What disturbs us so much about wild places? Is it that they seem to have little concern for our needs? Do they challenge our obsession with mastery and control? Maybe wilderness just terrifies us.
Perhaps that fear is what leads us to exploit wild places for profit.
Thrills, fear and profit
Take a look at old photos of the logging industry in its heyday in the Pacific Northwest. How unsettling their first encounters must have been with those huge old growth trees! Yet they seemed to understand that potential profit was even larger than the trees. Combine fear of the wilderness with insatiable greed and the stage was set for East Coast robber barons.
Wild places can thrill even while inducing fear. Think of how much we delight in having the sh– scared out of us. Ever been to Wild Waves? Wilderness, profit and thrills mesh in advertisements for cars and trucks as they race through wilderness. What could be more fun than showing our dominance by tearing everything up while sitting in the comfort of a vehicle?
Watched the Weather Channel lately? It used to feature weather reports and explanations of meteorology. No more. Now their programming includes Highway To Hell, Frozen Gold, Salvage and Rescues, not to mention their hype of hurricanes and tornadoes. Disaster as entertainment. Maybe we should put theater-seats in the wilderness. And serve popcorn.
Dominance vs survival and health
Mallory’s explanation of why he sought to “conquer” Everest seems especially fitting. We just seem to love conquering “because it’s there.” We are addicted to our own supposed supremacy. And so we do what we can to eliminate that which reigns supreme over us.
Yet pleas for the preservation of wild places are creeping up — from environmentalists and naturalists to psychologists who study the role of wild places in cognitive development and well-being.
A May 14, 2023 New York Times article titled “Let The City Grow Wild” notes that “to survive a hotter, wet, less predictable climate, cities must learn to accommodate nature.” The author cites nature’s reconstitution after the blitzkrieg as well as the deliberate cultivation of wild places in Berlin, England and the Netherlands.
ZME Science quotes research by the University of Washington that shows how “experiencing wilderness is particularly important for physical and mental health.”
How are we doing on preserving wilderness?
In some ways, quite well. In others, appallingly bad. While green spaces are purportedly a priority in Thurston County, the Port of Olympia hasn’t signed on. As its Panattoni warehousing fiasco presages: pavement is forever!
Development occurs in opposition to wild places. While developers may pay lip service to green spaces (not to be confused with wild places) profit typically reigns. Look at the new developments with zero lot line buildings. See any green space between buildings and sidewalks, or between sidewalks and roads?
As the wise refrigerator magnet asserts: “Suburbia: Where they cut down all the trees and name the streets after them.”
There’s even pushback against setting aside green and wild spaces, even where development is unlikely. The Biden administration’s plan “to conserve vast government-owned lands [public lands] on equal footing with oil drilling, livestock grazing and other interests” has elicited outrage from those devoted exclusively to profit. US Sen. John Barasso (R-Wyoming) sees it as “giving radicals a new tool to shut out the public” — as if we are not the public.
If this nature-as-impediment mentality exists at the national level, what about locally? Squaxin and Watershed Parks do a pretty good job of preserving wild places. The Olympias City Council took the bold and courageous step of purchasing LBA Woods to save it from Horton’s—the maxi-developer’s—rampant development.
But the City Council’s own development scheme lurked in the deal, slating LBA Woods as the perfect place to put an arterial. So far, public outcry has put a damper on it: “We’re here! We’re here!” But it’s still in the long-term development plan. Moreover, there’s a dog walk in the plans. More and wider trails. Even interpretive trails.
So, what’s wrong with that? Aren’t we lacking dog walks and interpretive trails? Isn’t education good? Well, it depends on how we define education. Don’t wild places educate on their own? Do we need their domestication?
Cognitive psychology answers, “No!”
Wilderness’ complexity boggles the mind. Walk slowly through LBA Woods. Observe how nature has its own architecture, with trees that grow at impossible angles, mosses that reveal startlingly complex and beautiful worlds, candelabra trees, undergrowth that intersects and intertwines in counterintuitive ways that promote interdependence, which, in turn, enhances survival.
There’s a huge difference between what we choose to highlight: domestication or wilderness. Thomas Carlson decries “human thinking that takes nature as object; framed by our already assumed categories and concepts…” He urges us instead to engage in “thinking via nature, or indeed nature’s thinking through us, in such a way that nature exercises its own voice and agency—in conversation with us, but ever preceding and exceeding our attempts to contain or control it.” 
Exposing children to wild places skews their minds in a good way. Their brains are forced to accommodate, to integrate, to discern that which doesn’t—at first—fit. That, of course, is the essence of cognitive development.
Dog walkers want dog trails and parks. Interpretive trails proffer information. But civilizing wild places emphasizes the known and destroys the unknown. Let wilderness do its educating!
The wilderness can help us transcend the relentless and crazy blather of the “civilized” world. It is a place we can go that hasn’t been preprogrammed and designed to produce a predictable response. It is a place to experience the raw, confusing, complex world of discovery.
We need places where we can just go and be alone. Where we can stop and ponder. Where we can “space out.” Where we engage in “thinking via nature,” or allow “nature’s thinking through us.” Where we can just BE.
We pay our parks and recreation people to develop nature. Programming and design are part of their job. Wild places don’t need programs or design. Sometimes, doing nothing is better than doing something.
We need to raise our voices (We’re here!) to ask our elected officials to do nothing to wild places except set them aside. Stay tuned!
(1) Carlson, T.A. in his review of Otten, W. Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking: From Eriugena to Emerson in The Journal Of Religion.(April 2023. Vol. 103, No. 2)
The Rev. Dr. John Van Eenwyk has retired as a clinical psychologist and Jungian analyst among many other practices. He co-founded the International Trauma Treatment Program in Olympia.