I wrote my first book in the second grade. Seriously. It was written and drawn in pencil, and it was colored in crayon. But it had thirty-two pages and a cover, and I even went so far as to create an index. My teacher, whose husband taught paleontology at a local college, had it laminated and arranged for it to be in the school library. For a brief time in 1984, anyone at Holland Patent Elementary could borrow this book and take it home. The library card on the back page shows that two people did: someone named Wendy (an adult, judging by the handwriting), and of course me.
The name of the book was How to Get to Know Dinosaurs. It was completely derivative of the other, more professionally produced dinosaur books I used to peruse during this phase of my childhood. The drawings look like those of an eight-year-old, and the text reflects an eight-year-old’s understanding of the subject matter. No one reading this book today would learn anything useful, other than the fact that triceratops had three horns and, at times, engaged in death matches with Tyrannosaurs rex.
My dinosaur phase didn’t quite survive into the third grade, as my interests moved on to other equally fascinating topics. But like many other people of my generation, this chapter in my life was validated in 1993 with the release of the first Jurassic Park movie. It has also resurfaced from time to time throughout my adult life, especially as ongoing fossil discoveries painted a picture of an ever more dynamic Mesozoic.
All of this may sound like an odd choice for a subject of a wilderness essay, but here’s the thing: I’ve understood since at least the second grade that the Earth is a very ancient place, and that humans did not appear until very recently. The age of the planet itself is something on the order of 4 billion years, but it did not become suitable for widespread life until about a billion years ago. It has only been a few hundred million years since some of those lifeforms sprouted legs and crawled out of the ocean. Reptiles of various stripes ruled for the longest of times, and then came birds and mammals.
The first bipedal apes appeared about seven million years ago, and for much of the time that followed there were multiple human-like species wandering the planet at the same time. Our own species, Homo sapiens, first appears in the fossil record about 200,000 years ago, although for the first 190,000 years we were something of a non-event; those earliest humans actually had slightly larger brains than we do today, but they did less with them. Eons passed during which our ancestors, anatomically identical to people living today, only made the most incremental improvements upon the stone tools that had already been in use for millennia, invented by humanoid species far less advanced than we are.
For much of this period we have no evidence that members of Homo sapiens had a language or thought symbolically. There are no artifacts to show that we were doing anything other than responding directly to our environments, at least at first, before things like cave paintings appeared. We possessed all that brain power, but without a preexisting culture we had no examples to demonstrate how it could be used. It seems almost counter-intuitive to think that members of Homo sapiens could get by so long with so little, based on what I can observe about the species currently, but then again Stone Age conditions persisted in parts of the Americas until European immigrants and conquerors arrived and took that lifestyle away from the peoples who practiced them.
Early humans likely lived in small, isolated pockets. Anthropologists have a poor understanding of exactly how many different species there were, where exactly the division between species fell, or what is the baseline criteria for inclusion in the genus Homo. But we do know that as our own species spread out of Africa and developed roots around the world, the other human species disappeared. Homo neanderthalensis was among the last to go, but it was not necessarily because they were dumber; their brains were comparable to ours in size.
As far as we can tell, however, the phenomena of art and language originated with Homo sapiens. Both are representative of symbolic thinking, which is required to link the letters A-P-P-L-E with the round red fruit that grows on trees and tastes yummy. If our ancestors had no one to teach them this system of communicating, then it was something they had to invent on their own. From this comes the ability to share knowledge, and to improve upon an idea that originated with somebody else.
But we were still hunters and gatherers, only slightly more clever than the wild beasts we slew for food. The entire global population of humans would barely fill a single modern city. We were creatures of what we now call wilderness, wholly dependent on natural cycles and vulnerable to surprises. It was day when the sun was up, night when the sun went down. Herds of self-willed animals roamed freely across the landscape, and we harvested what we needed from them to survive. Our skin was dark if we lived somewhere where sunshine was ample, as this protected us from ultraviolet radiation; as some populations moved north, their skin color slowly faded so their bodies could use the UV rays to help produce Vitamin D. Recent advances in DNA analysis tells us that some Stone Age Europeans hadn’t quite lost their dark skin tones.
It was about 10,000 years ago when we first began to make the transition from being inhabitants of a global natural wilderness to the first beings to ever try and tame it. We turned wolves into dogs, and wild ungulates into cattle. Wild grains became cultivated, and eventually an unknown genius discovered these could be converted, through complicated processes, into both bread and beer. And as a result, humans began to transform themselves from a race of free-roaming hunter-gatherers into masters of husbandry. From there, it must have been an obvious next step for these tamers of nature to band together and form societies that in turn grew into civilizations.
Here comes the ironic twist, though: these people looked at one another and began to compare their strange forms against everything else they could observe in nature. Humans stood erect, had no tails, had two hands and round heads. By this stage in our development all of the other human species – the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, and the various other members of Homo known to inhabit the farthest reaches of Asia and Africa – had disappeared. The survivors – us – had no memory of them. We had forgotten all about the millennia when erect, bipedal primates were a common, albeit thinly-populated phenomenon, and there were multiple companion creatures who looked very much like us, if not completely so.
With the loss of this knowledge came myths intended to fill the gap: humans did not evolve from wild nature, we were created in a garden and granted dominion over nature. Man was above the animals but somewhere beneath God (who was another Homo sapiens invention, not known to be shared with any other human species). We were apart from nature and completely unlike anything in it, and we created stories to support and explain this perception of ourselves and our role in the world. These stories engendered assumptions that have proven extremely difficult to get past.
And here we are now, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, our population still ballooning to unprecedented levels as we diligently work to transform most of the planet to serve our needs. Never before in the history of the planet has a single species wrought so much control over the global environment, nor is there any reason to believe the evolutionary process was configured to inevitably produce something like us. But here we are anyway, with our misguided conceptions of our relationship with nature and our unbridled confidence in our own abilities. We have achieved wondrous things (barrel-aged ales, Paul Cezanne, the Beatles) and yet nature remains our perpetual blindside – knocked off our stride, for example, when a novel coronavirus escapes its animal hosts and finds fertile territory inside a human lung.
Cities should be added to the list of human achievements, although when seen in the longer view they are a relatively recent invention, going back only a few thousand years. As a species, though, we have mixed views about them. Many humans love them, taking great pleasure and comfort from the manicured environments and daily opportunities for cultural immersion. But Homo sapiens did not evolve on Broadway, and so the other half of us prefers the mobility and self-reliance of a rural lifestyle. Still fewer live along the margins of all this, on the edges of continents or deep in jungles, clinging to lifestyles that resist as much as humanly possible the encroachments of a technology-based civilization.
And indeed, when seen from this perspective, the concept of a legally protected “Wilderness Area,” complete with government employees to “manage” them and people like me to publicize them in guidebooks, is one of the most laughable things we’ve ever done. Our propensity to deceive ourselves through cognitive dissonance knows no bounds. We call it “primitive” recreation when we venture out into these places for the weekend, carrying packs full of store-bought food, LED lights, and tents made of synthetic fabrics. More recently we can add GPS devices and solar chargers for our smart phones to the list. Most canoes and kayaks launched on motorless lakes these days are manufactured out of plastic by one method or another. Primitive and self-reliant, indeed.
Nevertheless, I cannot deny that even recreational backcountry travel is very much right. For those of us with the necessary sensibilities, natural environments are highly satisfying. Even the most inveterate urbanite needs to see a tree every now and then, therefore it should come as no surprise that some of us require entire forests to retain our sanity.
Yes, absolutely, I agree that the word “wilderness” is a cultural construct, possible only if one first believes that he or she is an entity that exists apart from nature. So what of it? This is where our society happens to be at this point in time. To take this idea even further, “designated wilderness” is a distinctly American concept. If other nations have national parks and protected wilderness too, it’s because we exported the idea – along with Coca Cola, blue jeans, Mickey Mouse, and reruns of I Love Lucy.
It therefore also makes perfect sense that as a once-abundant resource quickly vanishes, we become motivated to protect the remnants. And wilderness, such as it remains, is a particularly important resource because of what it represents: a reminder of who we were! The very first members of Homo sapiens were not born in an office cubicle, and “Mitochondrial Eve” was most certainly not a barista at Starbucks. They were highly mobile people, ever on the move, with bodies well suited to handle almost any type of terrain as they followed the herd of aurochs or gathered nuts from the steepest valleys.
The gracile human frame, so thin and hairless, seems particularly well adapted to shedding body heat during bouts of vigorous exercise (that is, when not all covered up in fabrics), and some of the people who study human evolution think this might have been one of Homo’s first competitive advantages: our ability to outlast our prey in a foot chase, even if we weren’t as fast. The prey animal would eventually exhaust itself, but we had endurance! If this is a correct model for early humans, then it is very telling. Whereas completing a marathon is an exceptional achievement for moderns, our ancient forebearers did that kind of thing all the time – and not on paved roads, either. My, how far we have fallen!
The idea of a planetary wilderness is exciting to me – that for millions and millions of years, Earth possessed a dynamic biosphere that got along just fine without us. This is a timescale that no human can grasp intuitively, even if we can look at the numbers and understand that they are big. In this country, we get excited over buildings that date to the nineteenth century, as that is how we define “old.” People in Europe, living in the shadows of the Roman Empire, tend to take a somewhat longer view. But only a few societies have a history that can be traced without interruption over thousands of years, and as we trace recorded history farther backwards in time we reach a point where all trails go cold. Our knowledge of ourselves is limited by the vast expanses of time; we are impressed by the passage of mere centuries, but memory is stretched to the limit by millennia. Therefore we have no hope of ever comprehending the concept of, say, 100 million years.
I mentioned before how that second-grade project of mine, How to Get to Know Dinosaurs, was derived from other, older books I once had access to. Therefore, despite the hopefulness of the title, anyone who reads the book now would learn less about dinosaurs and the paleoecology of the Mesozoic Era than they would how a child of the early 1980s processed the received wisdom of that particular decade. Actually, scratch that. What I know now, but had no way of understanding then, was that the dinosaur books I read were already a decade or two (or three) old, and that the information they contained was not only outdated, but themselves the product of an even older preconception of what life on a pre-human Earth was like.
So here’s what my pencil-and-crayon book tells me now about what I used to think then: that dinosaurs, despite their big and exotic morphologies, were among the most painfully dull creatures that ever existed. They trudged through dun-colored landscapes with thick hides that were inevitably green, brown, or gray. Some of them were so obscenely large that they had no choice but to wade through swamps, where the mud and water could support their overwhelming bulk. The herbivores ate plants, and the carnivores ate the herbivores; we know who was who by the shape of their teeth, and the most exciting day in a dinosaur’s life was when one of the plant eaters had to fend off an allosaur or a tyrannosaur. Then they all died off, perhaps because of boredom (the whole asteroid thing was still a wild theory in the eighties) and thus now we have dinosaur books instead of actual dinosaurs.
Despite what Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg led us to believe, extracting viable dino DNA and cloning these extinct animals on a remote island is not likely to ever happen, for the simple reason that DNA doesn’t survive that long. But as paleontologists continue to make new fossil discoveries, our perception of what dinosaurs were continues to get pushed ever outward. We now know, for instance, that many dinosaurs had feathers to one extent or another, and for particularly well-preserved specimens it is possible to determine what color those feathers had been in life. Dinosaurs such as the long-necked sauropods were probably able to grow as large as they did because, like birds, they had highly efficient lungs. Some fossils preserve the remains of soft-tissue organs, and others preserve mothers sitting on their nests.
Pterosaurs, as my childhood books taught me, could only claw their way to the top of a cliff and then glide from the top; one of the most famous of these creatures, the pterodactyl, has a name that is often associated with the concept of “primitive.” But pterosaurs were actually very showy creatures, many of them sporting elaborate head crests that probably served no purpose other than to impress a potential mate. They were quite mobile creatures, adapted to flight in a variety of environments and with an evolutionary track that began well ahead of birds. They flew across Kansas when Kansas was a sea. One group of pterosaurs called the azhdarchids grew to be the size of giraffes – and if anyone knows of an actual Earth creature more wondrous than a flying giraffe, I would love to know about it.
And then many of these wondrous creatures died off, leaving behind a planetary wilderness that was ripe for conquest by mammals and birds. And flourish they did! Perhaps one of the most fateful days in the Earth’s history was when a slender ape descended from the trees and stepped boldly across an open grassland – a mode of travel that freed up the hands for other uses.
The point is, the world was already a wonderful place long before people came along, and up until the agricultural revolution that occurred in the aftermath of the last ice age, every acre of the planet was a wilderness in the truest sense of the word. The humans who knew this world almost certainly led hard lives, but it was probably an existence that made sense to them. Success and failure could be directly attributable to their own actions, and although they couldn’t calculate the value of pi they were otherwise making full use of their physical abilities.
But Earth’s environments have always been in a state of flux, and what we know today is just one small snapshot of a larger continuum. For instance, in the Adirondacks we are blessed by such graceful trees as maples and birches, which didn’t exist in the Mesozoic. On the other hand, giant sequoias were once far more plentiful in North America, but these have since retreated to a handful of sites on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Technically speaking, one branch of the dinosaur line does still survive, although few people are likely to mistake a chickadee for a velociraptor. (Look again, though, the next time you get close to a great blue heron or a wild turkey; these common creatures look like dinosaurs because that is precisely what they once were.)
Often, I think, the reasons we state for why we need to preserve wilderness in our modern culture miss the mark somewhat. We rehash the cultural reasons for doing so, sprinkled liberally with quotes from Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold. But the human brain is a layered mass, and I suspect that not all of those layers, each one added during a different evolutionary waypoint, work synchronously. There is the part that formulates speech, and it operates by listening to how others speak so it can use the same idioms. But beneath that is an older layer, and there lies the buried memory of what a mammoth tastes like. This is the part of us that revolts at the idea of a sterile environment and instead finds simple joy in a vigorous day spent outdoors.
Knowledge of the past breeds speculation about the future, though, and if we know that Earth was a total wilderness just ten millennia ago, then what odds do we give its survival over the next ten? The wilderness areas that we have preserved in our lifetimes are good, they are necessary for human happiness, but are they adequate to provide space for the continued existence of a self-willed wildlife population?
In the epilogue to the fifth edition of Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash postulates that civilization might need to transition over the course of the next thousand years from our current model, in which we have preserved small remnants of our wild landscapes almost like museum pieces of what once was, to a new model in which civilization itself occupies the smaller footprint, surrounded by larger spaces for free-ranging nature. Technological advances that allow us to grow food and produce energy with less space would be required, as would a new-found understanding that nature possesses an unqualified value in itself, and should therefore be afforded its own proportional space.
I admit that this is an intriguing vision of the future, and one that may very well need to come to pass. However, I’m reasonably certain that many people alive today would be unhappy at the required sacrifices. This is not the type of thing that could be achieved through land acquisition, government mandate, or even the drifting of values between generations; nature appreciation on its own is insufficient to motivate such radical changes.
Rather, I suspect an external shock would be needed to prompt such a paradigm shift: the eminent collapse of ecosystems, the human death toll as parts of the Earth become uninhabitable, the absence of other habitable worlds and/or the realization that interstellar travel is a futile endeavor given the astronomical distances involved. We humans do seem to respond to crises relatively well, even the ones of our own making, so if we see the walls beginning to crack around us we’re more likely to do something about it.
The fear is that if we don’t, the Earth may not be able to support an ever-growing, resource-hungry human population indefinitely. The more of us there are, the less room there will be for other forms of life, and eventually we will discover the ceiling of how many humans there can possibly be just as we begin a violent and painful crash. Few animal species would survive other than those we have domesticated, or the things like pigeons, cockroaches, and rats that have found niches for themselves scurrying about our feet.
So why should we preserve wilderness? The reasons are many, beginning with the joy that it brings to the people who visit them. Wilderness was once the home of Homo sapiens, even if it took its near eradication to recognize its value. Through wilderness we get a fleeting glimpse of what life on Earth was like for the millions of years before our appearance, even if the particulars have changed (maples instead of sequoias, herons instead of pterodactyls). And wilderness may be a key part of the balance we will need to achieve to sustain an advanced civilization on this one known habitable world.