How might humans and wilderness co-exist?

I want my daughter to know the wilderness outside our cabin, and the wildness within each of us.


Last year, I entered the wilderness of fatherhood. When my daughter was 6 months old, my wife, Sarah, and I brought her to a small cabin I built in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains when I was younger. Here on a battered old mining claim, as I built my cabin out of repurposed lumber and sheet metal, I began to question the traditional view of wilderness as something removed from humanity. At a time when so little remains untouched by humans, but when I also hope to raise my daughter among wild things, becoming a father has complicated those ideas.

Like a lot of people, I began as a wilderness purist. In the early 1990s, exploring the nearby Fossil Ridge Wilderness, I first read Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, and I advocated, like Nash, for America to continue setting aside designated wilderness. Later, as a trail builder in Washington’s Glacier Peaks Wilderness, I recoiled at William Cronon’s Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, which asks readers to decide “Nature or people?” and argues that “legislating humans out of the wilderness is no solution to our environmental problems.” But over that summer, amid jagged snowcapped peaks, I began to think humans have a place in wilderness. After all, my Pulaski dug trails, my boots were trammeling, and my tent was staked for weeks in places where I was asked to remain a visitor.

Years later, holding my 6-month-old daughter on our cabin porch, pointing out gray jays in pines beside old silver-mine tailings, I realized I had never fully reconciled my competing views on wilderness. What, I wondered, will I teach Winter Eve about how humans and wilderness might co-exist? I found help in two recent books: Wildness: Relations of People & Place, edited by Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer, and Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness, by Michael Branch. Both explore and complicate the idea of wilderness

In Wildness, a collection of 25 essays and one poem, the reader is asked to consider wildness in four distinct ways: first, “wisdom of the wild,” including wild species, wild processes and wilderness in its general sense; second, the “working wild,” how humans work the land; third, the “urban wild,” how cities and suburbs might become “full of wild creatures, habitats, and possibilities”; finally, the “planetary wild,” to imagine “wild futures in the making.” Wildness argues Americans should continue “wilderness zoning on public lands, especially to curb mass extinctions and to limit our fever for turning life into commodity,” but, in his epilogue, Hausdoerffer tells his daughter that wilderness is more than a designation to keep humans out. Rather, he suggests, she should understand that these areas “come from our hope to share the land with all the other species with which we evolved.” Our job, he says, is to become “wild partners” with the land, and so enhance our “shared self-will.”

A mother with two young children on the shores of Long Lake in the John Muir Wilderness in California.
Russ Bishop

Raising Wild begins where Wildness ends, exploring the intersection between wildness, home and fatherhood. This book is for those who long to “raise their children out in this open wilderness,” which is what Sarah and I are trying to do. Whereas Wildness looks for ways to expand how humans envision wilderness, Raising Wild expands on who might enter it. Wilderness, Branch writes, too often “features men, often operating in solitude, removing themselves from the sphere of home and children.” Branch’s wilderness, on the other hand, includes his wife and two daughters. After summiting Moonrise Mountain, Nevada, with one of his daughters, Branch writes, “I looked down at our little home, a small island in a vast sage-brush ocean. … In that moment it occurred to me that maybe Moonrise actually was my home mountain. Our home.” Wilderness teaches his daughters things that he cannot, Branch says. If we “assume that the wild does not exist within the family — or that the family cannot exist within the wild — we radically limit our conception of what wildness means and so also limit what it can teach us.”

It has been 25 years since I read Wilderness and the American Mind. I have gone from trail-builder to solitary cabin-dweller to husband and father. Now, as I carry Winter Eve across our spring hillside, I want my daughter to know the wilderness outside our cabin, and the wildness within each of us. And that is why on my cabin’s rough-hewn shelves, Wildness and Raising Wild have found a home beside my Colorado Trail Guidebook, there to teach me to live beside wild lands, to turn toward wildness, in partnership with my wife and our daughter, so that we may learn from her (and our) native self-will.

Sean Prentiss is the author of Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, which won the 2015 National Outdoor Book Award.

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