Read Our Letter
Dear Members of Congress and The Department of The Interior,
I write to you as a fellow citizen of The United States of America, a country that pioneered the protection of wild lands which now makes up over 25% of our land base. Where leaders in our government, like you, had the noble foresight to designate 155 National Forests, 58 National Parks, 20 National Grasslands, 556 National Wildlife Refuges, 757 Wilderness Areas, and protect 245,000,000 acres of land under the Bureau of Land Management (4). Numbers aside, America’s public lands are more than a commodity. They are the level playing fields of our democracy and their ongoing protection and accessibility are fundamental to maintaining our American spirit and sanity. Our wild public lands hold within their designations awe inspiring landscapes and pristine habitats that are accessible to every kind of American to hike, hunt, fish, boat, run, bike, ride, and camp in order to find respite amidst our otherwise frenzied and complicated lives. Already 500 million citizens visit public lands annually. I urge you to consider the immeasurable impacts of our public lands on our human psyche and spirit over the shiny dollar signs of industry and development, as they are qualitative, not quantitative and deeply valued in the hearts of Americans who have been or will be touched by a National Park, Monument or Forest.
I invite you to step out your door and take yourself to a place where there are trees, dirt, plants. Where the sky sings above you and the earth miraculously bears your weight. Some place that you call wild. Take in this place. Look around, find the shapes and colors that please you. Notice something small and partially buried in the dirt. Something that hasn’t moved from this exact spot since…
Do you feel the sun? When you close your eyes and look toward it, do you see that bright orange glow with small wiggly shapes floating through past? A whirring sound is followed by a brief shadow. A raven crossing overhead. It feels like blinking, but your eyes are already closed! Do you feel the sweat on your skin and the way that the breeze eases the swell of heat that just rolled through your body? The wind tosses grass and you feel the muscles in your back soften. The small muscles on your face thaw and your brow line smoothes across your forehead. Your Breath slows and the scent of grass, dirt, dust, and duff rises up. That smell draws up a memory--felt in your body and sorted through your mind. And the memory is yours. This wild place helped to bring you back to yourself- a multi-dimensional being, shaped by earthly experience during your small time here. Can this moment bring us into the possibility of expressing of our human potential?
Smooth stone, numbingly cold water, warm sun, scratchy grass, soft sand--all enliven otherwise untouched nerve endings on your skin’s surface. Go to the woods, the beach, the river’s edge. Go into our National Forests and Parks, and your senses will be re-engaged where they have mostly been neglected in a mono-sensational reality: air conditioned room, four walls, light turns on and off. Safe. Predictable. Can you make a decision on the fate of wild places, if you have not felt them? True, there are some risks with being in the wild. Blinding of sun. Irritating Insects. Drenching Rain. Deafening Wind. Unexpected rustling of brush causes the raising of hairs and heartbeat. But you are a human being--a Homo sapien whose 500,000 year old genetic makeup, physiological constitution and psychological thought and action were made by these wild cycles of the earth (2). You were made to be outside. You are wild-- as are the American people. Dig up and read the “Wilderness Letter” written by Wallace Stegner to your colleagues over half a century ago: “We need wilderness preserved--as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds--because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed (1).”
Politicians, what will it take for you to connect with our wild public places and see them as essential to America’s prosperity? Our spirit, our sanity? Working in your offices in Washington D.C., your pen is your hiking stick. Imagine your neckties and shiny shoes are just as useful as hiking boots and backpacks. Preserving the wilderness is preserving the American mind: stalwart, free, and adventurous. It must be impossible to imagine these wild places as you walk across a busy street from a coffee shop to your office. The irises will continue to bloom, the glaciers will continue to melt every summer, the marmots will stand perched on their rocks. However, will you protect them as our distinguished lawmakers of the past have done? Or, will you sign away their defense because it was a current political fad? Will you forget the outdoors men & women who guide students for a living, recreationalists who explore and wander, hunters who fill the freezer every fall, and cattlemen who graze their cattle on public lands? Your pen is our hiking stick.
Wild natural places shaped my younger self. Even now, my older self wants to cradle her hopeless heart, her sad searching spirit. I think, “how could we even be the same person.” Then I remember that today, my older self rides on the back of her wild transformations brought to her by public lands such as The San Isabel, Pike, San Juan, Tahoe, Inyo, Mt. Hood, White River National Forests and Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Grand Teton, Redwood, Canyonlands, Arches, and Yosemite National Parks.
These public places broke my younger self open to a sense of wonder for what the world might hold. Mountains drew her in and challenged her. She learned to take in landscapes, listen and watch the weather, and to take care of her own body so that she could climb peaks and swim lakes without harm to herself or others. Close encounters with lightning, hard scrabble trails, endless rain-soaked hikes, and misplaced maps taught her the importance of taking a deep breath before making a decision and difference between real and perceived fear; when it’s ok to turn around and when it’s safest to dig deep into her own reserves, find courage, and stay the course. And when storms broke and destinations were reached, she was able to find herself, whole, alive, strong, and present in the marvel of a sunset, the miracle of a star strewn night, the opportunity just beyond the yawning horizon. A sky acknowledging the possibilities of her own heart. The resilience and tenacity of miniature alpine plants and animals were a revelation. Their precise and innovative adaptations to harsh conditions taught me consider my own unique evolution: how will I survive the winters of my life? All of these invaluable life lessons learned on public lands, rivers, forested valley, rock faces, alpine meadows, and lakes. You see, along with sensing oneself, wild places can offer us meaningful metaphors that shed light on entangled and sometimes unspeakable truths about who we are in light of what we want and can be.
My younger self and I are the same. I am me because of her and the wild places that shaped her. The mountains are my home. I am one of the lucky Americans who has such immediate access to the beauty, power, and grace of the public lands nestled in one of the United States most awe inspiring landscapes, the Rocky Mountains. When the winters of my life blow cold, I go to them and sit among the trees whose names I know, with the birds that sing their songs at sunrise, below the raven who rides the thermals, near the den with the fox curled tight, between the trees where the deer graze between moments of looking and listening. I sit among these un-human beings and our shared “there-ness.” And for this moment I can feel myself. Alive. Whole. Able. Sane.
However, I am not hopeful. If I were to able to meet my younger self, what would I tell her about what the world actually holds for her? Would I tell her that lawmakers are ready to sell off more public lands? That they want to transform other free and wild places into private lands? Or shrink existing public lands? Keeping these places public and unbroken maintains the integrity of complete ecological systems and pristine landscapes equally for all people--it helps us to feel our own wholeness, when other elements of our modern day existence are broken, fast-paced, digitized and fragmented, pixelated onto screens… The entireness of a wild place left intact is important to our strung out American souls- “even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope (1)”- thank you Wallace Stegner. These words have never felt truer.
Politicians, I write to you from the watershed of the Colorado River--a great North American river that knows its fate lies in your hands. Its clear, cold, and crystalline snow melt from rocky mountain peaks rests inside National Forests & Wilderness Designations. This river is a tonic the the human spirit. Its wild nature is not completely broken despite being dammed, and its riverbanks and white waters ignite the senses, break open hearts, and reminds us we are alive. “For hundreds of years, our species came to where we are now because wild places shaped the human and nurtured our bodies, minds, and soul” (3). And we came to flourish in unbroken lands that, like so much of the Colorado River were “big, untamed, unmanaged, not encompassed, self organizing, and unmediated by technological artifice” or industry. To flourish we must connect more deeply with the kind of wilderness that shaped us and that opportunity exists only on our American public lands. My younger self had no idea of who she was or what her life held for her until she spent time in wilderness. She had to learn to love it. Fear it. Be strengthened and nurtured by it. Be healed by it. She had to go into nature to find solace, peace, and vitality. This age-old concept is largely forgotten--but witch doctors, shamans, elders, guides, medicine men & women, Mohammed, Buddha, and Jesus all knew that wilderness holds the power to bring us back to wholeness. A chance to listen. Feel. To sense. To become. I am.
The healing tonic of wild places can not be synthesized. It can not be bottled at the source and shipped by Amazon to your office door, dear policymakers. Immersion is key. Like a baptism.
If you can’t worship with your hiking boots, then please, worship with your powerful pen in favor of the protection of our American public lands.
Citizens of the United States of America
“Wilderness Letter,” Letter To Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (1960), and "Wilderness Idea," The Sound Of Mountain Water , Wallace Stegner (1969)
Ecopsychology: science, totems, and the technological species, Peter Hahn & Patricia Hasbach (2012)
116, Ecopsychology: science, totems, and the technological species, Peter Hahn & Patricia Hasbach (2012)
Wilderness Society Fact Sheet, (2017)
1. The Hour Of The Land: a personal topography of America's National Parks, Terry Tempest Williams (2016)
2. The Open Space of Democracy, Terry Tempest Williams (2010)
3. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, Wallace Stegner (1954)
4. Peace of Wild Things, Openings: Poems, Wendell Berry (1968)