The Myth about Wilderness?
A Treatise on the Notion of Wilderness: a Canadian perspective.
By Emerson Grossmith (1988)
“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”.
So says Edward Abbey in his 1970 book—Desert Solitaire.
Wilderness, what is it and does it still exists? This is a question that I have been dwelling upon lately, especially since I am back to working for the summer as a ‘bridge builder’ for Parks Canada in the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains. There has been a preponderance of literature on this subject and many of these authors share some of the same views that I do. This idea of wilderness was brought to my attention by my good Jordanian friend Mu’qaddam As’ad who asked me in innocence—“What is a wilderness?” Mu’qaddam and I are teachers in UAE where we shared an office. I am constantly being asked where I live in Canada and what is it like. The Levantines have trouble envisioning what a ‘green country’ with fresh flowing waters is like. I paused before answering his question, as English is not his mother tongue and I feared I would have quite a bit of explaining to do regarding the subtleties of ‘wilderness’. In my mind, I immediately thought of the Canadian Rockies where I have spent most of the past 20 years exploring. It is true that, in the beginning I did hike mostly groomed trails, but it was after that I found freedom in off-trail hiking, esp. above treeline. To go boldly where no one has gone before—well, but it did feel a tad more adventurous than your weekend hiker. Bushwhacking is one of the rewards for committing oneself to off-trail hiking and quite often this includes shortcuts. But, it would be foolish to assume that I had or my friends had hiked where no one else had gone.
Since coming to Banff in 1978, I have worked on ‘trail crew’ building new trails, maintaining old ones or constructing bridges for backpackers. In most respects, it is hardly a wilderness, but once you are off the main highways you are on your own, or at least that is what most people would like to believe—one individual against the elements. But, over the years, we have become complacent and we do not wish to live so close to the edge. For many of us, who want excitement, we can go to the Banff Mountain Film Festival or read about it in Outside Magazine. We can get our dose of excitement from being at these venues, actually living vicariously through someone else’s dangers. To paraphrase Kris Kristofferson—wilderness has just become another word for something left to lose.
During the last great gold rush to the frontier in the Yukon, Robert Service summed it up best—
“I’ve clinched and closed with the naked north,
I’ve learned to defy and defend.
Shoulder to shoulder we have fought it out,
Yet, the wild must win in the end.”
The wild is not winning anymore. It is being ploughed under, cemented over, and turned into parking malls for shopping centres, plundered for minerals, oil extraction and clear cut for its lumber. There isn’t any place on the planet that hasn’t been mapped by a satellite. There is no ‘terra incognita’. The planet is getting smaller and population is becoming larger and larger. This myth about wilderness is just becoming wistful thinking.
What is wilderness? According to Webster’s Dictionary:
1. an uncultivated, uninhabited region; waste; wild 2. any barren, empty, or open area, as of ocean 3. a large confused mass or tangle 4. a wild condition or quality
‘Wilderness’ has been mentioned in the Bible and many think that this was the Sinai. Also, there is mention of a ‘Wilderness of Sin’ which might well be in Arabia. I suppose at some point, medieval Europeans considered the New World as a wilderness. Many modern Europeans still regard Canada and parts of America with that romantic notion of the “last great frontier”. Europeans have never had a wilderness of their own so how could one expect them to have the slightest idea of what a wilderness could be. To them, any land that is uninhabited or lacking culture might well be described as a ‘wilderness’. This view still prevails today and I quote from a recent article in The Globe and Mail from a London correspondent:
“We are, after all, a country that has tamed the wilderness… many of us are descendants of rugged adventurers who left the civilized Old World for the great unknown”.
This is a Eurocentric view that Canada is a big wasteland and not civilized. Perhaps, these Europhobes confuse wide-open spaces and big sky country with their idea of wilderness. There are those, south of the 49th parallel who still regard Canada as something of a “frontier”. In his 1998 book, An Empire Wilderness, Robert Kaplan refers to the area just east of the city of Vancouver as “a magical frontier, breathtaking even when seen from the air”. I think many people confuse forested areas and mountains with the eternal misnomer- frontier or wilderness, as the title of his book implies. What a myopic view of Canada, but it does not seem out of line with the world’s general view of western Canada, if not, Canada in general. Basically, it is a fundamental error if not downright insulting!
At any rate, I had to give Mu’qaddam a definitive description of what I thought was a ‘wilderness’. He assumed that Canada was all a wilderness and to a certain degree he was right—there is a large expanse of uninhabited land. But, I also pointed out that much of the Middle East is a ‘wilderness’: great tracts of land and sand where no one lives or could live. You could live in the northern tundra as there is wood for shelter, wild game, fish and berries to eat, fresh water to drink and solitude. However, in the Middle Eastern desert, water is a premium and difficult to find. As a Near Eastern archaeologist, there are not too many places in the Middle East where one can walk without finding visible remains of “lost cultures or civilizations”. As such, it is difficult for my friend Mu’qaddam to appreciate what Canada looks like without conjuring up visions of a wilderness. For him, if there is no visible evidence of past civilizations then the land must indeed be a wilderness, no less a cultural wilderness.
Being back in North America and particularly in Canada, I realize that this notion of ‘wilderness’ is being assailed from all sides: mining, logging, commercialization, ecotourism and Parks Canada. Moreover, the idea of ‘wilderness’ is rapidly becoming an obsolete word in English. What brought this to a head was a recent trip to the ‘wilderness’ at Helmet Creek cabin. My crew and I were sent in to work on a bridge in the backcountry of Kootenay National Park. We were flown in by helicopter to carry out this mission. We were linked to the outside world by radio and instructed to leave the radio on from 7:00am--7:30am and again in the evening from 5:00pm–5:30pm. It was as if we had big brother looking over our shoulder all the time. So much for the ‘wilderness experience’. To compound matters further, Lake Louise/Yoho/Kootenay Unit (LLYKU) policy stated that we had to call in to the Warden Dispatch out of Banff. This seemed a little much as we worked for LLYKU and not Banff Park. We had to do this everyday we were in a cabin or camp at 8am and again at 8pm—a bit much! My supervisor told me that if we didn’t report in everyday that Warden Dispatch would assume that we were in trouble and that they would dispatch a helicopter to our cabin for a rescue. I felt like a teenager who had gone away on a trip and had to check in with parent’s everynight. How patronizing Banff Park has become. How obsessive they have become over a territory that they have no authority over. My supervisor explained that the reason we had to check in could be traced to an incident that involved a solitary backcountry warden. Apparently, the warden was alone in the backcountry where his horse accidentally kicked him in the head. Perhaps he died but the outcome is that everyone who goes into the backcountry for an extended time must now do these daily reporting. This kind of protocol might well be appropriate for a solitary warden in the backcountry but it is entirely unnecessary for a three man crew to adhere to. The prospect of three trail workers being involved in an accident in a backcountry cabin is highly remote. This is just another example of Banff Park’s control of the Four Mountain Parks system. Moreover, what does it say about our qualifications to handle difficult situations in the backcountry. Have we become so inept in our wilderness skills that we need to report in on a daily basis? This is just another shrinking of the wilderness on a personal level. Helicopters, GIS, cell phones and highways have all helped to shrink the physical and mental boundaries of what once constituted a wilderness. Everybody wants to give the impression that they are going on a wilderness trip but when things go wrong, they want all the modern conveniences to get them out of a jam.
This Orwellian 1984 spectre of radio contact obscures the idea of a wilderness tradition. The idea of going into the backcountry is to get away from modern conveniences and enjoy the natural beauty of the land. In the future, I can envision video cameras in the backcountry cabins and trails that will monitor your every mood. Almost like a scene from the latest film- Truman’s World. It’s an apocalyptic vision if ever there was one. I thought it was bad enough that there are mountain climbers with cellular phones for quick rescue—what an adventure. Also, the advent of GPS gadgets is really making a mockery of the whole backcountry experience and the ability to read topographical maps. Where’s the adventure in knowing exactly where you are? Don’t hike off the main trail or you might find an adventure. Who needs an adventure when you can read about somebody else’s harrowing escape from misfortune or misadventure? Moreover, you can never get lost anymore; as help is just a coordinate and a phone call away. Why not just stay at home and play this on a computer game. Experience the dangers of ‘the wilderness’ without leaving the comfort of your ergonometric mouse. You can peruse the ‘virtual wilderness’, get lost, thwart a bear attack, cross a dangerous current, climb an unclimbable peak, weather a freak snow storm, bivouac at 9,000ft and identify wild ungulates as you sup your cup of designer coffee.
In conclusion, it would appear that Parks Canada wants total control of the Four Mountain Parks and everything inside it whether it is the whereabouts of a trail crew, hiker or even the wild animals—everything is tagged and monitored. I can’t wait until they issue hikers with a computer chip that will act as a homing device that will allow Parks Canada to monitor our every movement in the backcountry. Also, we have been instructed to get rid of all fire grills in the backcountry and not provide firewood. What is more natural than to have a fire in the backcountry especially when you are cold and damp? Parks Canada doesn’t see it that way. There is always a risk of a forest fire eventhough it is pissing down with rain. However, the Warden’s cabins (which are strategically located next to campgrounds) are outfitted with wood burning stoves in case of cold or rainy weather. I can’t help but feel sorry for those campers who huddle under their tarps during a downpour whilst smoke from our wood stove drifts slowly across the river. If I were in their boots, I would be pissed off. I may even start my own fire—which would, no doubt, bring a heavy fine. When I am out hiking (and depending upon the circumstances), I like to have a small fire for warmth. I do bring a gas stove and have done this since I first started hiking in the Rockies but in certain situations-- a warm fire is most welcome.
A friend in describing Edward Abbey recalls that:
“He believes in wilderness first of all for its own sake and secondly, because it allows human beings to have feelings of danger and freedom which are too often removed from modern life.”
Which brings us back to this notion of wilderness? If Parks Canada does consider these backcountry areas as ‘wilderness’ then why can’t hikers have fires. In the past, hikers were allowed to have controlled fires but now this appears to be outmoded.
I suppose I am an adherent to the philosophy of the Earth First group who is practicing “deep ecology”. “Preservationism—or “deep ecology,” as it is sometimes known—calls for a fundamental revaluation of our attitudes toward the hierarchies of nature, of our place in the global ecosystem.” Moreover, we are not masters of the universe but merely wards or caretakers of the planet earth. I don’t know if we are either or that we could be responsible caretakers of the planet. So far our record is quite dismal. We are managing to deplete our natural resources; fish, fresh water, oil, gas, leach minerals from the earth, not to mention environmental and human pollution.
I also consider myself as the antithesis to most humanoids that are homocentric. They believe that man is wonderful and isn’t it great that people can travel into outer space. Great, we’ve fucked up this planet now let’s go to another one to corrupt. I was very influenced by the writings of Harkin in his book The Spaceship Beagle. Philip Caputo’s recent article Alone mentions that:
“It seems that the more we despoil the land and divorce ourselves from the rhythms, cycles, and beauty of the material world, the less civilized we become.”
The synopsis of the Harkin’s book basically states that the earth is the Spaceship Beagle, and we are responsible for what goes on inside the spaceship. So, the idea of hiding or shipping uranium waste or garbage to landfill sites in other countries will come back to haunt us, because like a spaceship—there’s nowhere to hide!
 I have just come back to Canada for the summer from the sparse, sandy ‘wilderness’ of the Arabian Peninsula. I have
been teaching English in the ‘wilderness’ of the United Arab Emirates for the past year.