Where I am from, wilderness, let alone designated Wilderness,
is not something we have in abundance. In Brooklyn,
we are far from what anyone would consider “woods,” further
still from the large tracts of land set aside by
the federal government — land that is to
be left untrammeled, a place where man is but a
visitor. Back in 1964, when Congress passed the
Wilderness Act, they wanted to preserve something,
an alternative to this urban landscape, the one
I am so familiar with. Where I am from Man rules:
concrete has covered the soil and skyscrapers obscure
the sky. To me the night sky is an inky, overcast
blue. We do not have stars were I live — we
have lights from offices on the horizon.
Wilderness was not something I knew until late
in my short life. It was actually on my NOLS
Semester in the Rockies, during our winter section,
that I first went into land designated as Wilderness.
In the mountains where
we learned about winter travel, a bright orange plastic
fence, one that usually cordons off construction
sites, separated Wilderness from wilderness. It seemed
strange to me that 10 feet from where I stood was
someplace special, a place that someone had traveled
to and fenced in on a mountainside. In one place
you could drive your snowmobile and just 10 feet
further on, you would be breaking federal law.
The Wilderness Act was and
continues to be a remarkable piece of legislation.
It provided the basis for much of our land conservation
at the federal level, surpassed in scope and implication
only by the Clean Air and Water Acts. Passed by an
overwhelming majority, the Wilderness Act transcended
political, economic and social lines. Since its inception,
it has been touted as one of the major environmental
victories, but that day at the fence I had to wonder
what it all meant.
Wilderness is something intangible. It is a concept.
And things that are intangible are nearly impossible
to define. The government created Wilderness. Some
government committee selected the Wilderness area
where I was traveling, and determined what part would
be protected Wilderness and which would not. Then
they erected a fence, a little orange Berlin Wall.
I wanted to tear off my skis and scale it, burrow
under it. But I didn’t know which side I wanted
to be on.
I was conflicted. All my liberal sensibilities were
of no help to me at this moment. Over there, beyond
the orange, was something special — where
I was dispensable. To me, a boy from the city, wide-eyed and bushy tailed (well,
I guess I should say bushy faced) and ready to be out of the cold I did not
understand, it was all the same thing. There was no tangible difference I could
see on either side of that little orange fence.
To my eyes, the ten feet did not make the sky any
darker, or the scenery any more beautiful. The
ten feet was inconsequential, the ceilings in
the apartment I grew up in were higher than that.
I love the Wilderness Act. David Brower is my hero,
but that orange fence boggles my mind. It said something,
if only to me. Standing there on my skis, I questioned
whether it’s sufficient, whether it’s
fair for a fence to put value on something. I didn’t
feel right about the underlying implication of the
orange line, as if it said, “This land is special
and therefore qualifies as Wilderness, but 10 feet
west all the land is expendable.”
I decided then and there, on that ever-creaking frozen
ocean momentarily occupying a mountainside, that
the Wilderness Act didn’t create a dividing line
between what we value and what we can do away with. The Wilderness Act gave
us a blueprint that said, “You can save some of it, but all of it has
worth.” These laws are a step, just one single step, one forward-thinking
idea. Now it’s our job to continue the dream. Nikki Giovanni said, “In
dreams begin responsibilities,” and she could not be more right. We have
the responsibility to continue the dream of these forward thinking optimists.
It is not impossible to imagine a world where everything,
from the sidewalks I tread everyday in Brooklyn to
the furthest reaches of our world, has worth. Legislation
like the Wilderness Act can give way to an actual
ethic, one that is based on respect for an unfelt
purpose, an inherent worth of all the world, not
just what lies beyond the orange fence. This is a
world where there are no fences, a place where we
as Americans can see our world for more than its
value as a resource. This is a world from which we
can derive an identity and spiritual fulfillment.
Wilderness should not be something abstract or far
removed, it should just be a place that reminds us
what it’s like to have stars outnumber people.
I would trade in the city lights in a heartbeat,
but I want to be on the other side of that orange
fence, at least until all the fences are gone.
Alex Baldino graduated from a Fall Semester in
the Rockies in 2003. He wrote this essay from the
wilderness of Tea Lounge on Union Street, Brooklyn,