For my new novel, I've been researching wildness and where it exists in our world. At the top of the list of wild places is the upper reaches of Canada and Siberia. Other spots include: Papua New Guinea, the Galapagos islands, the Seychelle islands, Antartica, the Amazon and the Sahara Desert. But the short answer is to the question, 'where are the wild things?' is that there aren't many spots left that are truly wild. Humanity, with our roads, power lines, and ubiquitous cell phone towers, has reached into the far reaches. Our handprint, physical and digital, is almost everywhere.
The definition of wildness, from an ecological standpoint is "not domesticated or cultivated. In America, wilderness, or an area recognized as wild, as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964 is "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." In a 2014 article on wild places in America, USA Today included Frank River Church, River of No Return in Idaho, Susquehannock State Forest in Pennsylvania, Gila National Forest, New Mexico. Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and Florida and the Everglades are the only spots we Southerners can go to experience the wilderness according to that same list.
I am surprised to find I have not been to any of these locations. My parents, both staunchly committed to national parks and the beauty of the outdoors, took my brother and I to more natural wonders than I could count: Mammoth caves, Cherokee, Joyce Kilmer National Park. But none of these places is true designated wilderness. None of them are, it seems, "wild."
Muir speaks directly to me in this last quote: a child of the Appalachians foothills, some of the oldest mountains in the world, I go home to east Tennessee as often as I can and find myself nourished by the slow deep presence of those mountains, despite the lack of a "wilderness" designation. When I add my small, tired presence to that of the sloping ancient peaks, I am made whole.
And yet, I am not a naturalist. Though many of my college friends from Warren Wilson College (named most liberal college in the country and full of crunchy, self-titled environmentalists) may cringe to hear me say it, I have never been on a long backpacking trip. But the outdoors was my home as a child. My family's small parcel of land bordered Frozenhead Tennessee State Park, and I roamed the hills with my brother and little else, climbing trees and exploring the nooks and crannies of several of its forked and wandering creek tongues. I explored myself, as I explored the land around me, and it is the spaciousness of my childhood home that I carry inside me today.
Like all parents, I worry for my sons, who have never known land without borders (27 acres is a lot to a child's body and soul) and who have not grown up with the magic of nature woven into their cells. Oh, they have moments: my eldest son loves the bright song of a nice, hot fire. My youngest roams the uncut grass of our rather large yard, picking blueberries and cherry tomatoes, finding apples that have fallen from our fertile trees. But neither of them has lived with the refrain that my mother always sang to me in childhood, "Go outdoors."
Sometimes writing is remembering. These days when I write new words recalling the green and growing land of my childhood, I write partly to recommit myself to the majestic halls and and quiet valleys of the natural world. And when I do, I remember that the world is bigger than my life and my understanding of life. After all, wilderness is the original place humanity encountered radical difference and found reflected in it the strange and wonderful foreignness of one's own deep self.
Coranna Adams is a writer, filmmaker, and educator from Asheville, North Carolina.