What is wilderness worth to you?
A smudged and battered copy of the Outdoor Recreation Economy report sits on my desk. I rub my eyes, bleary from staring at the computer screen, strained from sifting through data as I struggle to get to the bottom of this unsettled disquiet that has me tapping my fingers on my desk, sighing morosely, staring out the window.
Exasperation burns at the back of my throat and I swallow hard, registering all of the expected closures, the reduced hours and services at national parks and wildlife refuges across the United States. As federally protected lands face increasing threats, we have economic reports at our disposal. A press release from the Department of Interior proudly showcases the numbers: 279 million national park visitors, $30 billion pouring into local communities, 252,000 jobs. When Congress aims to cut funding, we can fight back, armed with reports from the National Wildlife Refuge System proving that nearly 35 million people visit national wildlife refuges annually, supporting almost 27,000 private-sector jobs and producing about $543 million in employment income. The National Park Service estimates $32 million would be lost per day if budget cuts shut down the parks.
I have a stack of papers, a dozen links, more proof than I know what to do with that conservation is good economics. None of it enough to secure the promise of protection from budget cuts. Exhausted from keeping my heart pinned neatly behind political jargon and economic arguments, I lay my head on my desk, cheek pressed against the cheap laminate, and wonder what John Muir would say, what Thoreau would do. Edward Abbey’s words hang above my desk. Go outside.
So I do. After a day of wrangling with Excel, catching up on emails, and trying to find the right words for all the stories in my heart, after shutting my computer and slamming the door, after rushed errands and tedious chores, after cycling over the freeway, past the bumper-to-bumper traffic, I collapse onto the grass, look out over the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge reaching steadily across the channel over to Marin and the velvety fog of Muir Woods.
Eyes closed against the creamy swirls of a rainbow sherbet sunset, I recall my last trip to Yosemite, leaning over the edge of the O’Shaughnessy Dam, hands splayed against the concrete, sighing heavily against the subtle ache throbbing behind my rib cage, wondering if it’s true that John Muir died of a broken heart when the Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed or if that’s just one more legend Californians have repeated so many times that his grief has solidified over time, its truth pulling gently at the seams of our modern lives.
I was raised in the outdoor industry, shaped by a community of people who slipped faded natural history books and crackling winter morning wilderness experiences into my life so that at the age of 13 I had Aldo Leopold quotes and a dog-eared photo of Thoreau hanging on my walls. At my dad’s insistence, I went on backpacking trips before I could properly walk, leaning out of the carrier on his back, reaching for the spiny prongs of the Joshua tree, brushing my face against the sandstone, listening to the coyotes howl, my skin prickling at the eerie sound. Arms outstretched, fumbling the world between my clumsy hands, this is how I came to love the wild.
The outdoor industry, my beloved family of dirt-worshipping adventure junkies, pin-pricked by the continued closure of our state and national parks, has shown tremendous political savviness, publishing reports on the economy of outdoor recreation, demonstrating to Congress and to the country that conservation and federal land protection make sense. I gather their statistics to my chest, an arsenal of dispassionate numbers I can use to build barricades along park borders. With carefully constructed credibility, a decade of painting over my emotions, I can point to the $1.6 trillion in economic impact, the 140 million Americans who make outdoor recreation a priority, the rural western counties with more than 30% of their land under federal protection increasing jobs at a rate four times faster than rural counties with no federally protected lands.
But then there is this impassioned plea throbbing in my chest, this complicated sense that leaves me spinning because I am aware of the sensibility — of the necessity — of developing economic arguments, of having infographics, and key talking points to persuade a Congress that speaks in dollar signs, framing our survival and well-being between the pages of an economic report, as if no other framework existed, as if no other points were relevant.
But my point is poetry, literary reference, John Muir’s unashamed emotion, Rumi’s open space out beyond right and wrong, the soul that found renewal sitting on a boat in the middle of a river in the Trinity Alps, rain streaming down, collecting in my outstretched hands. This moment clings to the folds of my memory, ticking at the back of my mind as I sit behind a desk, sifting through press releases and reports, encouraged to see that Americans spend more on outdoor recreation than they do on either pharmaceuticals or gasoline, surprised to learn that outdoor recreation is responsible for 6.1 million American jobs and $646 billion in direct sales.
Yet, even as I impress these points upon others, fighting tooth and nail to prove that federal land protection is a practical step, a key component of a robust economy, I feel how inadequate these arguments are against the real value of these places, the real measure of their worth. But there is no economic value assigned to the heart of a young girl standing in a grove of redwood trees, feeling not her insignificance, but instead, her own worth. There is no way to measure the necessity of wilderness to the human soul.
No way to measure how 17 years of spinning your wheels in the tight corners of a big city can leave you pining for undulating hills backed up against jagged peaks, pockets of silence you can enter and feel your soul settle easily into. No way to measure the impact of crisp mountain mornings, day burning through the fog, night pulling its shadows over the hills, tucking you into the folds of solitude. No way to measure how you begin to crave this, become desperate to drink it down and feel it meld into the marrow of your bones. That craving hangs heavily, dragging your limbs and shading the stars until you pack a borrowed tent, an old sleeping bag, a crate full of instant ramen and drive up the hill to the granite slabs dotting the Sierra Nevada or board a plane to Alaska, hell-bent on finding salvation.
There is no economic value for sitting still among meadows dotted with mallow flowers, pockets of Aspen groves, the persistent tack tack tack of an Acorn Woodpecker, crumbling logs full of termites, their fat white bellies rubbing up against the rotting wood. No way to measure how we have begun to hoard these moments, circling protectively around the spaces where we can smile at Willa Cather’s words, knowing what it is to be “something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins.”
There is security in knowing the Smith River tumbles undammed through the remote hills of Northern California, security in knowing that when the world crumbles our hearts into fragmented pieces, there is a place to find restoration, a place to piece together the shattered bits, a place to look in awe, palms scraping stone, stumbling on the stars, understanding why Jacob fell forward onto his face in the middle of the desert, gasping, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.” Muir must have felt this when he wrote, “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite…The grandest of all special temples of Nature.”
Standing in the shadows of the Sierra Nevada, I can easily imagine John Muir uttering these words while leaning over the falls of Yosemite. Our solidarity stretched firmly across a hundred years, the same hiccupping heartbeat, that exact exhalation, stirred by the scent of the California laurel trees, marveling at the rivers dropping heavily into granite bowls. I imagine the news of the Hetch Hetchy Valley hitting him square in the chest, a thudding blow that crushed his lungs, squeezing the air into a half-choked sob. My own heart twitches anxiously.
Joyce Carol Oates may cringe, dismissing nature writers for their limited set of responses, their rapture and awe at every twinkling star, every furling fern, but underneath the exterior of this political jargon, this business-like concern with the economics of conservation, my soul reaches for the wild. I am unable to feign indifference, unable to pretend that my heart doesn’t bleed when I consider the loss of these protected places. Why should I be made to feel that emotion is somehow inadequate, that the stirring of the soul is inferior to the economics of energy?
Sprawled out on the grass, fingers outstretched, outlining the shapes of clouds, I can see the Bay Bridge to my left, the Golden Gate straight ahead, the streams of cars twinkling, refracting the evening light. A flash of anger spikes through me before I press my face into the grass, listening to the wind rush past my ears and pacifying myself with the advice of literary greats. In the event we share John Muir’s fate, that devastating loss of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, there is Abbey’s voice rising from the desert floor of his illicit Arizona burial:
Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic….It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.
I look up. A mother leans over her daughter, helping her guide a handmade kite. Its tail bobs gently against the wind. A high school cross-country team, feet kicking up the dust and grass of Cesar Chavez Park, thunders past the boats dotting the Bay, their sails luffing furiously. Dozens of people bolstering the conclusion of the Outdoor Recreation Economy report, unwittingly following Abbey’s advice, wandering out into the open spaces and recreation areas to “hunt and fish and mess around with [friends], ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome place.”
Not because they are tree-hugging hippies, or rabid outdoor enthusiasts, or militant environmentalists, or any other label we can find to undermine the value of conservation and those whose believe in it — but, simply, because they are human.