I have finally crossed the elusive mid-way point in my thru-hike of Te Araroa, a 3,000 km tramping track across New Zealand. I am now closer to the end than to the beginning. Of this journey’s many experiences, good and bad, the single most unexpected revelation has been a reevaluation of my previous sentiments toward nature and wilderness.
I once wrote, “I believe that the preservation of our natural spaces is directly linked to the cultural mentality toward them. If we place ourselves above the ecosystem – as we have done through our diets, living spaces, and means of transportation – we are mentally removing ourselves from the rules that apply to the world we live in.”
I waxed on, “I believe that the way we interact with the wilderness in our national parks, protected wilderness areas, national forests, and open spaces is the key to protecting our environment on a global scale.”
This was part of a series I wrote about our cultural perception of wilderness, and while I find it still holds true from an American perspective, I am unsure about it on a global level. I began this new line of thought deep in Pirongia Forest.
Attempting to avoid yet another pit of ankle-deep mud on a near vertical ridge line, I grabbed hold of a slender tree and swung around the pit, propelling my face directly into a protruding stick concealed in the dense foliage. Had it struck me just an inch higher, I would have been blinded. I rubbed my bruised cheekbone and scowled at this horrible forest. I had never experienced the wild in this way before.
Before the great environmental romantics painted nature in sublime colour, it was a wild, Godless place to be feared and tamed at once. Imagine a map of America from the early 1800s: west of the East Coast was the Great Unknown but for whispers of wild Indians, ravenous wolf packs with the devil in their eyes, barren deserts, and fearsome mountains.
It was only after the last of the Unknown was mapped, catalogued, and subdued that we came to appreciate it for its wildness. It is only sublime because we made it so. I know this because there ain’t nothin’ sublime about pulling yourself up tree after tree through slurping, sucking mud, over, under windfall, and on, off slippery roots, for hours up a wet mountain. And then down the exact same thing on the other side.
As you may have heard, Kiwis do not hike; they tramp. The two words are not interchangeable. To understand what tramping is, read the above paragraph again. And yet, every Kiwi I’ve encountered on the trail (which is fewer than expected) seems to be enjoying him or herself. Much of my initial shock on this thru-hike was cultural. Where American hiking trails are the result of a concerted effort to tame the wild, New Zealand tracks are simply a part of it.
Now, having experienced both sides of nature – Godless and sublime – I don’t believe that it is actually either. Wilderness has no inherent vice or virtue other than which lens we choose to view it by. I once sought the company of mountains because I believed I would receive some benefit by their presence. I will still go into the mountains, but I will take no meaning from them other than that which I give them.
Of course, this new cynical sentiment will hardly rally the troops in opposition to deforestation, deep-sea drilling, fracking, strip mining, and the like. Which brings me back to cultural perceptions of wilderness. How does one’s wilderness experience affect his or her aptitude to protect it?
Unfortunately, I have no answers at this stage. These are the ideas that run through my head for 25+ km everyday. I still have the South Island ahead of me. Perhaps I will find some conclusions by then, but more likely than not, just many more questions.
*If anyone knows of a New Zealand environmental ethicist, I would be very curious to read his or her work!