For a girl brought up in 1960s and 1970s suburbia, with square grass yards abutting each other along broad cul-de-sac streets, wilderness has been a journey.
Jim Stafford’s song, “I don’t like spiders and snakes,” applied to me 100%, whether they were indoors or outdoors, for the first 40 years of my life.
I still don’t like them in my house or car, but I can fairly calmly catch and release most spiders, wasps, bees, and other bugs from inside spaces.
Compare this to the mid-1990s, when we lived on 10 rural acres in southern Maine (with moose in the back yard and porcupines in the front) and I found big garden spiders in the kitchen sink with depressing regularity, which I dispatched down the drain with water from the faucet. I sprayed non-sink spiders with hairspray (bought for this purpose) from a distance of at least 10 feet, while screaming and jumping up and down, scaring the dogs.
At some point in my 40s, after we moved from the house on 10 rural acres to an in-town Victorian on the Maine coast, I made the connection with insects, arachnids, reptiles, and amphibians that I’d already made with other mammals, some fish, and birds: we’re all living beings, most of us trying desperately to survive, to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, to feel a meaningful connection to others. I recognised a shared sense of curiosity in some brief encounters with insects, spiders, snakes, frogs — the same curiosity, in fact, that my dogs have displayed time and time again, that I myself carry with me through the day: how does it work, is it edible, what’s it taste like, what is that smell, how does it feel, can I do it, is this safe, who are you?
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
― Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod
Although I hiked remote spots in Virginia as a teenager, found isolated places to retreat to wherever we lived when I was growing up (woods, streams, fields behind our houses, some dirt hills a mile away), and felt a tingle in some meadows near Galveston, TX, in Maryland’s Eastern Shore marshes, and under threatening endless skies in New Mexico, and always near the ocean in winter, the first time I really felt a prolonged sense of terrestrial wildness in my soul was on a trip to Yellowstone National Park in 1992. The other-worldly geysers and hot springs, the common sightings of buffalo, moose, fox, elk, and other charismatic megafauna, the snow falling in August — these all contributed to the scary, exciting feeling of being in the wild, but I think it was the wide expanses of land and water between mountains under a hugely spacious sky that took my breath away. The desolation, the haunting openness, the crevices in Earth’s surface, the mists and fogs, the primary visual of non-human animals, grasses, trees, and the quiet that wasn’t quiet but instead resounded with birdsong, insect buzz, wind, plants rustling, howls and calls, squirrel chatter, the caws of crows and ravens — anything but people’s voices, car engines, mechanical sounds — all added up to wild.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
― Gerard Manley Hopkins
Since that trip to Yellowstone in 1992, I’ve felt an inkling of natural wildness from time to time: in the marshes of Jekyll Island and in its ponds when an alligator roared with primeval resonance, walking in our local bog, on the volcanic Caribbean island of Saba, even in the woods down the road from my house in a small NH town, where black bear are frequently seen. In fact, we have bears in our yard from time to time, as well as fox and raccoon, and moose nearby.
Last week, on a trip to Pittsburg, NH, the northernmost town in NH, just at the Canadian border, the memory of Yellowstone came unbidden to my consciousness, as I gazed from a fire tower — reached by travelling 8 miles down a rutted dirt road at about 12 mph, then hiking a mile uphill to 3,300 feet in elevation — over the land and lakes below;
when walking along a logging road and hearing the certain crash of a moose in the woods a few yards away, and realising with some alarm there was no protection on that open road should the moose emerge and feel defensive;
driving along a remote dirt road and coming face to face with a black bear, who hightailed it away down an overgrown snowmobile trail;
finding myself a couple of feet away from a nest of snakes beside a bridge over the Connecticut River;
listening to the loons on the lakes calling morning and night; spotting ruffed grouse and turkeys with chicks along the roadsides;
seeing moose tracks and scat everywhere when hiking, feeling always aware that moose, bear, and other animals were probably noticing me though I hadn’t noticed them.
Most of the roads in Pittsburg, while obviously evidence of humans in the area, are used more for ATVing and snowmobiling than for driving a truck or car. We met five vehicles (including a logging 18-wheeler) on these roads in three days of travelling them.
Even the main road, Route 3, which leads to Canada, was largely untravelled – much less travelled, in fact, than the main roads in Yellowstone and the Tetons.
The trails were mostly well-marked, with bridges, ladders and stairs, and swales, but in three days and about 8 hours of hiking, we saw only a handful of other people.
The lakes and river felt remote, with the rare sighting of a fisherman, kayaker, or canoeist.
(You can see here how remote and how close to Canada the 3rd Connecticut Lake is.)
There were E-911 signs for most trails, even though there is virtually no cell phone coverage for miles around. From “160 Coot Trail,” on top of Magalloway Mountain, it would take minimally 30 minutes of hiking (more like 40 mins for most people) and another 35 minutes of very speedy driving at 15 mph on a very rutty dirt road to reach the main road, then another 6 miles to Young’s Store, where there’s purportedly a “24-hour pay phone.”
Hiking and even driving here, I felt the same heightened awareness that wilderness must impart to all animals: alert to danger; intently curious about what’s around me; attentive to the slant of sun, the strength of breeze, the topography and terrain, the sounds and scents; and — I don’t know whether all animals feel this — deep appreciation for life, for the Earth, for my body and the way my muscles and joints function, for our interconnectedness, for the ordinary beauty everywhere in nature.
It must be only my own lack of awareness that makes wilderness writ large feel somehow wilder and more breathtaking than wilderness on a micro scale, e.g., a square foot or square inch of my backyard. Because in reality it’s all wild, all potentially dangerous, all mysterious, at once unknowable and familiar to us as mortal beings with bodies, senses, awareness.
“I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.”
— Sue Monk Kidd from The Secret Life of Bees