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Straddling the Orange Fence
By Alex Baldino

© Matt Wendling


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, New York.

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