The Wildness Without

Why are wild places so vital to our existence?

I’ve pondered this question since my first trip years ago to Yellowstone National Park, and wrote a photographic post about the subject last year. Most people may not think of a national park as being “wild,” but I assure you, once you step off the main road or the shorter, more visited hiking trails and enter the back country, you are indeed in a wild place. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to experience it directly from the main road, such as when coming across a pack of wolves circling a group of elk cows and their calves, like I did one summer, or when you spot a grizzly bear at dusk, just off the road, pawing grubs at the base of a decomposing tree trunk.

Man’s presence is not needed for the wild to flourish, but I’m convinced we need wild places in order to flourish as human beings. We’re not separate from nature, we’re just another part of it. Wild places strip us of our modern contrivances and remind us how simple and present life really is.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

Off the Beaten Path wrote about wild places recently and put into words exactly how I feel. She writes about viewing a grizzly sow and her cub:

For the first time I truly understood what a privilege it is to be able to visit a wild place; a place that provides a space for animals as wild as grizzly bears to live. That just knowing that these places are there adds value to our lives, even if we don’t go there often. This was an epiphany; and silly as it sounds, I realized that I hadn’t really understood why wild spaces are so important until that moment.

When I was still teaching fifth grade, I used to come back from our summer road trips to Montana and Wyoming feeling sad that most of my students had never experienced a wild place, and probably never would. I felt certain that if only I could pack them all into a bus bound for Yellowstone, get them on the trails, and let them spend time in the wild, it would change their lives. Children need to see that the earth is a living thing, that there are wild places with rules all their own, and that everything they think is important in life really isn’t.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

Once in Yellowstone we mistakenly took a left instead of a right and wound up taking an unplanned all day hike up Sepulcher Mountain. For almost an entire day we never saw another human. The weather was somewhat stormy, and I remembered all the warnings I had ever read about hiking in the mountains during lightning. There is something life-altering about spending an entire day in nature, having to be alert and attentive to the possibility of death from weather or wild animal, and yet feeling so completely alive because of it.

We sat at the top and viewed the mountains around us. I had a profound feeling that I was at the center of the world, and that it didn’t matter what happened to the rest of the world, Yellowstone and the wilderness would always be there. It didn’t need us. It didn’t need me. Life would always continue, with or without man.

There was still snow at the top, and because we were lightly dressed we ran down the side of the mountain in our hiking boots. It felt like we were flying. Missing that turn on the road turned out to be one of the best days of my life.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

I think back often on that day climbing Sepulcher Mountain. I can imagine the grizzly bears, the bison, and the wolves going on with their lives, oblivious to anything but survival. Life is harsh in the wild, but perhaps our own modern lives are just as harsh, if not more so, than anything we can imagine in the wild.

Perhaps the need to connect with wildness is why I love trail running. When I’m running on a trail in a beautiful location, even if it’s only half an hour’s drive outside the city, I’m always cognizant of the possibility of danger. I don’t want to get chased down by a bobcat or trip over a rattlesnake, but running through a forest or desert canyon gives me a sense of freedom and being alive like nothing else does.

Sepulcher Mountain, Yellowstone

So find someplace wild to visit. Spend time in the Needles in Canyonlands, or hike into the wilds of Alaska. Get out of the car. Walk. Make yourself a part of the natural world. Remind yourself that the entire world is your home. See what lessons wild places have to teach you.

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23 comments

  1. westerner54

    First of all, thank you for the nice mention; I’m honored that you’ve quoted me in this wonderful post. (Somehow I seem to sound better when I see my words on someone else’s page. What’s that about?) Second, you say it SO beautifully…and really complete the scattered thoughts that I had on this. This is why blogging is so much fun.

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      Actually, I had the same thought, that you said things much more eloquently than I ever could. Your post really helped me put some thoughts that had been swirling around in my head into a more cohesive form–but I bet we both have a lot more we could say on the subject!

  2. sahbinahvioletflynn

    Truly a powerful post…I hiked a local ridge A LOT last summer and had encounters with nature that had not been had in those parts before (coyote, bobcat, tarantula). I love the outdoors and I think rubbing elbows with nature, touching it, makes me know that we are all connected.

  3. backpackingkids

    What you said about children not being able to experience wild places is so sad, and so true. I live in Colorado, right in the Rocky Mountains. I do my best to get my kids outside backpacking and hiking, or even just out for a picnic, as much as I can. But many of their friends have never been hiking except for short school trips into Rocky Mountain National Park. I find this incredible. You would think that living here things would be different. But while there are families who get their kids outside a lot, there are many more who don’t make it a priority.

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      That is so shocking to me, and extremely sad. My students hardly knew anything about life outside their poor, crime-ridden, gang infested neighborhood. I think getting out of the city and into nature would make such a difference in their lives. It did for me, and I didn’t have the obstacles to overcome. I think it’s commendable that you are raising your children to appreciate the outdoors. I wish I had grown up in Colorado!

  4. Thomas

    God, those are some beautiful pictures. Together with your post, it really makes me long to be in the Rockies somewhere (anywhere!) just sitting on a rock, overlooking some valley. Watching the clouds drift by and then taking a nap!

  5. melissabluefineart

    This is such a great post! Wherever you live, chances are you can find or help create a bit of nature, too. Here in Illinois some friends of mine got busy and now there is going to be a new National Park, spanning part of northwestern Illinois into Wisconsin. That this could happen in today’s world is really exciting to me. I’ve spent my whole life coaxing people out into the wild, and it is beyond refreshing to read your words. We do need nature, and thank God for the people who had the will to set those lands aside.

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      That is fantastic news, Melissa! I can’t wait to visit it one day. I think our national parks are treasures. My daughter was a park ranger in Yellowstone for several seasons, and it kills me when I see how the budget for the parks keeps getting slashed. It’s a complicated issue, but I also don’t think they should drill on federal lands. It nearly killed me when I went to Canyonlands one summer and saw the drilling that was taking place on public land just on the edge of the park. Surely we can find a better solution.

  6. KC

    Wonderful pictures! Being isolated like that always makes me anxious at first, but eventually gives way to a very peaceful feeling. I don’t know if it’s because I accept the dangers of being alone in the “wild,” or if I just start to ignore the dangers. Maybe it’s the same thing.

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      I’ve probably never been completely alone in the wild, but I know it would make me anxious as well. I’m always nervous hiking and camping out west because of grizzlies, and am always on alert. A grizzly is a pretty serious danger!

  7. monica

    love what you said about kids and the wilderness. so true. kids who have never experienced the wild (even the tiniest bit of “wild”) really are missing out on a life changing experience. we back up to a greenbelt (which is not “wild” as you reference it by any stretch of the imagination) and just this tiny experience has been so great for our kids. they get to experience “wild” as we know it with skunks, racoons, tons of deer, owls, hawks, opposums, wolves, and lots of other great animals. it’s taught them so much. i love that and they do, too. thanks for another great post.

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      I don’t think it has to even be a truly “wild” place for kids to benefit. Just being outdoors makes a difference, and your greenbelt sounds wonderful. I lived in the heart of Dallas growing up, but there were parks and creeks nearby that we could explore and play in all day. When I got older our Girl Scout troop went camping all the time, and those trips were where I truly learned to love the outdoors. They were a good balance to all the teenage silliness going on at school.

  8. oopsjohn

    Your photos wonderfully convey the wide-openness of Nature as seen from off-the-beaten-path. We are, I agree, stunted in some way when we never experience the wild and untamed – and, yes, Yellowstone is indeed WILD! Thanks for your post…

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      Thanks for your comment. Maybe it sounds grand, but I think we’re not fully human until we’ve experienced a wild place. It’s almost like looking back in time to a landscape we once inhabited, and remembering on a very primal level that we used to be much more connected to that landscape. Maybe it’s the ultimate homecoming.

  9. jodysjourneys

    You are truly an inspiration to me! You have even got me jogging a bit on trails (although hubby considers it a fast walk). Thanks, you put into words very eloquently what I feel!

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      Knowing I’ve inspired you to run is a huge compliment! It doesn’t matter if your husband considers it a “fast walk.” Speed is completely irrelevant. I love how you ride your bike around to such scenic locales. I used to live on my bike when I was a kid, and your posts make me want to jump on my mountain bike and do some exploring!

  10. Pingback: the Infinite Monkey speaks: on the wilderness | steadily skipping stones

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