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SUNDAY READING

Order in the Wild : If Our Wilderness Is Sometimes a Playing Field, Then We Need Rules for the Game

June 01, 1986|IRA J. WINN | Ira J. Winn is professor of education and urban studies at California State University, Northridge.

Hiking one Sunday in the Santa Monica Mountains, I was passed by half a dozen parties of young people, each loaded down with bundles of beer and the paraphernalia of our age. The forest and brush bore stark evidence of such comings and goings. Shouting, radios blaring, the groups stampeded along the trail, exuding both the magic of youth and the folly of those grown profligate with man's most precious resources. They were no better or worse than the tens of thousands who crowd the once pristine valleys in a headlong rush to "do the parks" of our country. People of all ages and conditions have forgotten--or simply do not know--how to greet nature in quiet reverence.

Some people, city dwellers especially, associate nature with noise and challenge, the cry and chatter of the jungle. But much more common in our temperate zones are the long spaces in mountain and desert, forest and plain, where the absence of harsh sound is the startling characteristic. Broken now and then by an animal call, a buzz, a breaking branch, the long silence lies at the core of wilderness experience.

Understandably, many people headed for a vacation need a period of adjustment to raw nature. But many never do adjust. The fear of quiet, the sudden realization of our own puniness before a far-reaching universe of space and time is too hard to face. Quiet--deep and long quiet--can disturb and depress urban people, a fact noted at the turn of the century by sociologist Georg Simmel. Urban people, he observed, begin to feel lonely and afraid if left without the constant background of noise and agitation. Today, quiet has become an aberration, and nature has come to be thought of as "unnatural." And as city life has grown ever more complex, it's become commonplace to see runners and strollers with headphones, completely insulated from the few remaining hushed sounds of nature--the whoosh of the wind, the soothing rustle of leaves, the slap of waves against the shore.

Rather than leave wilderness and parkland in peace, we insist on "civilizing" them, and as we do so, the wild lands become a playing field on which to act out tensions carried over from urban life. In addition to preening and loud display, we clutter campsite and trail with the claptrap of home. Urbanites press to bring ever more roads and city comforts to park areas. Few simple camps are left. Some national parks look like supermarket parking lots. Motorcycles roar into campgrounds late at night; pots and pans are banged; motorized homes are maneuvered; the human voice babbles on, drowning out the hoot of the owl. Human noise despoils the sanctuary we profess to seek.

Disregard for the natural stream of things is a learned behavior, taught in subtle ways, as when we watch trained animals wiggle and leap on command. For the bribe of a handful of fish, the creatures of the sea perform like slaves. An interesting spectacle maybe, but one that habituates people to the idea that nature exists mainly to entertain humans--the lords of the universe.

If the wild lands are sometimes our playing field, then we need rules for the game. Wilderness privacy and wilderness rights must be defined. The wilderness game is, admittedly, different from our more familiar sports: There is no point score or finish line, no leagues or cheering fans. But it shares the need for rules of order.

The basic rule of the "wilderness game" is a simple one: Let nature predominate. Wild lands cannot be equated with a license to play savage. Shooting at rocks and cans, CB chatter, painting or carving on rocks and trees is not "getting back to nature." However innocently pursued, actions such as these disrupt and destroy the wilderness experience for all caring visitors, as well as intrude upon animal and plant communities.

Wilderness rules cannot be found in a formal rule book. Yet they do exist, in the form of common-sense boundaries. Because they seem like platitudes--and because the referees, the rangers, are often too busy doing other things, such as directing motor traffic--the game played out in the wild lands tends to lose form and proportion. Consider what the effect would be if the same disrespect for rules were allowed to prevail in baseball, tennis or golf: Spectators and players could wander at will onto the field of play; one player could claim the right to bat with an oar, another to hit a tennis ball under the net; beer cans would litter golf fairways, and greens flags could be used as targets by roving archery and shooting teams.

Guidelines create the necessary and proper atmosphere for play. Player and spectator alike come to thrive on these rules. We don't demand a right to a fourth strike. The public doesn't wander across fairways under a claim of public ownership of the course. This behavior isn't "natural"; it's taught and learned as part of the rules and conditions of the game, the hidden price of entry.

And the stakes of the wilderness game are high: Man is the only species that has attained the power to destroy the wild lands. Man also has the capacity to save them.

Let nature predominate. Go quietly, in small groups, and leave only your footprints as a mark of passage. Let no voice carry beyond 10 feet, unless a cry for help. Leave "civilized junk" at home; banish mechanical contrivances that are louder than the wind.

Listen. And listen some more. When in doubt, shut up.

Stop, look, and ponder.

What is man's place in the wild?

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