English 204

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Into The Wild – Importance of the wilderness


From “Wilderness Letter” by Wallace Stegner in Marking the Sparrow’s Fall: The Making of the American West


Wilderness as an “idea” – an intangible and spiritual resource


·        Has helped to form our character and shaped our history as a people

·        See ourselves as single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.

·        No place for momentary reflection and rest

·        No place which offers a challenge against which we can form our character.


We are a wild species.  Nobody ever tamed or domesticated or scientifically bred us.  But we have come close to domesticating ourselves.  Progress has brought unmixed blessing—it has brought us increased comfort and more material goods, but it has brought us spiritual losses, and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein that will destroy us.


“One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar as we can, good animals.  Americans still have that chance, more than many peoples; for while we were demonstrating ourselves the most efficient and ruthless environment-busters in history, and slashing and burning and cutting our way through a wilderness continent, the wilderness was working on us.  It remains in us as surely as Indian names remain on the land.  If the abstract dream of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subtle ways subdued by what we conquered” (113).


From Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston


“Down behind the boats at Spanish Bottom, a furious river churned; suddenly, I perceived in its auburn flow that it was, even at that exact moment, carving that very canyon from a thousand square miles of desert tablelands.  From the Doll’s House, I had the unexpected impression that I was watching the ongoing birth of an entire landscape, as if I were standing on the rim of an exploding caldera.  The vista held for me a feeling of the dawn of time, that primordial epoch before life when there was only desolate land.  Like looking through a telescope into the Milky Way and wondering if we’re alone in the universe, it made me realize with the glaring clarity of desert light how scarce and delicate life is, how insignificant we are when compared with the forces of nature and the dimensions of space.


“Were my group to board those two rafts a mile in the distance and depart, I would be as cut off from human contact as a person could be.  In fifteen to thirty days’ time, I would starve in a lonely death as I hiked the meanders back upriver to Moab, never again to see the sign of skin of another human.  Yet beyond the paucity and the solitude of the surrounding desert, it was an exultant thought that peeled back the veneer of our self-important delusions.  We are not grand because we are at the top of the food chain or because we can alter our environment—the environment will outlast us with its unfathomable forces and unyielding powers.  But rather than be bound and defeated by our insignificance, we are bold because we exercise our will anyway, despite the ephemeral and delicate presence we have in this desert, on this planet, in this universe.  I sat for another ten minutes, then, with my perspective as widened as the view from that bluff, I returned to camp and made extra-short work of dinner” (7).