I’ve been struggling with defining “wilderness” for at least three years now. I’ve fallen through on my promise to dive into the layers of meaning from nature authors, advocates for legal “wilderness” areas, or folks with whom I interact. I struggled again with parsing “wilderness” as an intern/instructor on a recent 3-week Outward Bound course. After this particular course, I realized I may not be asking the right question. I have been asking whether there is only one “wilderness,” defined by nature moralists and the Wilderness Act of 1964, but I see that question doesn’t work for students, who see their whole experience as wild.
The instructor team of an Outward Bound course designs lessons to meet the students’ needs, so the syllabus is only partly predetermined. For instance, my crew of students struggled a bit on communication, so my co-instructors delivered a series of lessons on conflict resolution. Since our students were high functioning and passionate about politics and legal issues, I considered facilitating a lesson on their perceptions of the course areas. We spent all three weeks in federal land: one week on a river managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM, part of the Department of the Interior), two weeks in mountains managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS, part of the Department of Agriculture). We rafted the river, camping in well-marked spots along the desert banks with established concrete outhouses and accepting that cattle roamed at least one river bank, freight trains traveled the tracks on the other bank, and motorized boats have right of way. Then we backpacked and climbed a mountain, navigating with map and compass, digging cat holes, finding campsites wherever there were forest floor, and encountering only human foot traffic – no wheels, motors, or glass. I wondered whether the difference in land use policies affected the students’ perception of their experience.
When I asked one student his thoughts on the wilderness, he responded only about his frustrations about backpacking – lack of signs, heavy packs, dusty walking. I slowly realized that the students weren’t thinking of land use in a philosophical manner. Their minds were solely on their activities: the struggles, triumphs, and interpersonal interactions characteristic of an expedition. They were so caught up in their actual experience, they couldn’t see past themselves into the stories of the land as the foundation for and teachers of their experience. These students weren’t ready to be asked the difference between BLM-managed backcountry and USFS-managed wilderness and whether there are wildernesses other than physical land cordoned off by cartographers. I was asking the wrong questions.
I know the questions asked in adventure and outdoor education to help a student process their experience. I have a stockpile of questions to get to know students, welcome them into a safe community, to facilitate group cohesion, and to debrief high-impact activities and experiences. I don’t yet know the questions to pull a student from the daily grind of an expedition into the metaphysics of land use. I have a hunch that those questions aren’t useful for most students, who can hardly comprehend the concept that our actions now will impact the land for future visitors, for whom we wish a similar physical environment to what we experience. As I build up my stockpile of lessons for future expeditions, I won’t discount the concept of a lesson series on land use philosophies. For most students, that lesson series comes only after lessons of safety/survival, love/belonging, realistic confidence, and self-discovery/awareness. I know now that questioning a “wilderness” isn’t nearly as important as allowing the wilderness, wherever and whatever that is, to teach.