The wildness is in me, too

People were excluded from the wild, historically, and in today’s rapidly digitizing West.


My sense of wild-being formed when I was a kid, steeped in the sanitized, sensationalized history of the “American West.” Hypnotized by 1970s fat-backed analog color television and three channels, I saw a West made of covered wagons, bucking broncos, dusty cattle drives, Indigenous people on painted ponies killing brown bison and white cowboys killing everything they could.

The Technicolor truth of guns, bullets, locomotives and whiteness conquering bows, arrows and “primitive” people with darker skin and feathers in their hair was a constant. Back then, being the Black backwoods Carolina kid who thought he’d be a Montana cowboy one day and a Cheyenne “dog soldier” the next, I didn’t question the homogenized portrayals. I just felt pulled towards wide prairie and Big Sky — to be “out there” in the wild of it all, somehow.

My early virtual reality arrived via rabbit-eared antennae fine-tuning a Western world filtered through John Wayne. Setting my own color aside and teleporting through fantasy into those mythologies, I learned and mis-learned through horizontal hold and pages I could physically turn.

With the American Bicentennial celebrating 200 years and me 11, I found York, an enslaved black man who was a member of the Corps of Discovery, the 1803 Jeffersonian expedition that sent Capt. Meriwether Lewis, Lt. William Clark, a team of free white men — and York — to secure the land theft known as the Louisiana Purchase. No more than Clark’s livestock by law, York was nearly invisible among the legions of intrepid white “heroes” in the books I read. Was I included in any ideas of what the West was? Being Black, I found it hard to be the intrepid white explorer — and enslaved Negro wasn’t a role I was willing to play.

York didn’t have a choice. Compelled by conditions, he walked, rode, paddled, portaged, hunted, fished, foraged, nursed, fought, suffered, shivered, sweated, bled, cried, bargained, mediated, danced and sang at the behest of others. I suspect that, in some moments away from the oppressive eyes of ownership, he may have fallen in love with snow-capped peaks or a curlew’s wavering call. Here, beyond what he’d ever experienced, was some measure of freedom.

Being Black, I found it hard to be the intrepid white explorer — and enslaved Negro wasn’t a role I was willing to play.

I learned very little about this Black West-going man. But Alex Haley’s Roots — the book-turned-epic-TV series that infused a Technicolor Afro-pride in millions — gave me a desire to know more about my own history. York began to haunt me in my West-ing dreams.

Hollywood and its writers implied that the Wild West was out of reach for me — unless some more intrepid white person showed me the way. This made York a critical figure in my yearning: a Black man exploring the wild who became a role-modeling speed bump in the rapid-transit stereotypes transmitted into my head.

I was 12 or 13 in junior high, and in the bits and pieces of buried treasure that surfaced around the dinner table, I learned that my parents had gone West to Oregon in the ’50s. With limited opportunities for furthering their teacher training in the South, they headed northwest, unable to stop safely for food or rest until somewhere in outer Missouri, where segregation thinned out. 

Was it a coincidence that Missouri had been a gateway for them to elude Jim Crow, just as it had been a portal for York into other possibilities?  They never said much about all that space in between the Show Me State and Eugene, only that they knew without maps where to go — or not. In Oregon, they said, things weren’t perfect, but life got easier.  Here was a stake I could drive into my own ground! There was real West in my blood — a familial Oregon Trail.

And soon, beckoned by histories and haunts, I would follow these stories to find a West of my own.

BIRDS DRAW ME BEYOND limited possibilities. The idea of flying to far-off places morphed from inspiration for child’s play into a hobby, then a full-fledged profession — an obsession with wings and feathers. Before I ever went westward, birds in books  introduced me to Cave Creek Canyon in Arizona, the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana, and the Northwest’s Olympic Peninsula. I feened for scissor-tailed flycatchers, white-headed woodpeckers and wandering tattlers. Horace Greeley’s old call to “go West” was weak in comparison to the beckoning of water ouzels or the Townsend’s solitaire’s siren song.

The lure of the far side of the Mississippi River grew with shifts in how I learned about birds. In the early ’90s, I exchanged my clunky birdsong cassette tapes for compact discs. In less than a decade, we zoomed from the mechanical uncertainty of ribbon running reel-to-reel to CDs with sounds precisely encoded in zeroes and ones. By 1995, I was flying over tallgrass and up the craggy crests of the Tetons down to arid Great Basin salt pans, out to the restless Pacific by moving a computer mouse a few inches. Field guides went from paper pages to digital screens. It was a magic Netscape carpet ride fueled by the screech-wailing of a dial-up modem. The bird pictures sang (once they buffered).    

At the beginning of all this rapid informational expansion from analog to digital, I struck out for Colorado in September of ’92. A bird conservation meeting in Estes Park was the expedition’s rationale, its bonus the chance to live a dream. After landing in Denver, I drove up through pitch-black canyons, guided by a rental car company’s paper map under starlit skies brighter than I’d ever seen before. When I arrived, breathless at high altitude, a bull elk begging for love in the cold moonlight shivered me beyond the thin air’s chill. 

I woke the next morning in a world glittering gold with quaking aspen. Armed with an almost state-of-the-art point-and-shoot phone-less camera and binoculars, I set out like some nouveau liberated Negro York to make the land mine.

Up there on Longs Peak, buzzed on a Rocky Mountain high and severed from umbilical landlines, it felt like the top of the world. I lived John Denver’s anthem, shifting the lyrics on the fly to fit me: I was born in the autumn of my 27th year, coming home to a place I’d never been before. I left yesterday behind me, you might say I was born again, you might say I found a key to every door …

I was gleefully alone with no concept of connectedness to consider, status to update or Twitter feed to feed.

I wonder now if anyone ever thought of naming a bird after York? Seems like some intrepid icterid might’ve merited consideration.

I saw Clark’s nutcrackers, the bold black-and-gray corvids named after York’s “owner”. They came close, asking for handouts — maybe trying to identify me as carefully I labeled them. My list swelled. I wasn’t far enough west to see Lewis’ woodpecker, though. I wonder now if anyone ever thought of naming a bird after York? Seems like some intrepid icterid might’ve merited consideration.

A three-decade retrospective of my expedition says everything about our rapid-transit technological transformation. I could only absorb that cold, wild reality through my own senses.  I couldn’t take pictures with a smartphone because they didn’t exist. I couldn’t post my feelings on social media or upload sightings to eBird.  There was an acceptable delayed gratification between the shutter click and sharing.  There was no digital distraction to rip fascination away from the cryptic camouflage of the ptarmigan or through which to filter the dazzling electric cerulean of mountain bluebirds. 

It was just me and the birds in all that wildness.

There was no angst over how many friends would envy my posts, no vibrating breaking news notifications to update world events. I didn’t miss what I was missing. It was just me and the birds in all that wildness.

In that moment, I was more like York than I could’ve ever imagined. But unlike York, I was free — no bonds to anyone or anything in the moment.  If wild were a hue, this was it; if freedom were a mood, I oozed it. In those moments back then I could almost forget I was any color at all. Almost. I hope York forgot sometimes, too. 

TODAY, IT FEELS LIKE CENTURIES have passed instead of a few decades from the three-channel days of my youth. We deal in terabytes and deep fakes. The internet brims with people of color doing extraordinary things. Black people gone West were as rare as hen’s teeth in my boyhood books. Now, a few touchpad taps yield gold mines of information about Black cowboys, Black fur trappers, Black “Buffalo” soldiers — and the injustices done to Black people who didn’t cease to be called “niggers” just because they went West.

He looks toward someplace far away, holding a musket in one hand and a brace of dead birds in the other. He’s fully human and heroic. Posthumously, he’s Sgt. York, certified “Intrepid” by the World Wide Web.

Even York is digitally liberated from the flattened world where I found him. He’s alive online. Google “York Corps of Discovery” now and it takes less than a half-second for him to appear thousands of times. There are books and speculation, plaques and a bronze-cast, broad-nosed statue in Louisville, Kentucky. He looks toward someplace far away, holding a musket in one hand and a brace of dead birds in the other. He’s fully human and heroic. Posthumously, he’s Sgt. York, certified “Intrepid” by the World Wide Web.

I do lots of heavy lifting, remembering ancestral legacies alongside the current technology, which, like a musket, will soon be outmoded — replaced by something better. The data I hunt are served up on a silver platter — a 2018 laptop, which is already antiquated. I only have to go to my relict touchscreen to go anywhere past, present or perhaps future to be fed with more information than I could ever digest. We’re informed instantaneously in giga-floods of data. Maps read themselves to us, and we trust their generic-voiced directives. We trust search engines to take us where we want to go and love friends all over the world who we’ll never shake hands with or hug. 

From my Southern genesis, to my wandering beyond home to find what lay on the horizon where the sun sets, technology has led the way, as it did in some ways for York. But just as the cotton gin was good for American industry then and horrific for the Black people tied to it, what lies in front of us today are different sorts of “ginning” machines with the potential to process good, but also produce bad along the way.

IF WILDERNESS IS AT THE HEART of our conservation culture, then technology is the inner angst that stresses it to infarction. That algorithm defines the diametrically opposed split-persona of the American psyche. Progress versus preservation; we’re addicted to upgrading, strung out on 5G. But then many of us desire disconnection from First World problems — which streaming service bill to pay by cash app, or whether our Instagram posts will get seen if the signal drops. Then wildness becomes bothersome. We want nature on our terms. We want the instantaneous ability to glide like a golden eagle over the entirety of the Western landscape, cruising over mesas, descending to shoot through canyons by drone and Go-Pro. Some of us can think better with our thumbs than we can with our brains. We live through memes and the thumbs-up-like, heart-love emoji approvals of others. We gain contact with millions as we lose touch with ourselves.

We’re pining for the opportunity to be connected so we can show how disconnected we are. We crave megapixels as much as we crave a trout’s rise to the fly or the first look at some wild mountain meadow that we feel we’re the first to see. We want to share it with the world so they’ll like it a million times, but not trample it with their unworthy boots on the ground, so we can have it selfishly for ourselves. The hashtag is the new “claim your high ground” flag: #keepitwild #keepout 

York was in the vanguard of a burgeoning world of technological advance, material demand and callousness that kept him subjugated even as the Corps of Discovery he served laid a clear path for more subjugation of more people of color. And although Sacagawea, a young Shoshone woman, made the push to the Pacific possible, the First Nations would suffer in the wake of the mission. “New and improved” things were instrumental in dividing, conquering and devastating those who wouldn’t assimilate and taking by force and deception what wasn’t given away. Steel rails, steam engines and repeating rifles would follow the Corps within a few decades to make good the manifest.

A select few shouldn’t own the idea of “wild” exclusive of others. Mix in more than one board member of color so that tokenism is less of an issue. Those same chosen few shouldn’t seek to own the backcountry, outfitted in privilege and shutting the door behind them, excluding others who would spoil a serenity only a few, with disposable time and income, can afford. Leisure is a benefit many have been priced out of. A single demographic shouldn’t own the technological high ground at the expense of the dispossessed and oppressed. If I have high-speed broadband, you should, too. Don’t fence me in while you wander unfettered on my back forty. Is it OK that you don’t want your view-shed spoiled while those living on the land are hand-to-mouth with tin-can-and-string technology? We can’t think ethically about “saving” nature without considering culture.

“Wildness” was “created” without colored people in any kind of positive mindset. Was this land really made for you and me?

When technology makes discrimination more efficient and obfuscates the blame by leaving it in the cold hands of faceless, nameless processes, then there’s reason to rethink it. Increasingly (and horrifically for many of us) we must ask if there’s a reason that so much of the emerging technology is geared without differences in mind — or, worse, designed with them negatively in mind. Should being profiled by megapixels from miles away be a concern? That artificial intelligence is implemented with implicit biases driven by white as the baseline is worrisome. Many of us are being tracked by unseen hunters, and color makes the targeting easier. And it’s only a matter of time before some overly zealous wilderness hiking majority person feels “threatened” by the presence of some minority person like me and calls to Make America Wild Again.

American stories of land disconnection and misappropriation read like bad algorithms of misanthropy. “Wildness” was “created” without colored people in any kind of positive mindset. Was this land really made for you and me?

Right now, conservation seems stuck in the sameness it was born into and reluctant to push past it. It’s still an overwhelmingly white endeavor catering to privileged wants, with occasional talk about including “others.” As the demography colors, there’s an expectation that the “new” people will listen to the old messages of “go fearlessly alone” or “follow this old path, because we know best.” Such assumptions give short shrift to past transgressions and the current state of stagnation. For whatever good or bad technology brings, simple ethical consideration must prevail around it.

York was bound to a horrific institution from which even the hinterlands of wildness couldn’t free him. That I admire and feel a kinship to him is a complex internal conflict. Living at the behest of others while making one’s own way but remaining mindful of all that surrounds you, beautiful and horrific, is an exhausting emotional haul. It’s heroic, yet shameful and maddening. I feel like I’m honoring York in some way when I go West toting my own tech, compelled to do what he couldn’t do.

EVERY BIT OF WILD is important, from urban pocket parks to sprawling landscapes that swallow us whole in the unknown. Every wild thing — winged, clawed, fanged or finned — can connect us to our better being.  Birds, beasts, fish and people all share the same air, same water, same soil. It was always connected in ways that didn’t require a single scroll or emoji smile. The key is to not ruin it with progress. In my status updates as the “New York,” I can’t wander in wildness without the bigger picture of culture and conservation in mind.

Our stories are yet unfolding. Over 200 years later, York is finally fully an Intrepid man. After being a critical cog in the expedition’s success, he returned east to neither fame, fortune or freedom. Clark denied all of it. My hero’s fate beyond crushing disrespect is widely debated. I can’t let such a sad legacy stand. My plan is to follow York’s path one day, visit the southwestern Montana river islands named for him.

I watch birds east and west, occasionally submit them to eBird, and I hear about police shooting unarmed black people without regard to geography. In a single scroll I can list a western tanager and get breaking news to understand that in this new age, much hasn’t changed.

If nothing else, my connectedness keeps me in touch with who I am, forever Black and wishing for the wild.

J. Drew Lanham, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University and the poet laureate of Edgefield, South Carolina. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor