Saturday, December 18, 2010

Words Worth Reading of a Recently Deceased Wilderness Man

Not so long ago, I picked up a copy of "The International Journal of Wilderness". When I saw the first article, I knew I'd come across some special reading. Special, because it was preceded by an editor's note explaining that the author, a U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger, wrote "A Letter to My Friends in Wilderness" after he learned of his fatal diagnosis of a rare type of cancer. Given the premise, I had a feeling it would be philosophical and wonderfully philosophical it was. George Duffy passed away July 8, 2010 in New Mexico.

Below, is the last part of the "Letter" on "Wilderness Experiences" which I particularly enjoyed and I've provided a link at the bottom if you want to read the whole thing. Enjoy.

A Letter to My Friends in Wilderness
by George Duffy

Wilderness Experiences
These days you share with wildness are gifts you will treasure forever.

My fondest memories are of those times when nature’s influences were most keenly felt: Being picked up by a gusty ridge top wind and pitched through the air like a rag doll. Huddled on the lee of a rocky summit during a storm and feeling hypothermia trying to rob me of my abilities. Being carried along in the tumbling whiteness of an avalanche. Walking out of the snow and ice of high mountains and again smelling the green of the earth. Lying in a sunny meadow and sensing that all the spirits there were filling my being with strengths unknown and unknowable. Sensing the unseen presence of the others in the landscape. Feeling a timeless wisdom trying to order my thoughts to wholeness.

For most of us, our connection with wilderness is commonly understood to be primarily rooted in the cultural and aesthetic responses which evolved from the experiences of early explorers and settlers on the new landscapes of America. We have recently discovered, however, that the underlying basis for our responses to wilderness goes deeper, much deeper. Going to the Wilderness is going home.

Anthropologists and others have been suggesting for a long time that we are still the wild creatures we were in the Pleistocene. We haven’t changed. Only our circumstances have changed. Paul Shepard, perhaps the most insightful scholar of the history and evolution of human ecology has written: “The discovery of the DNA by Watson and Crick was hailed for its implications for human health and well being. Soon it is expected we will be able to create the perfect banana or the perfect cow and clone it forever. We may soon be able to change the order of genes in our chromosomes to make us taller, thinner, stronger — maybe even less maladapted to our current circumstances.” But more importantly, the mapping of the human genome confirmed that, genetically, we are still wild Pleistocene creatures. Finally, an answer as to why we feel so at home in wilderness.

Shepard declared that: “The home of our wildness is both etymologically and biologically wilderness.” Although we may define ourselves in terms of culture and language and so on, it is evident that the context of our being now, as in the past, is wilderness — an environment lacking domestic plants and animals entirely, and to which, one might say, our genes look expectantly for those circumstances which are their optimal ambiance.” “The time is coming,” he said, “to understand the wilderness in its significance, not as adjunct to the affluent traveler, to an educated, aesthetic, appreciative class, or to thinking of nature as a Noah’s Ark in all of its forms, but as the social and ecological mold of humanity itself, which is fundamental to our species.” To understand the significance of wilderness, we must take the time to separate culture from biology, learning from instinct, and to search deep within for those ancient gifts which truly inform our humanness.

I have but one request of you. Go. Find yourself in the wilderness. Be at home.

Let your genes once again find expression in the world that defined them. Rejoice in your humanness. You are a genetic library of gifts informed by centuries of life in wilderness. Gifts from the experiences of antecedent creatures — ichthyian, reptilian, and mammalian which lie still in your brainstem. Gifts from the struggles of the naked ape with neither fang nor claw who was able, not only to survive, but to adapt and flourish — simply and elegantly — in wild landscapes.

When we first walk into wilderness, we feel like alien creatures, intruding into the unknown, but if we stay a while, usually about a week, and pay attention to ourselves, those gifts become apparent. We become aware that our eyes see better. We can pick things out in the landscape more keenly. We can measure distance more accurately, and shape, color, and contrast are vividly apparent. Our noses discriminate and identify the odors on the wind. The smell of a bighorn is a lot different than that of a bear. There is a marsh upwind. The sounds we heard on our first day came from a general direction but now our binaural senses are so keen we can almost pinpoint the source and distance of a sound and identify it. The awkwardness we first felt when moving over broken ground has been replaced by a fluid economical rhythm of movement that seems almost effortless. Our spine flexes, gathering and releasing energy. Our pelvis tilts, our center of gravity is keenly felt, and we are again those confident primal animals on the landscape.

We sense our relationships with the other creatures with whom we share these landscapes, relationships which reaffirm our humble role as members of the vast community of life. These are not new skills learned, they are ancient abilities recalled — pulled from the shelves of that genetic library deep within our being.

As we peer into campfire flames, the comfort of thousands of fires, in thousands of caves, over thousands of years, warm us from the inside as well from the outside.

The diminuendo of the Canyon wren and the raucous scolding of the Stellar’s jay invite our hearts to sing. The warmth of the sun and the snap of the cold affirm that we are alive, and vulnerable. The mountains, the deserts, the storms and the rivers challenge our cunning and demand our respect. The vastness of the landscape humbles and fixes us in scale. As we lie on the earth in the evening, the march of Orion across the heavens fixes us in time. We are still those Pleistocene creatures — at home and full of the wonder of being. This is the wildness in our genes, found manifest in a simple, bipedal hominid, surrounded by a peace that transcends time, and in a place we shall always need — wilderness.

Thanks for the ride.

---George Duffy

George was raised on a subsistence farm in the shadow of the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. His early years were spent close to the earth forming a lifelong passion for things wild and free. After service in the Navy, George attended college under the GI Bill and explored majors from engineering to environmental studies, finally leaving Pitzer College after being mentored by Paul Shepard who helped him define the wilderness ethic that would shape his work. George served the U.S. Forest Service from 1986 to 2003, first as a firefighter and then as Wilderness Ranger, and Wilderness Program Manager. Throughout his life he has been an avid mountaineer and mountain rescue team member. George was a member of the first Region 5 Wilderness Excellence Team and later selected as the Region 5 representative on the Chief ’s National Wilderness Advisory Group.

source: Letter [pdf]