Where the Wild Things Are

One percent of the land in the lower forty-eight states is what might be considered “wilderness.” Ninety-nine percent is utilized in some way for human profit-urban areas, suburbs, logging, mining, grazing. In 10,000 short years we humans have found ways to extend our shadow over the whole reach of a peopleless continent.

The first 9,500 years Native American economies created the changes-mostly through hunting pressure and agriculture. Once European settlement began, things speeded up, as Jared Diamond likes to say, though the use of “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”

We can look at this settlement and utilization of the continent as a supreme accomplishment, or we can ask, “What happened?” Why did humans get out of control? We can see space as something humans were given dominion over by God, or we can see an unhealthy range extension, the way an animal might extend its territory when the opportunity arises.

Both positions have been researched and studied. Both have support in books and ideologies. Most people probably fall somewhere between the extremes.

The idea of utility came up in my class as well this week. Students finished up a project on small, isolated wetlands and all the issues revolving around their preservation in South Carolina. After doing a good deal of reading, writing a paper, and engaging in a spirited discussion, there seemed to be two positions among the young scholar/citizens: protect isolated wetlands entirely, no matter what, or protect them up to a point. That point for these students seemed to be utilitarian, “What’s in it for us humans?”

Both positions seemed reasonable, though they are complicated because they need to carried out by law, and law in South Carolina favors utility. It favors the idea of land as property. It almost always privileges use over pure protection, and any time the scale starts tilting the other way someone will come along and remind us of that legal privilege.

Last week there was an article in a local paper about a lawmaker complaining that the 33,000 acres of state land in the Jocassee Gorges in Oconee and Pickens Counties isn’t well utilized. The state acquired the wild reach of property a decade ago, and Larry Martin, a Republican senator from Pickens, believes there hasn’t been enough human traffic for our public investment. We should advertise the fifty-two square miles of wild state land, improve the roads, mark the trails better.

Utililty or preservation? As usual when issues like this come up my mind wanders back to my own past experience.

In 1980 I lived on Cumberland Island, a National Seashore off the coast of Georgia. I worked at Greyfield Inn, one of the few private inholdings on the island. Visitation to Cumberland was limited to boat traffic, most coming from the park service ferry that left once a day from the mainland dock. Some in Congress wanted to build a bridge and make the island just like many of the other nearby sea islands. They wanted public access, twenty-four hours a day.

Others wanted to preserve what they thought was a “wild and endangered” experience: a trip by boat to a place apart. The preservationists won that battle. There’s still no bridge to Cumberland.

Two years earlier I’d worked for a poet in Port Townsend, Washington. He had bought 10 acres of cut-over cedar and manzanita woodland on a bluff overlooking Discovery Bay. He’d built a small house for his family by hand on the property which had been “well-utilized” by a logging company and then sold off for house sites. My poet-boss had set aside two of his ten acres as a sort of personal preserve, a place he would never enter as long as he owned the land. It was a sort of intellectual statement. It was a ecological thought experiment.

Why didn’t he go there? Why did the trail he cut to the bluffs skirt clear of those two acres? He wanted a spot on his property that he could say he didn’t need. He wanted to know that, at least for him, there was a spot nearby philosophically free from conventional utility. It may sound silly now, but his thought experiment made a tremendous impact on the mind of a twenty-something like me still forming my opinions about land use.

Why shouldn’t there be places outside the reach of utility? Why can’t we simply leave a few places free from our utilitarian logic? I’m still weighing the answers.

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