Between the Lines

Wild-deors and Other Creatures

Jan 28, 2008
Outside Magazine

Originally published in Outside's (then, Mariah) October/November 1978 issue

One argument that never fails to get Mariah's hackles up is the definition of what constitutes a wilderness. Somehow, the public, the media, and a startling number of legislators who ought to know better can't see the forest through the trees—which, by the way, is exactly the problem: People have a notion that a wilderness has to have trees, preferably lush, green pines.

For the record, let's look at the various definitions that exist. Webster's New World Dictionary defines wilderness as "an uncultivated, uninhibited region...any barren, empty, or open area, as of ocean." The same dictionary defines a "wilderness area" as "an area of public land, as of virgin forest, preserved in its natural state." There it is again: the virgin forest syndrome.

Mariah shares the definition of wilderness put forth by conservationist (and semanticist) Howard Zahniser, who wrote the Wilderness Act. A wilderness, according to the Act, is "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." By that definition, Mariah believes that mountains, glaciers, deserts, oceans, lakes, rivers, and even the air can be properly called wilderness.

Unfortunately, the greentree philosophy has taken root in a society that defines wilderness in increasingly narrow terms. Advertising, particularly for beer, has focused our notion of wilderness as a sort of North Woods paradise. ("The Land of Sky Blue Waters" has given way to the Hamm's man and his fun-loving bear.)

Centuries ago, "wilderness" meant a distinctly different place. Satan, according to Saint Matthew, tempted Jesus Christ in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. The Biblical wilderness was a hostile place, a testing place. The word wilderness itself began to evolve in the early Teutonic and Norse tongues. The word will, which we now know as wild, was used to convey the concept of being lost; deor meant beast; wild-deor were creatures-out-of-control. Thus, a wild-deor-ness came to mean a place populated by such creatures.

The more we learned about the wilderness, especially in this century, the narrower our definition became. As we chopped away at it, it became easier to classify wilderness into neat, identifiable packages. Our fear of the wilderness slowly gave way to belated admiration. The wilderness still tests us, but we no longer expect to find the devil there.

We may, however, find the next worse thing—the Bureau of Reclamation. BuRec (the accent's on wreck) has invaded a new wilderness—Aspen's Hunter Creek watershed. Not only has the federal dam-building bureaucracy torn up one of the West's most scenic streams, but it plans to divert all but a trickle of water under the Rocky Mountains to the thirsty voters of Pueblo, Colorado. This, despite the fact that the Hunter Creek Valley was officially recognized as "wilderness" earlier this year.

The lesson is clear. It is not enough to define wilderness. Packaging it in neat semantic bundles won't save it, even from the federal government. What will? Let's reclassify the BuRec and its bulldozing crews as wild-deors—creatures-out-of-control—and take appropriate legislative action to control their numbers and range.

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