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Wilderness: Closing the Gap

Listening Point

Listening Point on Burntside Lake, Sigurd and Elizabeth Olson's retreat in the woods, was one of the sites visited during the Wilderness in the Anthropocene seminar.

SAIL 2017 seminar: Wilderness in the Anthropocene

On site in northern Minnesota on July 7-16, 2017

Blog post by Trish Ferrett, Professor of Chemistry, Carleton College

After ten days at the Coe College Wilderness Field Station, I feel an uncomfortable gap between the ideas in the ACM SAIL seminar wilderness reader (thanks Pablo and Chris and Jesse!) and my own experience paddling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Others voiced this. How do I connect these intellectual and experiential poles of my experience?

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To me, interdisciplinary and integrative learning have always been centrally about finding insightful connections between seemingly disparate points of view — and then creating something new from this. Boix Mansilla calls this new thing — and we hope it is productive and insightful — a "cognitive advancement." This new thing could be a solution to a problem, or it could be a richer perspective that acknowledges a diverse set of viewpoints. I think the "advancement" can also cross into affective and subjective domains. And at best, what we learn can help to integrate not only disparate and varied ideas with each other, but also meld these ideas with experience and values. Here I am thinking back to the literature on intellectual development in the college years (and in adult life). Nearly all the development schema at the highest "stages" (none of which are linear or clean) integrate evidence-based reasoning with values and experience. If I can't do this kind of connecting, how can my students?

So what new can be learned here?

How do I connect these intellectual and experiential poles of my experience?

To get started, the intellectual side. I vastly expanded my view of wilderness just with ideas alone, taking in notions of history, law, and cultural construction of the wilderness concept in the US. Drawing upon the definition of wilderness in the 1964 US Wilderness Act, can a place be "untrammeled"? Rarely these days, or in the past several hundred years in the US. First Nations people used the land to live. So do we today. We are, after all, animals — and animals need resources to live. I keep hearing the Twin Metals VP say to me "but we need to live." We need metals to live with our green technology of electric cars, wind turbines, cell phones, and solar cells.

Animals and people use the land and can, over time and with enough population, deplete resources and degrade the environment. If this depletion becomes severe enough, animals and people can migrate and start the cycle over. I came to think a lot about this cycle, and our changing and limited options for migration and mobility in the US and globally. If there is nowhere else to move and restart, this game of using-degrading-moving is over. Settled people cannot easily move. Yet, refugees, immigration ... people are still moving, yet the environmental degradation seems to both stay put and travel.

So, what we have I think is a continuum of trammeling, from the pure idealistic (and unreachable) wilderness all the way to a landscape entirely shaped by humans. The latter I sadly found in a 100% synthetic shopping area in Maple Grove, MN, where I went to get camping gear at REI. Ugh. How can such a trammeled, confusing, chaotic, and horrific place even exist? And between the extremes of "wild" and ugly human-control, there is everything in between. And ... when we enter a "wilderness, we change it. Catch 22.

Pure wilderness is today mostly an illusion — but is it a useful one?

Trish Ferrett (center) with fellow seminar participants (clockwise) Jesse Ellis (Coe), Jim White (Cornell), McKenzie Lamb (Ripon), and Sarah Frohardt-Lane (Ripon) during the canoe trip.

The scientist in me knows much about complex systems, in nature and society and connections between the two. We know so little about how these systems work. Our knowledge is young, just a couple of decades in the making. These complex systems are riddled with what we believe is inherent uncertainty. Uncertainty that is built in; we will not overcome it with knowledge and technology. Yes, we have a pile of ideas — patterns — we claim to understand about how these systems behave. Threshold crossings, abrupt change, large change born from tiny change, feedback loops, one-way processes (going one way is much easier than going back ...), and more. We have learned to recognize patterns, yet it is very hard to know when this patterned behavior will strike. Limits to knowledge and prediction.

I appreciate the call for wilderness for the sake of "science." But the value is more than scientific.

In this vein, I appreciate the call for wilderness for the sake of "science." But the value is more than scientific — it is for our survival as a species, and for the survival of other species and the place where we all live. Evolution coupled with time has produced a landscape with life that is, to me, unimaginably complex and wonderful. We would be fools to eliminate such a landscape, the one from which we grew as humans in community with all else. I do not believe we can create a new human-made world that will sustain us with and in a healthy environment. We know too little. We are very small and incapable and harmful. I am not filled with the technological optimism I find at the mining companies. Our technology to date is ignorant of so much that is unexpected — every time. The unexpected is built into nature; it will never go away.

I still stand behind the preservation of some places that are both large in area and as "wild" as we can make them. These places will help us stay humble in the face of nature and restrain our marks on the environments on which we depend. I also much enjoy the small spaces of wildness — in my garden, town parks, and even at the level of molecular machines. How did these molecular motors and rotors and walkers evolve? Incredible wildness at every scale.

And now I see I am crossing over into the experience side — into notions of humility. While paddling and camping and observing all that is the BWCAW, I sense humility, awe, wonder, mystery, and uncertainty. Curiosity, community, friendship, simplicity, vigor, challenge, and good health. Something I could call deep happiness and connection to land, water, wind, critters, and sky. Ah Sigurd, I hear you.

My garden of control, July 2017

Photo by Trish Ferrett

I keep coming back to issues of human control and restraint. In the small wild spaces of my daily life, I sense these things — yet in a smaller way. I still have so much control in my garden, though it does teach me daily about my lack of control. I hear wise lessons, but they do not bang me in the head. In fact, I tend to "fight back" against this loss of control with a new plan to regain control. I take out the weeds, add grass seed, and build a fence to keep bunnies out. I engage in a persistent cycle of control over nature. Yet, there is much to learn here, as Wendell Berry notes. Working the land at least engages us directly with nature and wild processes. This familiarity is a step toward humility, but it is not the largest step I need to take. Nor do the small wild places force me to see the hardest lessons of survival. It is too easy to control my garden, though the control is in part illusion.

When I cross into a deeper and larger wilderness like the BWCAW, my control shrinks much more — undeniably so. Daily. And sometimes in challenging ways. Ah — in the face of waves, wind, and a hard paddle (I am past my limit, no? I need a bar!!!) with no opt-out options.

Oh, my limit is not my limit.

That is a powerful lesson.

I am both weaker and stronger than I thought.

How confusing.

That portage from Knife into Vera Lake with the "water feature."

A fast-forward view of the challenging portage from Knife Lake to Vera Lake, which was on the itinerary of the seminar canoe trip

Humility. Grace.

Facing weakness and then strength — though not the same kind of strength in my friends.

Does this matter?

Not so much.

Fear and uncertainty are strong in these most wild places.


Control. Restraint. I have found a new continuum embedded in the one about degrees of wildness. And this control-restraint continuum links up what I feel in the BWCAW to what I read and think about wilderness.

Emotions are said to exist on a continuum from love to fear.

One tries not to live strongly on the fear end.

This can lead over time to anger, rage, control, and power. Harm.


Living on the love end is connected to compassion, generosity, equanimity, patience, restraint, and grace.


How odd that the experience of fear and uncertainty in the BWCAW can bring me to the love end of the emotional continuum. Even these continua are too simple for words. We are wild animals, and we experience everything from love to fear. So it is not that the fear end of emotion is the wild end.

Yet, the BWCAW trip experience and the seminar readings have washed over me with wild, not wild, fear-uncertainty, love-generosity, and more. The whole rich human and nature experience. Sigurd and others might say that this rich, full, integrated deep experience is what it means to feel "fully alive"?

From prose to poetry and back again. Thanks for the ride.

Falling In To Wilder

By Trish Ferrett, Professor of Chemistry, Carleton College

I wrote this poem in July, 2015 while at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. It expresses sentiments about wildness there and in places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I was exploring the notion of my own wildness.


I am falling in love with ...
earthy reds
dusty yellows
dry arid shrubs
and a life built on instinct and love.

Remember to follow the cairns,
the trickle,
the boulders that just fell off
the canyon walls to pile up
like sand in a box.

Above all, stay with play and feeling
along the ranch road
in the Ojo springs
tent pitched by the arroyo
always looking up to a mesa.

Lower your fear,
just try the arrow
fire and aim
do not fear the bird, the flood,
or the lover.

Reach up, out ... and finally in.
Ghost cliffs will support me into
the next epoch,
the top layer of dirt,
the part most exposed to
open blue sky.

Wild women always, always
reach the crescent moon.