wilderness is not a function of distance; you don't have to go far to find yourself lost
Imagine, if you will, the cackling hoot of a chimpanzee. This sound is akin to Whitman’s barbaric yawp. It invokes nostalgia for a language subterranean to logic. It recalls a primal, forgotten fluency, a vocabulary vestigial to swingers of trees (one could do worse). And it makes a hell of an impression when bellowed from the unlikely lungs of Dame Jane Goodall.
This is how the grandmotherly conservationist greeted the 9th World Wilderness Congress in Mexico. I have heard Goodall’s chimp call before, but the might of her voice and message never fails to inspire. Jane was just one of many luminaries at the Congress, which gathered scientists, artists, government officials, NGOs, and aboriginal chiefs from around the globe. These are the movers and shakers of all things conservation, doing what they can where they can to preserve wildness in the world. And in the process, by Thoreau’s logic, preserve the world itself.
These are my people, a feral folk, happiest beneath a rainforest canopy and most at home on a mountain crag. You don’t go into this line of work for the love of money or fame, or for work trips to Mexico where you discuss all things wild and free from the air-conditioned confines of a convention center. You go into this work because the notion of a planet lacking places to get lost in is quite frankly unbearable.
Not long ago a friend and I went on a night hike in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Just a single ridge separated us from Calgary’s blinking sprawl, yet we roamed a lunar solitude. Wilderness is not a function of distance; you don’t have to go far to find yourself lost. Out there, in the bite of winter, the maze of forest, the glint of moon on glacier, it was like a burr was suddenly plucked from my brain. Months of routine had tangled it in there without me hardly noticing: weekdays sterile with computer screens and laboratory work; weekends dizzy with racing, around and around in circles. The sameness and tameness of my life was its own form of pathology, the sort that ferments beneath night skies always neon with city lights, posturing shamelessly as stars.
I read recently that in 19th century Germany, a child named Caspar Hauser was raised in captivity for seventeen years. His captors then loosed him on the streets carrying nothing more than a cardboard placard scrawled with his name. Caspar was adopted by someone who helped him adapt to the real world, and they reported that the single indignation he held against his captors concerned, of all things, the stars. When Caspar saw the night sky for the first time, saw the infinite scatter of stars he realized everyone else on Earth had been privy to all along, he wept. His captors, he cried, “ought to be locked up for a few days” for denying him this view.
Today the bright lights and expanding bustle of civilized society threaten to make Caspars of us all. Wilderness, wherever it can be found, is powerful consolation. As surely as sunshine and oxygen, we require untrammeled physical and imaginative territory to roam. So we must fight for the holy blackness of the night, possessed of pine, ice and stars. For mountains, perfectly contoured to plug the holes modernity mines in our hearts. For trees to swing from, branches bent from the weight of yawping chimps. It is up to us - you and Jane and me - to chime in and echo that wild chorus.
Alastair also asked me a few questions about heroes, books, life, and adventure:
What expedition or journey or book or person has inspired you the most?
Tough to pick just one, but when pressed I’d say Nansen. This man led the most evolving, exploratory life: from restless scientist and athlete to pioneering Arctic explorer to Nobel Peace Prize winner. Nansen showed that the best way to cross ice caps, on Greenland as in life, is to leave no escape route. His life of adventure and exploration, of unwavering commitment and conscience, is a huge inspiration.
What’s your favourite travel or adventure book?
“Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters” by Annie Dillard. Every sentence Dillard has ever written is worth reading, twice.
What’s your emergency iPod song when the mojo is failing you?
“Surfing on a Rocket” by Air.
What luxury item do you carry on your expeditions?
A motley library of literature, from poetry to history to fiction to science. Though I must confess this library is less a luxury and more a necessity, as vital to my preferred mode of exploring as a tent and my own two feet. Books, whatever their weight, are never a burden.
What do you miss the most when you are away?
The glorious chaos of family dinners on our horse farm in Canada. These typically consist of brothers monkeying around, cats and dogs carousing, pesto on plate, wine in glass, and the Big Chill soundtrack singing on the stereo to the unplugged accompaniment of barking and guffaws, both animal and human. Home sweet home.
What advice do you have for someone contemplating an adventure of their own?
The world is wide, it is wild, and it is rampant with wonder and horror, bedrock and paradox. All these realities are worth confronting. So don’t delay: get out and explore, let adventure test and transform you, and return to share the tale. Both you and the world will be better for it.