department


(10) Public perceptions of food and farming in Scotland, Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department, December 2003


(11) Visual perception of wild land in Scotland, Habron, D. (1998) Landscape and Urban Planning 42:45-56

(12) Public Perceptions of Wild Places and Landscapes in Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage August 2008


(13) Preference and naturalness: An ecological approach, Purcella, AT & Lamb, RJ (1998) Landscape and Urban Planning 42: 57-66


www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk