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  • Matt Breton

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Wilderness. Solitude. Wild. Remote.

What do these words mean? Sure, there are dictionary definitions- nouns about place and adjectives for character; usually around the words uninhabited, uncivilized, untamed, and distant.

There are designations by the federal government, by act of Congress, that delineate Wilderness areas, where human activities are restricted to scientific study and non-mechanized recreation; horses are permitted but motorized vehicles and equipment are not.

Howard Zahniser, who was the primary author of the Wilderness Act of 1964, wrote the law’s definition of wilderness: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Untrammeled is a funny word- my first thought is that it means a wilderness isn't trampled down by people's feet and that might be close, but what untrammeled really means is not restricted or hampered. And yet no place on earth is completely untouched by humanity, either due to past occupation by indigenous people, or through global processes such as climate change.

As we move beyond official Wilderness and into fuzzier territory, the ideas of wild and remote are next. In my mind, Wild is untamed, both in location and behavior where Remote speaks to away-ness. Does remote mean simply a challenging place to get to or is it far away from humanity? A long walk to this remote spot might be requirement, or challenging terrain to navigate on the way there. As a place, somewhere wild could be a rocky outcrop on the ocean during a hurricane would be wild, but the house sitting 200 yards from shore would make it not remote. Though if that rocky outcrop during a storm was now an island two miles away, it would be both wild and remote. What if there was no storm and the waters were placid, and there was a beer can on the island? Perhaps not wild, but still remote. Lines get drawn based on individual experiences, values, and preferences- these ideas are judgements on how far is far enough away and how untamed the territory must be.

We have wildlife that lives in close proximity to humans, critters that chose to live where they might be restricted in one regard by nearby human's houses and traffic, but freed from predation or hunger by that same closeness. And a wild life is one lived that is unpredictable and perhaps dangerous. So the wildlife seems to sometimes prefer a life that is not wild.

If we look at a forest, one that is wild might grow up in a crazy, unpredictable fashion- fallen logs and impenetrable raspberry whips and thick 2 inch saplings could be wild to walk through, but what if the blowdowns and the whips are in an area that was logged a decade ago. What if that area is one mile from a road? 10? What if there is a hiking trail through the middle of it? An ATV trail?

So perhaps wild and remote exist on a spectrum, with lines drawn by the individual. I have been in Wilderness in CO elk hunting and seen more people than I have on some New England timber-company land buck hunts. Which place and experience was more remote and wild?

The folks involved in Project Remote are trekking around the US to find the most remote spot in each state. Sadly, while the remotest location in the lower 48 is 21.7 miles from a road in Wyoming, it is only 7/10ths of a mile from a trail and a mere half a mile from a cabin. Granted, there is no way to know how much human traffic there is near that location. But the presence of a trail, which curates the wild and remote experience, lends itself to more evidence of activity. Perhaps that, too, is a variable to consider...human presence, or the absence of it. So solitude matters.

Heard an airplane lately? What about silence as a measure of wild and remote? More and more noise invades otherwise wild and remote places. Planes overhead, trucks on a highway, people playing music on a hiking trail all intrude on our senses. While necessary in modern society, being able to get away from the noise of the engines of economy is a necessary component of a wild and remote experience.

Lastly, maybe wild and remote isn't simply the absence of evidence of humans. I do believe we belong in places, though our presence should be transient. Rather, remote and wild might be a place that has something essential. This might also be different for everyone- A range of critters, an element of danger or adventure, room to roam. It might be the sort of place that sets a mind at ease and soothes the soul.

As we seek to protect places that provide silence and solitude, in remote and wild setting, it is important to remember that this is defined by each person, probably based on where they are coming from and what they have done. While drawing a line is important, we are, perhaps, better off trying to save as many remote and wild places for people to enjoy as we can, be it a 162 acre town forest or a 22,000 acre Wilderness area.


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