Why I Fell in Love With Wilderness

I can’t say exactly when I finally realized how important wilderness is to me.

I started venturing out when I was 19, and had just moved to the mountains of western North Carolina to attend college. I was (and still am) in awe of the beauty of the mountains. Living in a small college town next to Great Smoky Mountains National Park provided a gateway to explore an United Nations International Biosphere Reserve every day. I ventured out on trails, went out on mountain ridges to look at the stars, took books out into the forest to read, set up my easel and canvas at mountain overlooks to create paintings, camped, and in the process learned a lot about myself.

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Appalachian Wilderness (Photo by Mark Ellison)

I love all types of nature, but wilderness is what captivates me. Primarily because it provides freedom from human created noise, space to wander and explore, and biodiversity that is mesmerizing. I, like many others, find comfort just knowing that these places exist as an escape.

The Wilderness Act of 1964   created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States, and protected 9.1 million acres of federal land. This act defines wilderness as: “a wilderness, in contract with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

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Spring Salamander (Photo by Mark Ellison)

When I was in graduate school at NC State I read the book Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash in preparation for my dissertation and research on the restorative benefits of hiking in wilderness. That book, more than any other helped me understand the importance of wilderness, not just to provide places for humans to experience nature, but also as land set aside for other species. Humans setting aside space for such a purpose epitomizes our responsibility for the well-being of the planet and all the species that inhabit it. The concept that we are visitors in wilderness, that it is a place that is set aside for other species, draws me in. So much of our planet is now developed with very little concern about the impact on the natural environment.

Wilderness is about so much more than what it can offer me. There are many reasons I love it, in addition to it’s place as a refuge for so many non-human species.

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Rain on an Eastern Hemlock (Photo by Mark Ellison)

One of the most wonderful aspects of wilderness is that it does not place any demands on my attention. I am free to focus on what captures my interest. A bird chirping from high in a tree, clouds, the breeze, water flowing in a stream, the rustling of leaves, or looking deep into a dark night sky. It most cases, I do not hear any cars, or motorcycles, or people talking. There is an occasional plane, even at the One Square Inch of Silence in Olympic National Park that we visited last spring. My mind is free to wonder.

These soft fascinations, as Stephen & Rachel Kaplan describe them, are interesting but do not demand all our attention. This allows our indirect attention capacities to kick in, letting our directed attention capacities that we use regularly to rest and recover from fatigue. Returning home and to work after spending time in wilderness undoubtedly improves my ability to focus and makes me a much more fun person to hang out with.

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Wildflowers in the Smokies (Photo by Mark Ellison)

One of the most wonderful things about wilderness is that I can go there to do absolutely nothing.  I was recently looking over a note a friend from long ago gave me that included a passage from the Tao of Pooh that describes the experience well. “Say Pooh, why aren’t you busy? I said. Because it’s a nice day says Pooh. Yes, but–, why ruin it he said. But you could be doing something important, I said. I am, said Pooh. Oh, doing what? Listening, he said. Listening to what? To the birds. And the squirrel over there. What are they saying? I asked. That it’s a nice day, said Pooh. But you know that already I said. Yes, but it’s always good to hear that somebody else thinks so, too, he replied.”

It really shouldn’t be a surprise, but when I spend time in wilderness my spirit is renewed. I have more energy. Perhaps it is because I am venturing into a place that is so different than what I experience during a typical day, that it feels like I am going to another world.

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Up high in the Smokies (Photo by Mark Ellison)

Perhaps the most important component of the wilderness experience for me is reconnecting with the natural environment and understanding that I am part of a much larger universe. It is here that I can see the thread of life that is woven through all things. I use this time to express gratitude to the trees, the wildflowers, the water, and all the other species for what they do to make our world inhabitable and beautiful. We must take care of the trees and plants that have done so much to care for us. Understanding that we are in a reciprocal relationship with the natural environment is essential to the continued well-being of all species, including us. Wilderness cradles what is left of the dynamic diversity of earth. It is a refuge.

I love the feeling of being outside.  Fully alive. Free. Soaking in the view of the stars, the sunset, wildflowers, trees, streams, and the solitude and silence that embrace them. Wilderness has nurtured my health and well-being.

Wilderness is the only place I can experience these things. That is why I love wilderness.

 

Escape!

Acadia National Park, Maine (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Have you found yourself seeking to escape the stress, noise and pollution of your everyday environment, if only for a few minutes? Places that are available to escape to are becoming harder to find as the world’s population continues to increase; combined with the fact that more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in an urban environment.

Kaplan & Kaplan (1989) described escape as “an absence of some aspect of life that is ordinarily present, and presumably not always preferred” (p. 183). They describe three types of escape: 1) Escaping distraction; 2) escaping work; 3) escaping mental effort.

Escaping distraction can be seeking relief from information overload. Modern urban living often provides constant demands on attention from cell phones, email, traffic, everyone needing something, now! These constant demands on attention, fatigue directed attention capacities. One of the best ways to heal the ability to focus attention is to spend time in nature, which has few demands to focus on.

Escaping work can involve getting away to a place that is removed from all reminders of the job. Spending time hiking in a wilderness environment, far from the pressures of the job, may offer time to gain a fresh perspective on issues in the workplace. Often this provides opportunities to reflect on past work and life experiences.

Another type of escape that Kaplan et al. describe is from mental effort. The opportunity to rest the mind and truly relax is a primary intention many of us have when planning vacations.

Kaplan et al. point out that what one escapes to may be more important than what one is escaping from. With increased urbanization, another form of escape may be evolving: escape from pollution. Pollution can be in the form noise, smog, or more direct environmental pollution to the land. With more than 79% of the U.S. population now living in urban environments, exposure to these types of pollution are proliferating. Combined with this, many people have now become disconnected to nature because they are relying more on technology and live in urban settings that have few places to enjoy nature. As a result, fewer people now understand the healing benefits that time in nature offers. Escaping to the living room to watch TV non-stop, or playing video games, does not offer the same restorative benefit.

Venturing out to spend time in nature may take more effort than lounging at home in front of the TV, or exercising using the Wi, but the psychological restoration, and fitness benefits offered by nature are worth the investment.

The symptoms of a society that is experiencing information overload and failing to take time for restoration are everywhere: the number of auto accidents that are a result of people texting, or talking on a cell phone; obesity that is a result, in part, of having too many demands on time, and too few opportunities to exercise; and the inability to concentrate because there are so many things to focus on.

There is a prescription for this that has no known side effects: spending time in nature. The use of nature for human resource development in organizations offers a new and creative approach to helping employees cope with the stress of work.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.