Recently I was obligated to serve as a course official for a cross-country meet, which is a fancy way of saying that I got to spend a morning standing out in the drizzle on a golf course, waving young runners past. I was stationed at the end of a path that led through a grove of aspens.
Stuck there, with light rain ticking in the fall woods, I became aware of the grove, only a few acres left of what was once a much larger forested bottomland along the East Gallatin River. Behind me stood a new subdivision. Through the trees, a two-lane road hugged the hillside below the city dump. The grove had been allowed to remain as a bauble of green space within the surrounding mass of development.
It was little more than a token scrap of woodland. Still, in the quiet between runners, it was untamed and humming with life.
I found myself walking along the path, peering in through the trunks of trees. A messy carpet of brown leaves littered the ground. The aspens were skeletal, all lines and sticks and gray knots. Birds flitted through the shadows. Small creatures stirred in the undergrowth. Something stirred inside me as well, a surge towards the mystery and solace I crave in wilderness.
I thought about the small river that courses nearby, a stream I often paddle a canoe down in the early summer. It flows through two golf courses, past the backyard barbecues of condo developments, next to the wastewater treatment facility. Yet it rustles with life: Warblers and sandpipers and geese along the banks, deer bounding into the thickets, red-tailed hawks and bald eagles overhead, beaver and muskrat in the backwaters. It's just a narrow strip of watercourse, with development crowding up against it, almost within city limits. No matter; all that life just kept on being what it has always been, which is to say, wild.
The problem with wilderness is that we don't think of it as where we live. It is, by definition, at a remove. It exists without us. In fact, it can't exist with us. We have granted ourselves visitation rights, which can be intrusive enough, but in order for wilderness to remain truly wild, we have to live elsewhere.
By setting aside publicly owned land as wilderness – land that is out there somewhere -- we don't need to pay as much attention to whatever clings to the wild around us. And the wild is all around us. It is in our parks, in our woodlots, off the fairways, coursing through town, sprouting through the cracks in our sidewalks, rearing up in our yards.
In these mundane places, chickadees mine seeds from the faces of sunflowers. Black bears pad through the night, licking leftovers from birdfeeders. Deer graze at dawn in the mist rising off a water trap below the 16th hole. Life exerts itself in the face of pesticides, pavement, lawn mowers and the proliferation of human garbage. It is here, and if we were more aware of it, those same qualities of beauty and wonder and mystery that hit us over the head in spectacular wilderness might also worm their way into our urban and suburban consciousness.
The awareness would do us all good. After all, wilderness is difficult to get to. It requires arduous and expensive travel, physical stamina and health, skills and equipment. Not everyone can manage this, and while it is good to know that wilderness exists, it's not the same as being there. Even for those who can get to a wilderness, it is always a temporary visitation.
What if we recognized the wild in our neighborhood, and respected and encouraged it? What if we let it work its transformative magic on us? How revolutionary would that be? And what a relief, as well.
Back on the golf course, the last runner slogged past, breathing hard, focused on the end. I started back, but took my time. I sauntered along the path through the woods. I could almost hear the rain soak through the mat of decaying leaves, feeding the soil. Birds flushed as I walked. The nearby houses, the passing cars, the distant hubbub at the finish line, all faded.
It was remarkable how quickly the morning had passed, and how refreshed I was after standing still for hours in the rain on a muddy golf course.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a wilderness adventurer and author, but these days, he is noticing the wild close to home in Bozeman, Montana.