What is Wilderness to You?

This week I immersed myself in the reflections of Sigurd Olson, who was not only a long-time wilderness guide and instrumental environmentalist, but also one of the most beloved articulators of the very concept of wilderness itself.

He called wilderness “a symbol of a way of life that can nourish the spirit”. He described it as the source of equilibrium in a world that is otherwise often antagonistic to sanity. He wrestled to illuminate the wilderness experience as “an intangible something compounded of the countless intimacies” that we know when we pay attention to our surroundings. He insisted that wilderness is for everyone and that it can be experienced not only in large swaths of untrammeled earth but also in small areas, what he called “minute sanctuaries”. He called wilderness a “spiritual necessity”.

Photo source: http://singingwilderness.net/wordpress/sigurd-f-olson/

Photo source: http://singingwilderness.net/wordpress/sigurd-f-olson/

Here are a few glimpses into several decades worth of his reflections that resonated with me:

Why wilderness? Ask [those] who have known it and who have made it part of their lives. They might not be able to explain, but your very question will kindle a light in the eyes that have reflected the camp fires of a continent, eyes that have known the glory of dawns and sunsets and nights under the stars. Wilderness to them is real and this they do know; when the pressure becomes more than they can stand, somewhere back of beyond, where roads and steel and towns are still forgotten, they will find release.
— Sigurd Olson, American Forests, September 1938
Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.
I have found that people go to the wilderness for many things, but the most important of these is perspective. They may think they go for the fishing or the scenery or companionship, but in reality it is something far deeper. They go to the wilderness for the good of their souls.
— Sigurd Olson, National Parks Magazine, January-March 1946
It is not enough to make a trip once a year or to see [wilderness] places occasionally over a long week-end. We need to have places close at hand, breathing spaces in cities and towns, little plots of ground where things have not changed; green belts, oases among the piles of steel and stone.
— Sigurd Olson, Our Need of Breathing Space, 1958
[T]he wilderness we save today will provide moral and spiritual strength and balance in a world of technology and frenzied speed. Only in a natural environment can [we] thrive, an environment where there are still places of beauty to go to… Wilderness is more than camping or hiking; it is a symbol of a way of life that can nourish the spirit.
— Sigurd Olson, Living Wilderness, Spring 1968

I shared these and other reflections on our Beauty Walk this morning at Hinckley Park in South Portland. They prompted discussion on how wilderness manifests as a spiritual necessity in our lives. Sigurd Olson’s reflections invited us to ask the question: What is wilderness to you? 

That’s a question I’m committed to continuing to ask. It comes across as a simple question. But I don’t think the answer is obvious or static. It sparks all sorts of sub-questions; certainly geographical and ecological ones, but also political and existential questions; personal, communal, and theological questions; questions that chafe and questions that comfort. The question is itself a wild one. What is wilderness to you? I’m curious.

Aram Mitchell

Renewal in the Wilderness, 135 Sherman Street, Portland, ME, 04101