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Columbine Hondo Wilderness, NM

Wildness: What is it? Why should our conservation agencies perpetuate it?

By Roger Kaye

What is this evocative and elusive landscape quality, wildness? Given its prominence, we ought to know. We need to know if we’re going to perpetuate it, especially since it is among the most threatened landscape qualities in the Anthropocene future we face.

In terms of etymology, wildness shares the same root word as wilderness, that is, will, referring to an entity being self-willed. But while wilderness is a place, wildness is a condition wherein the processes of an area’s genesis are allowed to shape its future, free from human willfulness, utility, or design.  Thus wildness is defined as “the state of a landscape characterized by its freedom from the human intent to alter, control, or manipulate its components and ecological and evolutionary processes.”

Its being “free from human intent” is important, for two reasons.  For one, it reminds us that wildness also has an inter-relational dimension. It’s a way of relating to the land, a relationship of respect for and deference to these processes. Second, it differentiates wild from natural, which can be defined as “not shaped by or substantially changed by human activities.” So while wildness is freedom from human intent, naturalness is freedom from human effect.

But if you believe in best science, in the trends and projections for global-scale change, you have to recognize that no place, not even the Arctic Refuge, will meet the common meaning of natural in the next century of the Anthropocene.

In response to changes in our resources of concern, we’ll see more proposals for management interventions, manipulations, and restoration efforts to maintain “natural” conditions, including wildlife assemblages. And according to a recent study, 37 percent of wilderness units have already engaged in such interventions in response to just climate change. But we must remember that every intervention, however important the resources or uses it seeks to perpetuate, diminishes an area’s wildness, its freedom to adapt and evolve as it will.

So in Wilderness, should we strive to maintain natural conditions, that is, the products of evolutionary creativity at our point in time, or should we perpetuate that creative process itself, wildness? I advocate that we develop a procedure for deciding which National Parks, Refuges, and Forests, or portions thereof, can be practicably managed to maintain current or desired conditions, and which could be designated as “hands-off, non-intervention wild areas.” Within the latter, our humble role would be to watch and learn as the ecosystems transition however they will, and not according to our will.

But first, we need to better understand and articulate the functions and values of wildness and wild areas so that they can be more fairly considered when competing with the more tangible reasons for intervening and managing.

Best recognized by the agencies is the scientific function of wild areas that Aldo Leopold first espoused. They can serve as laboratories for understanding how ecological systems function, transition, and respond to change when left alone. Thus one of the reasons that the preeminent FWS biologist Olaus Murie argued for the Arctic Refuge to be preserved as “a little portion of our planet left alone” was that it would enable us to “see how Nature proceeds with evolutionary processes.”

But the greater values, the aesthetic, mystique, and allure of those special places set apart for wildness, lie in the meaning they come to have, what they represent. As places wherein we recognize a non-anthropocentric reason for being, their intrinsic value, they come to represent the part of us that still holds reverence for something outside human utility. The perpetuation of wildness releases Nature from being ours to being its own. Thus wildness is the most genuine expression of environmental humility. It serves as an encouraging demonstration and reminder of our capacity for restraint. Ultimately, wild areas serve as a gesture of respect for and deference to the autonomous creativity of unwilled processes that shaped—and connect—our species, all species, all the Earth.

As places set apart from human willfulness and hubris, wild areas can enhance understanding of how these traits have distanced humankind from its sense of dependence on and interdependence with the larger community of life. As we move farther into the terra-incognita of the Anthropocene, changing the world and ourselves, wild areas can serve as an anchor-point.

Those who visit can experience the sheer otherness of a place that is there for itself. So too, they can catch an atavistic, experiential glimpse of ancestral ways of knowing and relating to the world. And millions who will never visit find satisfaction and inspiration in just knowing that really wild places still exist. Remember, what is also kept alive in wildness is something of ourselves.

Yes, the agencies give lip service to wildness, but as yet do little to operationalize and perpetuate it. Perhaps that’s because wildness threatens their managerial precepts. Perhaps too, it’s because they lack the objectivity and humility to accept that there is a resource on the landscape that they can’t count, weigh, or measure.  Yes, the unmanaged and unquantifiable nature of wildness is a problem for many, but those qualities are central to its essence, its intrigue, its otherness.

And so too is the paradox that the intent to leave some areas self-willed must come from human will, that to maintain them free of human purpose must be a human purpose.

Featured Image: Columbine Hondo Wilderness, NM (c) John Miles

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