A Fifty-Degree, Windless Day in January


A fifty-degree, windless day in January is something to savor on the Northern Great Plains. So yesterday, we saddled up the horses and rode off for the far side of the river – onto the immense expanse of “empty” land that is being pushed hard to be made an official Wilderness Area.

For this particular chunk of land there are all sorts of arguments about access, property rights, and even original intent of the framers of our Constitution. The discussion is familiar. The arguments for the preservation of Wilderness and against the preservation of Wilderness apply to innumerable remote areas across America and beyond. I have made a point of staying out of the debate for a lot of reasons, but the main reason for my timidity is the inevitable mushy definition of Wilderness.

I’m not the first to wonder at what is meant by the term and I won’t be the last. In fact, I’ve done some reading on the subject – from John Muir to Steven Pyne – and taught college courses that dealt with Wilderness’s slippery brother, Conservation. In my courses, I believe I solved the problem of defining conservation by distilling the noun to its verb – Conserve. As soon as I get my students to see this link it is self-apparent that the verb must have an object – Conserve what? Are we talking about pure water, certain grass species, deer, prairie dogs, falcons, and mountain lions? Some of the above? All of the above? For Conservation to have meaning we must answer those questions and any mandate to conserve is meaningless without a list of what it is we are trying to conserve.

But Wilderness does not have a verb! (The closest one can come is, to wilder-which means to make confused.) Confused yet?

I’ll continue to work on the full blown essay on Wilderness but for now, let me describe what happened on that windless, fifty degree day. A nine-year-old girl rode behind her father on a quarter horse with a slow little walk. Beside them were two Tennessee walking horses that naturally stretched their gait out so that the little girl and her father fell constantly behind. To keep up with the walking horses, every few minutes the quarter horse broke into a not so comfortable trot. We rode along a long black shale cliff and talked about the possibility that a mountain lion might be watching us from above. When the quarter horse broke into his trot the father and daughter would bounce like the inexperienced riders that they were and the little girl would grip her father harder to stay on and safe. Her melodic giggles bounced off that cliff and lit the landscape in a way that I had never noticed in a child before. I could hear a spectrum of human emotion: joy driven by adventure and seasoned with a need for, and confidence in, the security of a father.

I’d bet my life that the giggle would have sounded more common if the ridge would have loomed with ticky-tack houses instead of the silent possibility of a mountain lion.

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