The Man Who Wasn’t There…
Keeping Wild Things Wild is Up to Us
Backcountry wanderers and campers walk a thin line in our dealings with the furred and feathered natives on whose doorsteps we camp. We want to be accepted by them, but we also want them to know their place and keep their distance, and it’s much harder to strike the right balance than it used to be. But it’s up to us to help the wild creatures stay wild.
by Tamia Nelson | June 1, 2015
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
—Hughs Mearns, Antigonish
Ah, wilderness! The annual flight from the cities and suburbs is about to get under way in earnest. Soon many popular waterways will boast their own traffic jams, as canoes and kayaks jostle tentatively with darting jet-skis and lumbering party barges. Lighting out for the territory just ain’t what it was in Huck Finn’s day. But some things don’t change. Beyond the boundaries of the tent-cities now springing up in established campsites—the line of demarcation is easily identified by the sudden and unexpected appearance of lower limbs on trees—the natives go about their business as best they can. That’s natives with a small “N,” of course. I’m referring to the furred and feathered creatures who make their homes in the world’s remaining and ever-shrinking enclaves of wilderness.
Wilderness, you may remember, has been sanctified in law in the States. It is the place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” A noble sentiment, indeed, if woefully wide of the mark. Still, how often do hacks like me get to use “untrammeled” in a sentence? And notwithstanding the overheated language, the text of the Wilderness Act does make one useful distinction: In what now passes for wilderness, we humans are indeed “visitors.” We’re just passing through. In fact, in the eyes of the natives, we’re merely blow-ins—unwelcome guests, to be tolerated rather than embraced.
That said, I have an alternative definition of wilderness to propose: Wilderness is where the wild things are. This lacks the soaring rhetoric of the Act, but it’s much easier to translate into operational terms, even if some of the consequences are a trifle unexpected. For example, many urban apartments would probably earn wilderness status. After all, visitors to New York City are often told they’re never more than six feet away from a rat, and if a stroppy, streetwise rodent who eats tame tabbies for breakfast isn’t a wild thing, what is?
This is Back in the Same Boat, though, not The New Yorker. So I’ll limit myself to considering relations between us and the wild things living in places where trees outnumber cars. And those wild things, if given the choice, would likely be happier if we blow-ins just stayed home. We, on the other hand, are keen to make their acquaintance. We want to get up close and personal with our new neighbors. Just not too close. And not too personal. When spotted at a distance during the hours of daylight, a bear is a welcome sight, but the same can’t be said of chance encounters under the kitchen tarp at midnight.
The upshot? Backcountry wanderers and campers walk a thin line in our dealings with the natives on whose doorsteps we camp. We want to be accepted by them, but we also want them to know their place and keep their distance. This is pretty presumptuous of us, really. Since when do house guests get to lay down rules for their hosts?
Be that as it may, however, it’s much harder to strike the right balance than it used to be. Truly wild things treat infrequent blow-ins with appropriate caution and circumspection. But tens of millions of us now invade the natives’ wilderness homes in search of solitude and serenity—or social media fame—and such familiarity inevitably breeds contempt. By now, the natives have learned that—outside of the hunting seasons, at any rate—most featherless bipeds are pilgrims ripe for the plucking. You could almost say we’ve become targets of opportunity. The smaller creatures have long since learned to rob us of our tastier stores by stealth, while a few of the bigger beasts see us as possible entrées in our own right. To these more formidable natives, we look like nothing so much as not very fast food.
Needless to say, few trekkers are happy with either state of affairs. We’re used to calling the shots wherever we set foot. We see ourselves as verbs, rather than objects. But that’s not how the natives sees us. To them we’re clumsy, stupid, and clueless. And if push comes to shove, as it sometimes does, the toothier wild things know we can’t put up much of a show. To borrow Admiral “Jacky” Fisher’s pithy phrase, we’re too weak to fight and too slow to run away. Nonetheless, whenever a blow-in is injured or robbed by a native, our species’ wrath knows no bounds, and we take a terrible revenge.
The bottom line? It’s in the interest of both natives and blow-ins to keep encounters from escalating. And like it or not, the burden of responsibility rests on our shoulders. In other words, it’s up to us—paddlers, hillwalkers, campers, and cyclists, to keep wild things wild.