In June I submitted a piece of my writing to an essay contest by the Sierra Club on what wilderness means to the millennial generation. I was notified recently that I didn’t win, which means I’m free to post my essay here instead. Enjoy – as per the contest requirements, it’s short, only 750 words.
Wilderness in My Heart
It’s Saturday morning. I wake just after dawn to the sound of rain pattering against the roof of my tent and waves lapping quietly at the nearby shore of Lake Superior. Soon I need to crawl out of my sleeping bag and start the process of breaking camp, but right now, in this moment, I lie still and listen to the sounds of a damp fall morning in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
It’s Saturday evening. My backpacking gear is unpacked and stowed away, I’ve showered a week’s worth of grease and grime out of my hair, and one hand is wrapped around a mug of hot cocoa while the other taps away at my laptop. Snug in my apartment, I catch up on email, check Twitter and Facebook, read the latest comments on my blog.
This is what I imagine it must be like to be truly bilingual, to step back and forth between two languages as easily as breathing. I speak wilderness and technology, woods and internet. And like any bilingual person, I do my best to act as a translator when the need arises. On Twitter I pack wilderness into 140-character parcels and broadcast them to whoever will pay attention: “A monochrome morning here in the North Woods. Blank white lake, dark firs, blank white sky.” “Driving up the road in the dark, the frost on the trees glittered spectacularly in the headlights.” “Found a flock of Pine Grosbeaks this morning by following the sound of cones dropping from the hemlocks.” Often I meet people in environmental fields who are wary of how technology is creeping into every part of our lives, but this is simply how my generation communicates, and I’ll take any means I can to save and share these wilderness moments.
We are the 9/11 generation, the smartphone generation, the generation who came of age in a world where a black man can be president but no one can get on a plane without taking off their shoes. We are always connected, we are expert multitaskers, and we can only dimly remember a time when if you wondered about something you either had to schlep to a library and look it up or just keep wondering. If we want to see awe-inspiring wildlife photography or look up the latest statistics on climate change, that information is just seconds away.
Growing up in the information economy means many members of our generation have learned to prioritize experiences over investments. Owning a house and a car is not as important to us as it was to our parents. The hard truth is, though, this is more than just a matter of personal philosophy—we’re also the generation that’s coming of age in a time of global recession and austerity. Who has the money or time for wilderness trips when your next student loan payment is coming due and your college degree still isn’t enough to land you a real job? We can look at all the pretty nature photographs on Pinterest, but traveling far enough to find a place untrammeled by man may be as far out of reach as a trip to the moon.
This puts a responsibility on those of us who are lucky enough to experience these places first-hand. We need to act as advocates for wilderness, as its translators, its voices. As the saying goes, we protect only what we love and love only what we understand, so we’d better hope it’s possible for people to love and understand places that they may never see. Maybe we also need to expand our appreciation of wilderness to include natural places closer to home, even if they have been trammeled a bit, so that everyone can learn to recognize the bits of wildness in their own lives. If wilderness is going to stay relevant, we have to acknowledge that it is a feeling as much as it is a place, and the trick for all of us is to carry it into our daily lives and find pieces of it close at hand.
It’s Saturday night. I won’t lie, my bed is more comfortable than my sleeping bag. Before I fall asleep I open my window a few inches and the sound of coyotes howling in the distance drifts into my bedroom. Wilderness is a place, but it is a state of mind, too. Even at home, surrounded by all the trappings of twenty-first century life, there is wilderness in my heart.