Wilderness in the Anthropocene

A year ago, I was dealing with the aftermath of serious eye infection after having cataract surgery. When the emergency calmed enough that I could go two weeks between visits to the retina specialist, I talked Fred into a quick week down to one of my all-time favorite spirit-healing places, Canyonlands. With one eye, I drew in my journal and wrote the piece below for Writing the Wild , a blog that I share with two other women.
“There are some who can live without wildness…. and some who cannot. ”                                        Aldo Leopold

I am one who cannot.

Canyonlands, autumn 2015:

Early morning. I wake early and heat water and quietly step outside into cool desert air, trying not to wake Fred.

I grab my chair and place it for the view. Ensconced with journal, tea, warm jacket and hat, I sit.

Vermillion streaks line the eastern horizon, the sun not quite risen. Sand and cliffs are dark violet, sleeping until the sun wakes them to reds and rusts.

I sit and watch. Slowly, imperceptibly, golden morning light begins to crawl across the red sand. I breathe; the light slides a bit further, inching closer to the violet cliffs, waking them to the day.

My thoughts turn to wilderness and last night’s book: ‘Satellites in the High Country’ (author: Jason Mark).  What is wild? What is wilderness? Do we need a new definition of wilderness? Is wilderness even important?

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That last question terrifies me. I fear that to many people, wilderness is unnecessary, extraneous, irrelevant to their lives. It seems that wilderness is being assaulted on all fronts, and though one battle might be won, the war is never over. I need to move off of this line of thinking…

There is a proposal to name a new geologic epoch after man: the Anthropocene. An epoch must show up in the geologic layers so that thousands of years in the future, geologists will be able to find the delineation in the rocks. Some say it is too early to name this epoch, others say that the date of the first above ground atomic bomb test is the perfect start date of the epoch (radioactive layers will be found from world-wide fall out), others say it should begin from the Industrial Revolution, still others propose the start of agriculture.

Either way, naming a new epoch after man, the Anthropocene, seems filled with hubris. Yes, we have over-populated, over-used, over-extracted to the point that it feels as if we are barreling blindfolded down the road at 100mph, missing signs that warn the road is about to end. There is no place on earth that is untouched by humans. From the CO2 content in the atmosphere, to acidic oceans, to erosion caused by building, to plastics and aluminum, we are ubiquitous.

Wilderness may no longer be defined as ‘untrammeled by man’. But….. But….

Looking out on these red rocks, I know:  THIS is wild. THIS is wilderness. The wild is free and unpredictable. The wild teaches me that I’m not in charge. These red rocks hold a mirror, reflecting the smallness of my desires. The wild has her own agenda.

Wildness brings me to my knees.


“People need wild places. Whether or not we think we do, we do. We need to be able to taste grace and know once again that we desire it. We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possibly care less about our economic status or our running day calendar. Wildness puts us in our place. It reminds us that our own plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully. Looking out on a clean plank of planet earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own.” Barbara Kingsolver

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5 thoughts on “Wilderness in the Anthropocene

  1. I’m not sure why I didn’t see this post before now Julianne. This is a beautiful introspective piece. I have to say that I feel this connection to you when you write about nature, wilderness. Your thoughts seem to run parallel to mine. I fear what may become of the wilderness with an administration who refuses to believe in climate change.

    1. Thank you, LuAnn. I’ve always voted the environment. I’ve forever been frustrated by the lack of science and environment during election debates. And now, I’m more than fearful.

      1. Hi Bel: Public lands in general are under attack by various factions. Recent examples: Rep. Chaffetz from Utah introduced HR621 to dispose of ‘excess’ public lands: this was met with so much anger/resistance that he pulled it back. But HR622 takes away Law Enforcement capability from National Forest Service and BLM employees, and gives it to the locals–this is a ‘back door’ way to get rid of public lands–by making management impossible so that in the end the lands can be given to the state…. Local Law Enforcement does not have funds nor capability to enforce laws–and can you imagine Bundys cousin, for example, standing up to him and forcing him to pay fees owed from years of not paying for grazing rights? There is a lot more… I am choosing Public Lands as my passion and focus; calling my representatives, and commenting to other state reps on the importance of public lands. I think this is a symptom of over-populations and it is only going to get worse, I am afraid. I hope that does not make you feel hopeless–there is hope but we need to step up and stand up and show up. Thanks for reading, Bel!!

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