Ramblings on Wilderness, Wildlife, and the Rights of All Animals

(Including Humans) 

by Gary Gray                                                                                               

Guest Writer Series: Volume II

I’m searching for guest writers for posts in June, July, and August.  Send me an email at graywanderings@gmail.com to join this conversation.

After last weeks post on ethics, my father sent along this piece.  I think it fits perfectly into a conversation on travel ethics, particularly as it seeks to resolve ethical difficulties as opposed to dictating a resolution. It is a ramble, crossing into several topics and posing more questions than answers, something my father often does as an environmentalist, thinker, and teacher.

Thanks, and enjoy!

Last month, my son, daughter-in-law, and I stumbled onto a herd of twelve full-curl, bighorn sheep rams in Anza Borrego State Park. Though they didn’t immediately scare, they grew nervous; I absolutely felt the pressure we were putting on these magnificent animals.  Recognizing how much we’d already disturbed this band of bachelors, we walked on.

As the bighorn vanished amongst the rocks, I considered the impact we have as humans as we move through the wilderness. I’ve always found the dialogue about our modern ethics of wilderness interesting, because the whole concept of “wilderness” is a human construct. There is no doubt defining wilderness has extensive value as I type this article from Orange County surrounded by mega-houses, and stores where you can get whatever you need, (or don’t need), and the best cars money can buy on every street.

Clearly most people in our culture have a deep canyon between them and them understanding, or even contemplating, our need as animals for the freedom of wilderness.Despite this need, we must take care. Even on foot we’ve disrupted part of the bighorn’s natural movement patterns. Quantum Physics teaches us that no matter what we do, we change where we go and how we view it, so we must ask, “if we’re truly preserving the wilderness, do we really belong in it at all?”

Dave Bohn (mountaineer/wilderness photographer) and I shared a wine-induced conversation about wilderness one summer evening in 1977 at an Ansel Adam’s Workshop in Yosemite Valley. Dave’s point was that we should take certain areas and destroy all maps of the area. Then have a lottery drawing so that only 50 humans per year would go into this wilderness with no hope for rescue other than their own means to survive. True freedom and wilderness! This is certainly the ultimate elitists view. But the realist in me also recognizes that everything the human race does changes the Earth, clearly as a simple walk has adverse effects.

If we assume even the elitists will inevitably return to the wilderness, how do we enjoy it as quietly as possible? What’s the balance? And these questions get tougher as travel by horseback becomes my preferred way to access wilderness.

I recently read a court finding in favor of either eliminating, or very much reducing, pack animals in the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. My initial reaction to this article, “who built and who maintains the trails we use in the mountains?” Horses have been instrumental for trail systems countrywide, trail systems that help limit and control our adverse effects on wild spaces. And what would the old merry band of mountain men and explorers who relied on horses have to say? Jim Bridger and Kit Carson are rolling over in their graves as they watch the freedom of their mountains disappear.

Like the concept of wilderness, keeping pack animals out of our current wilderness is somewhat of a paradox. Aldo Leopold helped define the size of wilderness in the writing of the Wilderness Act in 1964 by clarifying that wilderness must be large enough for at least a 2 week pack trip by horse from one side to the other. So maybe I’m too much of a romantic when it comes to the horse, but it seems like the King’s Canyon/Sequoia ruling is taking us on a dangerous road, in a direction that may not be the best for our planet.

How so? Thinking back to the Orange County I’m surrounded by, most of the time we travel in a mode that moves too fast, and we miss so much of the finer points of life and our environment. The horse slows us down to a more primitive, and even wilder, means of travel (the horse has been here for 58 million years, surviving much longer than man could ever hope to live on this Earth). We need the horse to help break the chasm that exists between man’s forward industrial progress and our roots on this earth in wilderness.

So yes, by our shear numbers, we are applying too much pressure on our home (planet Earth) and especially the places we love. And therefore, my ethical questioning about wilderness becomes its own paradox.  While the horse connects me to the earth, (reduces my time consumed by materialism and car-speed movement, particularly as traveling long distance by foot in the wilderness becomes less feasible and horseback more preferred), it also has negative implications, much like hiking. . . It seems to me that no matter how we travel in the wilderness we need to travel lightly and keep moving softly to reduce our impact. Some of us have to go into the wilderness for our mental health, but others, even if they don’t know it, have the same need in their genes and they must at least know that need exists.

These final questions lead me back to a quotation from one of my favorite books “On the Loose” about what the ultimate solution will more than likely be:

“The weed will win in the end, of course.”

Thanks for contemplating with me.

About mlgray

Heading out on adventures, building community, eating delicious cuisines, supporting the local food movement and enjoying walks in the wild . . . grateful to be wandering in the world with you.
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1 Response to Ramblings on Wilderness, Wildlife, and the Rights of All Animals

  1. Gary "the cowboy" (tracker) says:

    Thank you Matt for giving me the opportunity express my thoughts about wilderness on your Blog.

    Here are 2 sites that I found this week after writing this Blog. You might find them interesting and provocative.



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