The last time I visited Hannah Hot Springs was a couple Julys ago with a group of nine boys and two friends and coworkers. The whole experience was, as advertised, primitive. We hiked past dense stands of mesquite, through chest-deep water, and dealt with extraordinary temperature swings; within the span of a few hours we found ourselves immobilized by the heat of the sun and then, thanks to a sudden rainstorm, miserably cold. We deemed the place gorgeous and unforgiving, the kind of place you are glad to visit, but even more glad to have visited. However, looking back, what I remember most poignantly is something less tangible: it was silent. Despite spending much of my life outside in wild places, I still find silence unusual, and the mountains around Hannah Hot Springs are silent enough to straddle the line between peaceful and creepy.
Silence of this sort has a way of dissipating hang-ups, like dropping a bundle of cottonwood seeds into the river and watching them float in all directions, entirely out of our control. Silent places allow thoughts to flow through our minds with more clarity, free of distractions, and certain parts of ourselves to come out of their shells. One of the boys in our group claims there is a part of him that exists only out there in places sufficiently silent. As I sit here, that part of him is supposedly still resting quietly in those distant rivers and mountains. I’m still trying to coax him into showing his face more often.
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The Blue Range, where Hannah Hot Springs resides, spans a large tract of desert on the New Mexico-Arizona border. On the New Mexico side it is a designated “wilderness,” which means within its boundaries there are no roads or permanent human-made structures. In Arizona it is dubbed the Blue Range Primitive Area, which, so far as I can tell, is exactly the same thing as wilderness, only Congress has not bothered to sanction it Wilderness with a capital “W”. In fact, the Blue Range’s designation is unique: since the Wilderness Act of 1964, all Primitive Areas except one, the Blue Range, have moved into the newer, fashionable wilderness category.
And it is spectacularly, peacefully primitive. We hiked mostly along the Blue River, which is only a foot or two deep in most places and provides natural air conditioning on sweltering summer days. The lush riparian zone contrasts sharply with the harsh desert that stands only a few strides up the nearest hill, where thorny mesquite bushes and loose rocks make it a treacherous place for humans. But if you’re willing to hike along the river for a couple days, and you follow the right tributaries, you’ll find refreshing rewards: swimming holes, some several feet deep, filled by a spring, a hot, HOT, spring named after a woman, Hannah. The water seeping out of the canyon is too hot to enjoy at its source, but a couple pools downhill the water temperature is perfect for a relaxing, multi-hour soak.
A primitive area, in my mind, is where sounds change in concert with the light, and you notice. It’s actually not silent at all, just a different genre of sound than we’re used to. Warblers and coyotes and crickets all have their moments on the stage, and we humans become the backdrop. While cooking dinner along the Blue River we couldn’t hear any human sounds except for the propane stove and an occasional giggle from the boys. No airplanes, no water heater, no phones pleading for our attention, no numb electrical buzzing, no cars…
But that last image, the cars, was where my peace of mind vanished. I couldn’t hear our cars, but I knew they were waiting, about a five-hour walk away, and the ones we drove to the Blue Range were big, voracious, gas guzzling kinds of cars. We were basking in the serenity of nature, hallmark of the wilderness experience, but I couldn’t avoid the nagging discomfort that we had to drive a long time to get here, and we would soon rely on those cars to take us back to a much noisier existence.
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The thought of cars made me question how I was sharing my love of wilderness with these nine kids. It would be easy and natural to send them home thinking that a good, quality bit of nature can only exist in a place like the Blue Range. Elsewhere, nature becomes less valuable, or even expendable. This is not an inevitable outcome of wilderness education, but it’s hard to avoid.
Perhaps an even bigger challenge is when we come to believe that we are fundamentally different people when in the wilderness. Many kids return home from Cottonwood Gulch with a tinge of sadness, as if they found a part of themselves they never knew existed, but it can exist only in a primitive wilderness. Some even refer to themselves as two different people: their “home selves” and their “Gulch selves,” without realizing that those two selves are fully compatible.
Then again, I couldn’t easily tell them to go home and seek spiritual bliss by sitting on their porch in New York City and staring at a spider plant: “It’s nature! It’s a plant! It will make you feel good!” Nature is everywhere, but the landscape here in the Southwest is jaw-droppingly beautiful. There are certain places, like the Blue Range, that are more conducive to nature-induced contentment than almost anywhere else.
My “we had to drive here” anxiety is similar to the sorrow some kids feel when they return home: in order to protect wilderness, or in order to protect my Gulch self, we need to set it aside. We can enter wilderness briefly, but we are not meant to stay. Our propane will run out, our food will get eaten, and we will make our way back to civilization. We keep wilderness separated from human commotion, which ostensibly prevents us from destroying it. But it also fosters a dualism that, in many ways, is false and incomplete: humans vs. nature, wilderness vs. society, Gulch self vs. home self.
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William Cronon, professor, historian, geographer, and savvy wilderness pundit, contends with this question of dualism in his essay “The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” For example:
“Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live and call home… The wilderness dualism tends to cast any use as ab-use, and thereby denies us a middle ground in which responsible use and non-use might attain some kind of balanced, sustainable relationship.”
Cronon’s essay is delightful and worth reading in its entirety, and if you do, you’ll notice that he is not arguing against the existence of wilderness. (He is, in fact, a steadfast proponent of wilderness, and has been on the Governing Council of the Wilderness Society for two decades.) Rather, he is questioning the often unexamined praise that many environmentalists bestow on the word wilderness. He argues that despite what Congress says, and what many environmental groups say, wilderness is not eternally sacred.
More importantly, Cronon is reminding us—as fellow educators—not to indoctrinate our students with the idea that wilderness is unquestionably and unalterably good. Rather, he is prodding us—as educators—to ask thoughtful questions and hopefully shed new light on complex ideas.
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Is Wilderness… Bad?
Many wilderness enthusiasts are hesitant to consider such a question, but for much of human history, wilderness was not popular. Nor was it necessarily disparaged at every turn. In the United States, as elsewhere, the history of wilderness is complex.
Many of our modern American concepts of wilderness are rooted in the Bible, where wild places were both a frightening, dangerous unknown—the antithesis of Eden—and a sanctuary where one might find God more readily. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and John the Baptist all returned from the wilderness enlightened, confident, and prepared to speak to or for God. They each embarked on a personal journey, and their wilderness experiences helped lead them to divine knowledge.
This idea of a wilderness journey, of “finding yourself” in nature, is a common trope today, especially among the backpacking crowd. Wilderness is praised as a sanctuary and place of personal growth, where personal challenges and a beautiful landscape lead to spiritual enlightenment. This is a worthy idea, and it has proven true for many people, myself included. However, historically speaking, a good majority of Americans looked at wilderness very differently.
The Puritans, for example, saw wilderness as a frightful blight. They ascribed little beauty or spirituality to New England forests. Instead, their goal, as one preacher put it, was to make “poore barren Wildernesse become a fruitfull Land.” Success was measured by how effectively one could dominate wilderness and turn it into something “fruitfull,” such as a farm or a town. Their theology was locked up in their need for survival, which seems reasonable enough. Had they embraced “Wildernesse” as a friend, it might have destroyed them long before they provided us with any Biblical insights or fun spellings.
Anti-wilderness attitudes were not unique to New England. In the Southwest, while wilderness was not usually seen as outright terrifying, it was still an impediment to Spanish explorers in their quest for fame and gold. A scout in search of treasure during Coronado’s 1540 expedition remarked that “there was nothing to be found in the country beyond, which continued very rough, entirely uninhabited by people… The whole company felt disturbed by this, that a thing so much praised, and about which the father had said so many things, should be found so very different.” Here and elsewhere in the country, Native Americans, if they were noticed at all, were seen as living much closer to wilderness than Europeans, which for most of history was not a nice thing to say.
Today, few Americans live in daily fear of wild things, but wilderness still has many detractors. Some view official wilderness designations as a barrier to jobs and money, like those who are calling for oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Some are ranchers who are determined to maintain grazing rights in order to keep their livelihoods afloat. Some are Native Americans who, like the Cree, don’t even have a word for wilderness in their language. In their minds, it is silly and unnecessary to designate land “wilderness”—that, according to one young Cree man, is a “white people thing.” Wilderness opponents come in many stripes.
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Is Wilderness… Good?
The pro-wilderness movement is relatively short, beginning primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries when Romanticists like Henry David Thoreau, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among many others, began to praise nature as a place of unparalleled beauty and inherent worth. Romanticists spurned a strictly utilitarian view of the natural world and argued that nature, in itself, should command immense respect from humans. Rousseau, for one, was fond of railing against modern culture’s vices, which included everything from unrestrained lust to art and science, while holding up less technologically advanced societies as more in line with human nature. He had no desire to go too far back into our ancestral past, but instead advocated for a middle ground, or primitivism, where we could place ourselves “an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man.”
Anyone who has moved from one house to another can appreciate Rousseau’s point of view; we have a lot of stuff these days, which can make a simpler, more primitive existence seem appealing. Taken to an extreme, Rousseau’s ideas manifest themselves in modern survival groups that teach students how to live in the wilderness with only a few tools, like a blanket and a knife. Cottonwood Gulch is not one of these institutions, but we admit to a few Romantic tendencies: we are keen on America’s natural landscapes and we encourage land preservation with fervor. In that sense, it is easy for us to label wilderness as good.
But here’s the rub: those moments next to the Blue River, with the primitive silence, always end, and we always go home. And home, by definition, is not wilderness. Wilderness may be good, but we keep it out there, far away, like we have a mad crush on someone but we’re too scared to bring her home. Likewise, when we walk back to our cars it is tempting to leave behind our Gulch selves. They might not survive the journey.
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After we walked out of the Blue Range, and out of the wilderness, we met up with Carrie House. Carrie is a Navajo mapmaker and filmmaker. She recently made a film about Monster Slayer, a legendary Navajo figure, in which she used modern trucks and hair-raising special effects. She’s hip. And she is also deeply connected to her family and her land in far eastern Arizona, which is why we wanted to visit her.
We brought our trekkers to Carrie to hear her stories, and also to work on her family’s ancestral lands. She works hard. Alongside her we dug up invasive weeds and hauled rocks to build dams that slowed erosion. The boys did a great job, partly because they were told to destroy something: thistle. For weeks after we left Carrie’s place, they would embark on afternoon thistle rampages. It turns out that killing noxious weeds relaxed and revitalized them, feeding some primal instinct. Teenage boys like to be productively destructive. Or at least they like to be destructive, so we might as well harness it for good. I highly recommended it.
Carrie’s land was not wilderness, but it was still beautiful. She had her own little water source: a gentle natural spring that fed a lush field of willows and tall grasses. Like the Blue River, Carrie’s land was an oasis in the desert, a patch of green, verdant life surrounded by many shades of brown and gold. And it felt good, the kind of place where our Gulch selves would be thrilled to call home.
Given the similarities, it seemed natural to contrast Carrie’s plot of earth with the wilderness area we had just left. I found myself asking if Carrie’s land was less valuable than the Blue Range. Is it? No… but yes… well maybe… in some ways… in the long run…? Obviously, the answer depends greatly on who is making the judgment. From the perspective of Carrie and her family, their land is many times more precious than a distant wilderness. But wilderness is valuable for society at large, is it not?
It depends. While the value of wilderness is obvious to many of us, Cronon (same essay) points out another viewpoint: :
”The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living.”
That’s, ahem, us. The dreamers. The fantasy-filled wilderness lovers. And we’re not going to stop, because wilderness brings countless real benefits—beauty, challenge, personal growth, ecological diversity, watershed health, and, for many of us, something akin to spiritual bliss. We frequently advocate for more wilderness designation throughout the country, and we believe that isolating wilderness is part of what makes it so special.
But, as Cronon reminds us, we are also educators, and as such we are in the business of asking questions more often than providing answers. When we bring students to a wild place, intellectually or physically, we do them a disservice if we praise wilderness unconditionally.
Moreover, by asking questions we sometimes learn hard truths. Wilderness regulations have caused some ranchers and farmers to go bankrupt, even though they love and care for the land with as much fervor as wilderness advocates. Some wilderness lands are far from wild, but instead heavily controlled and destructively mismanaged. In one of her stories, Carrie hinted, correctly, that many pristine wilderness areas were magically deemed “virgin” landscapes only after Native Americans were moved off them and onto reservations. Wilderness, like so many things in life, becomes more complex once you start asking questions.
We are staunch defenders of wild places, but we also recognize that our current paradigm will continue to evolve, as it has for centuries. Perhaps the boundaries between “nature” and “civilization” will become less rigid. If so, our Gulch selves might show themselves more often, instead of resting quietly in places we only occasionally visit. Or maybe our Gulch selves need to stay far away—it might, in some ways, be better that way. Obviously, we don’t know what wilderness will mean in 50 years when our trekkers are writing books and laws about the land. But for now, we think we’re asking the right questions.