By Molly Murfee
We were talking about what defined wilderness. The students in my nature writing course came up with this – wilderness was the place you lost your cell phone coverage.
That was when it got real, they postulated, when help might not be just around the corner, when an ambulance couldn’t arrive to swoop you up in case danger materialized in physical consequences.
Not the presence of large predator species needing hundreds of square miles to live. Not the presence of thousands and millions of acres. Not silence, or solitude.
Their definition wasn’t based on intact ecosystems, wildlife corridors for the roamers in our midst, rich biodiversity, or unbroken habitat deep enough to preserve native species.
Cell phone reception.
I almost threw up.
These are some of the first generations who have never known a world without a cell phone. Now in college, and as could be logically anticipated, their lives are defined by it.
These young humans are good people. Their hearts are in the right place, they’re fighting all the right battles. When they graduate they will have spent years of their lives studying the environment and how best to manage this complex web of relationships between modern homo sapiens and the rest of the natural world. They are exploring sustainable farming practices and food security. They are the ones that will clean up the mess we’ve made in the oceans, protect the wild species we’ve threatened, find closed loop solutions to our mountains of trash.
I do not fault them for their response, but it makes me profoundly sad. They are products of the determined march of our contemporary culture fascinated by the glitter and glitz of ever evolving technology, and the promise that any good, safe future is one that is plugged in.
Their conclusions said a lot to me that day about where we find ourselves in this troubling modern era.
It iterates that our society has a grotesque tendency towards the egocentric. Everything we do is for ourselves. Our comfort. Our safety. Our pleasure. We have taught our youth to define something as critical and as vast, as complex and as beautiful as wilderness only in relation to themselves. Then, narrowing the vision even more, only through the lens of technological manmade inventions. That of which we are most proud.
Deep nature here wasn’t a tonic, a refuge. It was something to be rescued from, rather than by.
Of course, the avoidance of peril is a natural part of any creature’s survival. We seem, however, to be abnormally uncomfortable with uncertainty. We’ve threatened entire species to near extinction, in fact, not wanting anything out there to seem larger or more powerful than ourselves. Grizzlies. Wolves. The big cats. When not directly involved in their execution, we eat up wilderness for our convenience. We plow and bulldoze their habitat, plunging pipes into the earth to extract her resources, so our lives might be more comfortable with the heat of natural gas, the illumination of coal. Flick on the lights and crank up the thermostat. Lock the door and tune in to a screen. It’s a big scary wilderness out there. Best not to interact.
“Get a field guide, books on natural history, learn about your place,” I assigned them, checking in one day to see if they had acquired these tools.
“I have Google,” replied one.
I launched into the value of a physical book you could hold in your hands. Something that didn’t depend on being plugged in or having reception. Something that didn’t vibrate and hum and track your location. Something you could use to puzzle out the name of the tree or grass or flower in front of you.
I thought back to a study where logos of popular brands were displayed on one side of a piece of paper without any words at all. The Nike swish. The golden arches. The Coca Cola swirl. Next to them were silhouettes of birds, plants and animals, again with no identification.
Without fail, participants identified all of the modern pictorial logos. The living, breathing birds, plants and animals that surrounded them? Not so much.
This says a lot about where we place importance. It says a lot about how much we value knowing the other forms of life fliting, flying and creeping, apparently unnoticed, through our daily lives. It says a lot about our lack of connection with the natural world, and our abuse of it.
A certain origin story from a certain book kicked us out of the garden long ago apparently for wanting knowledge and exercising free will. Being a skeptic (I like to call it critical thinking), knowing how politics have always wielded religion as a heavy-handed tool, I find the whole story suspect. But that, and this little mention of “dominion,” has culturally set us up to live a life of separation where we feel we have the right to do whatever we damn well please for our purposes and our purposes alone.
Academics, historians, mystics and philosophers have been debating this concept of whether humans are a part of, or separate from, nature ever since. The issue of duality and dominion has risen into our agriculture, our management practices, our development and our attitudes. This perceived separation makes it easy to be destructive – we do not see nature as an integral part of ourselves, or us as an integral part of it.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, author Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the Great Lakes origin story of Skywoman, who fell from the heavens, but with the help of the creatures, and in collaboration with them, created our garden island home. Kimmerer imagines a meeting of Skywoman with the exiled Eve: “Sister, you got the short end of the stick …”
Another student tries a different argument - that we are nature, and so anything we create is nature – this building, these four walls, presumably the self-imposed confines of the cell phone.
I’ve heard this argument before, but I’m not so sure. Because there is something else I know …
The experience of deep, profound, intact wilderness is unrivaled, a thing unto itself, far away from the noise of our mechanized, industrialized society. To return and reconnect to a community of creatures, to ditch our self-absorbed egos that drive our every action, is not a threat. It is a homecoming. A reunion.
Being subject to the whim of weather and wildlife is not always entirely comfortable, to be sure. But to feel this frailty, this edge, this consequent humility where everything is laid down and the world looms larger than ourselves – this primacy of perspective and experience - is a redefinition we desperately, achingly need. Not just as our own refuge and healing from separation, but for the good of all our neighbors with whom we share this planet.