Let’s begin by walking.
It hardly matters where we go, but today we follow the gravel road to its end on Ruth Creek. Many of us have been to this trailhead before, hiked in this valley more than once, perhaps even climbed the glaciers that feed this creek. But today we aren’t hiking to a destination or climbing to a summit. We are walking, looking for something that is at once intangible and visceral, feeling and fact, instinct and invention.
We do not need to go far if we look carefully. The youngest of us are better at seeing, more receptive to possibility, hearts open wide. It takes a little more work for the rest of us who have had more time to build boundaries, study definitions, replace intuition with reason.
Notice the sound of the creek filling the valley, the humidity of transpiration, the fading evidence of the avalanche six years ago that swept from ridge to river. Begin to discern the different shades of green. And here, among the broad, double-toothed, five-pointed leaves, soft to the touch, we find an unmistakable whisper.
Stay with me. We are close.
Between thumb and index finger pull gently. Let the thimbleberry fall from the stem into your hand. It is not perfect, maybe brown around the edges of the delicate cup, overripe, already disintegrating. Bring it to your lips. Crush it to the roof of your mouth with your tongue, or let it dissolve slowly, like a piece of chocolate. What do you taste in that sweetness? The soil beneath your feet, the long daylight, the summer’s scarcity of rain? What is it that you have on your tongue, that has melted into your body, that will mingle with your bloodstream?
It is wildness.
For twelve seasons I have been a wilderness ranger in the North Cascades. From one side of the permeable boundary between land managed by the US Forest Service and the National Park Service and back again, I have spent a large part of my adult life within this exuberant landscape. My perception of what constitutes wilderness has evolved from solitude to community, out of bounds to within reach, regulation to relationship.
We could have an intellectual debate now, on this trail, about the boundary we just passed and the one we are approaching. We might argue about cross-cut saws and chainsaws, permits and self-limitation, science and sublimity. Let’s hold these all as possibilities, suspend the fear of loss and attempt to distinguish wilderness from wildness.
By some interpretations, that slight stutter in the middle of the word “wilderness” distances us by excluding humans, by defining landscapes’ relative value by the lack of human influence. Wilderness presumably contains the condition of wildness. But wildness cannot be contained. It cannot be mapped or even properly defined within the confines of human language. It is an elevated understanding, a personal connection. It is the lingering taste of thimbleberry.
By grasping onto land, dividing it into parcels and naming them, we eliminate characteristics we are trying to preserve. I am by no means questioning the value of what I work to protect, but we must be honest – wilderness has boundaries. Wildness is boundless.
The more we allow ourselves to make that discernment, like the continuum of the color green, the more we can become attuned to that which is wild, shifting our perspective from merely concerned observers to engaged inhabitants.
Let’s stop here for a moment and bend to look at these tracks in the mud. Do not guess what they are, but contemplate the shape, the spacing, the stride. We observe subtle details to describe the invisible. Not just the animal itself, but its movement through the terrain and ultimately, the relationship between forest and weasel, weasel and vole, vole and meadow, meadow and human, human and forest. What is it that we scrutinize, imagine, attempt to understand?
As we continue towards the pass, Ruth’s gentle peak watches our procession, polished rock bearing the marks of recent glacial retreat. The low saddle we descend here is a memory of an ancient caldera, a form of destruction metamorphosed into creation. Just beyond our view is a young cousin of this caldera, an emblem of our community.
What could be more wild than the living heart of a volcano? The energy surging beneath our feet, bubbling with unpredictability, waiting to express its potential. Feel how those never-ending processes, visible only in their result, sway our behavior, guide us through the world, remind us of our impermanence.
Let’s continue up the switchbacks to the subalpine. For many of us, moving skyward is our ultimate destination. Indigenous people came to the high country for specific reasons – mountain goat, berries, obsidian. The bonds we yearn for are rooted here, in our hands, on our skin, our tongues. Sight is only one among the physical senses to satisfy and yet it seems that we try to nourish ourselves through beauty. What need are we fulfilling when we gaze at waves of peaks, watch the sunrise half-way up a glacier, contemplate stars that hang in fir branches? What are we touching from a distant perch?
Our wildness. The wildness of the human body, pumping with astonishing mystery. The wildness of companionship, flourishing in the heat of argument or the warmth of embrace. The wildness of imagination, unlimited in depth, unrestrained in complexity.
Here, on this ridge, a raven soars nearby, looking at us with curious wisdom. She embodies wildness just as wildness embodies her, riding on thermals, scavenging salmon, building a nest. The raven and the world are inextricably connected, driven by mutual necessity. This comes innately to the raven, the wind, the salmon, the mountain hemlock.
Now look up from this piece of paper. Discern between the shades of green: the cedar outside the window, the blades of grass, the broad leaves of summer squash. What is it that we see when we adjust our eyes and look for connection? What is it that we feel when we open our hearts to the world, to each other, to ourselves?
To preserve wilderness we must not only protect the geographic and political lines, but all the places wildness exists. Safeguard the wildness in our children, seek wildness in our food, strengthen our connections to the world. To be wild like the raven, we must pay attention to the web of relationships, to our own animal bodies, to the wildness that exists in deep forests, in our backyard gardens, and within our loved ones.
Abigail Sussman works as a seasonal wilderness ranger for North Cascades National Park and seeks to preserve wildness in all of its forms. Read more of her stories at abigailmsussman.com.