How to redefine — and defend — wilderness

A review of a new way to look at what’s wild and what’s not, in Jason Mark’s 'Satellites in the High Country' and Fred Pearce’s 'The New Wild.'


Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man
Jason Mark
256 pages, hardcover: $28.
Island Press, 2015.

The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation
Fred Pearce
272 pages, hardcover: $32.
Beacon Press, 2015.

You’re hiking alone along a steep switchback trail in Washington’s Olympic Mountains, when suddenly you turn a corner and see a massive mountain goat, its black eyes trained upon you. A few years ago, a goat attacked and killed a man in this very park, and, at the thought, a trickle of sweat wends its way from your hairline to your collar. The goat is still looking at you. Then you remember that mountain goats aren’t native to these mountains, meaning that both it and you are relative newcomers here. But does that — should that — knowledge do anything to diminish the wildness of this encounter?

Congress has the power to designate wilderness areas, but every wilderness lover has his or her own definition of “wild.” A few purists would see the non-native goat as a deal-breaker, but increasingly, many people define wilderness regardless of whether a particular landscape is “pristine,” or occupied by native or non-native species. Instead, they see wilderness simply as places that humans aren’t currently managing, whether it’s a remote mountain range or just an overlooked patch of pine trees by the railroad tracks.  And this is true both of passionate, old-style wilderness lovers and of pragmatic, technophile greenies, as clearly evidenced by two new books.

Ecologists have known for generations that no place, no matter how remote, is absolutely free of human fingerprints. We tend to notice the obvious signs: the traces of an old road, or perhaps — as Earth Island Journal editor Jason Mark describes in his new book, Satellites in the High Country — a bright blue cooler washed up on a beach in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But increasingly, our warming climate is changing ecosystems that humans have never visited. Either we accept a certain amount of human influence, or we’ll run out of wilderness altogether. “Forget untouched,” Mark writes. “What matters now is whether a place is uncontrolled.”

Mark carves out a fine distinction between inadvertent influence caused by factors like climate change and intentional control. He offers a heartfelt ode to the continued importance of nonintervention in wilderness areas, even if doing so leads to unrecognizably changed landscapes. We should resist the temptation to help, he says, no matter the consequences. “The pika may perish,” he writes. “The Arctic fox might slip into the great void of extinction. Places we’ve known and loved … may become unrecognizable to us.”

British journalist Fred Pearce takes a surprisingly similar stance in The New Wild, although rather than despairing at the resulting changes, he sees them as exciting. We live, he believes, during a dynamic time in our planet’s history. He delights in tweaking the noses of those who despise so-called “invasive species.” For him, that doesn’t restore wildness but rather reduces it in a futile attempt to freeze nature in time. His “new wild” is a mash-up of natives and exotics that vigorously adapt to climate change, pollution and incoming species without our assistance. Conservationists should embrace such landscapes, from abandoned industrial sites covered in plants that thrive on metallic soils to second-growth tropical rainforest.  We should be, he argues, “supporting the new, rather than always spending time and money in a doomed attempt to preserve the old.”

Brooke Warren

Both Pearce, the technology-loving pragmatic environmentalist, and Mark, the traditional wilderness lover, agree: Even in a world of overwhelming human influence, we shouldn’t intrude on every landscape with our well-intentioned sprays and shovels, poisoning weeds and relocating species. Both writers argue for keeping some places uncontrolled, unmanaged — wild, in perhaps the simplest sense of the word — as an arena for undirected evolution, as a traditional conservation practice, and as a good way to practice humility and retain essential mystery in the world.

Both base their arguments for nonintervention in part on the notion that as the world changes, it is nature — not human beings — that will figure out how to adapt. By killing non-natives, planting disease-resistant trees or shooting invasive barred owls to save spotted ones, they say, we may inadvertently prevent the species-level evolution and ecosystem-level re-sorting that help create more resilient natural landscapes.

Pearce uses science to bolster his case, picking apart the surprisingly thin evidence that non-natives cause lasting harm, except in a few cases (like the brown tree snake, which has destroyed most of Guam’s native birds). Mark’s arguments have a more ethical, spiritual and emotional flavor. Wilderness and wildness, he declares, are very good for the human soul. He says little about non-natives, but notes that he considers those introduced Olympic mountain goats to be indisputably wild, in part because as fierce, “feral” beasts, they are capable of killing us. 

The two writers’ arguments for letting nature take care of itself are compelling and make interesting back-to-back reading. But there’s one aspect of both books that will alienate many readers: Both authors accept extinction as inevitable, to a certain extent. And many environmentalists will find it hard to accept that an abstract notion of resilient wildness is more important than, say, the survival of the Arctic fox. As Mark says, hewing to a policy of nonintervention as ecosystems change and species wink out “will require an emotional fortitude to which we are unaccustomed, an almost Buddhist sort of nonattachment.” We should rather restrict our emotional engagement to immediate and instinctive experiences in the wilderness itself, whether that be awe, reverence, or — in the case of coming face-to-face a mountain goat — naked fear.

Emma Marris is an environmental writer. She lives in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

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