Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reclaiming the Spiritual Through Wilderness

Wallace Stegner is the most important voice in the conservation community. His words, decades after they were written and years after he died, still resonate. One of his principle arguments for conservation, written in his beautiful prose, was that wilderness was necessary for us spiritually. He wrote, in his Wilderness Letter:
We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the natural world, including ourselves; we need the spiritual refreshment that being natural can produce. And one of the best places for us to get that is in the wilderness where the fun houses, the bulldozers, and the pavement of our civilization are shut out.
Stegner also quotes American writer Sherwood Anderson concerning the positive effects wilderness has on our nation's spirituality:
Is it not likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost.... Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies.... I am old enough to remember tales that strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our people.
Wilderness gives us a sense that there is something greater than ourselves at work. Too many of us are born, live, and die in a world that is completely man-made. We live in fabricated houses, drive our silent-running cars on nicely smoothed roads, work in air-conditioned buildings, wear clothes made of synthetic threads, and eat processed food given to us in ready-to-eat form. How could we not think that we control the Earth, and our destinies? Why should any of us wonder whether there is something greater than us watching over the whole?

There is a lot of hand-wringing about the moral decay of society. We look at the deterioration of the family, the lewdness and filth that flows into our homes through the TV, radio, and internet, and the steadily declining belief in God and practice of religion. As we try to pass laws that reverse this trend we often ignore the fact that our declining wilderness areas and availability of natural settings may be as much to blame as any other thing. Maybe some of the cause of moral decay is that nothing in our environment inspires us to think outside of ourselves and contemplate God.

The destruction of our wilderness also provides a glimpse into what we, as a nation, treasure and honor most. We love technology. We love resources. We love the commercial. We love control and exploitation. We thrive off of the pride that results in taming and leveling and shaping. A road through a forest is much more than getting from point A to point B, it is about conquering the forest, and all the fears and myths that forests have always inspired. But what if we started to value something different? Stegner:
But the mere example that we can as a nation apply some other criteria than commercial and exploitative considerations would be heartening to many Americans.
Perhaps if we started valuing something more than simply what resources we can extract from our natural places, and how easily we can tame them, it would increase our collective spirituality. We could value the beauty of it, the vastness, the tranquility, our ability to go there and think and contemplate, our sense that there are some things we can't control, and in those things we can find something divine.

Shouldn't we as Mormons be leading the fight to protect our last remaining natural places? Shouldn't we be influencing the national environmental discussion to include terms like values and spirituality? I wish we could move past the partisan politics on issue, liberals want conservation and conservatives want exploitation, and agree that wilderness is good for our souls.


Josh said...

I knew it would happen. Finally something that we, at least at the core, agree on!!!!

Jacob S. said...

And it only took 10 months.

Andrew said...

That's one thing I miss about Utah -- I love to hike and it was so easy with the mountains a few blocks from home. We have some of that here in southern California, but it's harder to find a place to live where you can have useful access to both the city and the wilderness.