A wilderness of one's own
My first contact with what, early in my life, I took to be wilderness came in two ways: my childhood visits to my brother and sister's summer camp in Pennsylvania, and my brief time in a Scouting organization several years later. Neither of these introductions to the great outdoors left me with much desire to return. Although I was very young when I went to see my older siblings at camp, I remember very clearly the first rule of that wilderness - things were to be done in their proper order. Campers cleaned their tents at a certain time, did their laundry at a certain time, went to the lake at a certain time, came back from the lake at a certain time, and so on. I have been told I was a well-behaved child, so I might have been expected to appreciate such regimentation, but it weighed heavily on me.
Later, when I joined a Scouting organization, I wound up spending quite a bit of time indoors. I learned to tie knots (actually one of the most useful things I've ever done); I learned to use a map and compass, and to recognize various edible and inedible plants from pictures in a book. I also (rather bravely, as I think about it) went along with my young companions as we sang Scouting songs, told Scouting jokes, and heard from our elders how exciting Scouting in the wide open country could be. We were all Scouts (although some of us took a good deal of teasing for being skinny or small, and so not fitting the image of a Scout); and, in the troop to which I belonged, we were all destined for the same great outdoor experience.
Clearly, summer camps and Scouting provide experiences as various as the vast numbers of these organizations. I know people who have gained from such groups a great pleasure in the outdoors. But my own experience has taught me to be wary of any other person's or group's attempt to fit me into their conception of what the wilderness is or should be. As an adult, I have had enough excursions in the wilderness on my own terms - particularly in California's Sierra Nevadas - to have developed a private love for, and response to, the minutely varied, vastly beautiful country of the wilds. I can think of few things more different than this love, so instinctively arrived at, and the ''love of the outdoors'' that I was expected to derive from my previous group allegiances. The urgings I received as a youth to conform to a specific idea of the outdoors - a kind of common denominator of the group's experience, a melange of campfire songs, dust, and tales of resourceful but dull mountain men - left me feeling trapped. I disliked the wilderness then because I had never really encountered it.
Now, by contrast, I have had some fairly spectacular encounters. A couple of summers ago, for example, I decided that I wanted to climb a mountain. After consulting a topographic map of Yosemite National Park (and checking on the weather), I decided to spend a weekend climbing Mammoth Peak, a craggy, gothic, not particularly difficult mountain of 12,117 feet. I didn't want to climb this mountain to test myself somehow against nature; I didn't want to climb it with a group of people, so that we could all say we had done it; I didn't want to try out newly devised techniques of survival in the wilderness. I simply wanted to climb to the top of something high, to take in the view from that vantage point, and to be an intimate part of those surroundings for a time. I suppose you could say, without being overly philosophical, that I wanted yet another chance (in Thoreau's words) ''to live deliberately.'' For certainly there are few things more deliberate, more demanding of concentration at each moment, than climbing a mountain. And the rewards of such concentration are immense: a continually changing, continually keen perception of the fine details and grand scale of the world on which you place your hands and feet.
I invited my close friend Michael along, and we left on a Friday morning. By nightfall we'd set up camp at the base of the mountain. By mid-morning the next day we'd set up camp halfway up the mountain, in a narrow meadow invisible from the valley floor, with cold streams full of dark, darting minnows. From that secluded, exceptionally beautiful point, we began our final climb. For about four hours we scrambled, pushing and pulling ourselves over rock faces and outcroppings both gradual and steep, until we reached the pinnacle. It was an extraordinary experience. The entire earth seemed to fall away from where we stood. With our arms extended, we slowly turned ourselves around. For miles there was nothing higher than our outstretched arms - except our own heads.
I have always remembered this climb as a kind of gift from the wilderness to Michael and me. We were not out to conquer, but simply to see what we might find. We found cool sunrises and deep, black nights, hidden meadows, deer skirting the rocks just at the timberline, and a mountain peak that gave us its own august altitude. We found quietness and time for private reflection; we found friendship as much in silence as in our occasional conversations. We were sharing no one else's idea of the wilderness, but rather forming our own in response to our specific circumstances; and so we knew keenly what it meant to experience something - to discover a meadow or a mountain for ourselves, to make it an original part of our lives.
The wilderness can be a place to restore and uplift the spirit, to allow the mind (as Wendell Berry says) to ''go free of the ground/into the shining of trees.'' This uplifting power, however, is very much a kind of inner voice. Although we can share our experience of it with other people, the voice remains separate from any group, from any preconceived idea of what it is. Its force lies precisely in its ability to speak uniquely to each one of us, to separate us from generalities and cliches, to restore our love of specific beauty and our private capacity for wonder. This sense of the wilderness, which I missed as a youth, is clear to me now; but in fact there is no reason at all why it should be any kind of secret. It is a simple, straightforward richness, quick to catch the attentive eye and ear.