Editor's note: This is an essay in an occasional series called First Person, written by Star Tribune readers and staff members.
A quarter-century ago, my father and I rode the Missouri River’s swift currents for 150 miles along winding channels of the Missouri River Breaks. The deeply eroded valley appeared little-changed from the days of Lewis and Clark. From the rim of the Breaks, 500 feet above the river, our 16-foot canoe seemed microscopic next to the wide, murky channel. The Montana sky extended beyond the horizon and reduced us to insignificance. We were two men diminished by the vast wilderness of sky around us. My idea of “wilderness” changed the night we camped opposite an abandoned homestead at the riffle called Gallatin Rapids. The cabin blazed as bright as hope in the rays of the settling sun, but it quickly turned as pale as death in the full moon’s cold light.
We crossed the river in the morning, and explored the homestead that the failed homesteaders abandoned in the early 1920s. Although politicians promised them free land, the land promised them nothing. The cabin’s log walls and sod roof whispered privation and discomfort. A rusty plow mumbled about hard labor without reward. A wagon track scrambled upward toward a settlement somewhere on the horizon. Cash, sweat and faith didn’t overcome isolation, drought and disappointments. The sun rose on the homesteader’s hopes, the moon shone on his failures, and disappointment still lingered in the building’s shadow.
Walking among the relics of defeat, my boots raised the dust of crushed dreams. In the odor of sagebrush, a whiff of romantic audacity intensified the feeling of wildness. The loose, desolate power of wild nature struck me unbidden, like the harsh sun bearing down from the cloudless sky. Wilderness goes deeper than pristine scenery. At its core lies human history, because the true power of wilderness seems greatest when it contains the ruins of human endeavors initiated by hubris and broken by turning a blind eye to reality.
Abandoned Minnesota farmhouses, Anasazi ruins in Utah canyons, rotted logging dams in Quetico Provincial Park, a gold camp in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming — each poses a question about the audacity of imagination, the frailty of conventional wisdom, and our determination to defeat the planet’s exacting forces. Seeing ruins amid a wild setting induces humility in a way pristine nature does not. You and I are integral parts of nature even when we stand apart from it.
The upper Missouri River isn’t a pristine, untrammeled place — nor is any other wilderness. Archaeological and historical evidence tells us humans have shaped and reshaped our continent since the ice age. The park-like groves of nut trees where my Puritan ancestors settled were created by Algonquin tribes in New England. When homesteaders broke the prairie, they found fertile soil blackened by centuries of deliberate burning. The landscape of North America as we know it, as Europeans found it, reflected and still reflects persistent human interventions. We are agents of nature.
Pure wilderness is a romantic chimera of a world as we wish it were. The cultural fantasy of a place (and a people) apart from civilization seemed shallow the evening my father and I stood on the rim amid a cluster of tepee rings. The stones wore a ruddy face in the gloaming. Each circle of small boulders once anchored the bottom of a Blackfoot tepee during their annual hunts. For them and other natives, this spot on the Missouri River was never a wilderness — it was always home.
Protecting the Upper Missouri River and other wild areas is essential to our cultural soul. Yet, preservation presents us with a conundrum. Wilderness is an urban idea, and a statutory wilderness is a prescribed place of proscribed activities. What defines and protects wilderness also inadvertently diminishes the feeling of it. As much as we wish to escape civilization for an imagined Garden of Eden, we can’t. Civilization defines you and I as individuals of a social species. We cannot escape ourselves for long, but in wild places, like the ghost farm at Gallatin Rapids, we can reflect on real wilderness within ourselves, and see more clearly the limits of our virtues and wisdom, the consequences of our vices and ignorance. That possibility alone is reason enough to protect wild places.
R. Newell Searle of Minnetonka is a writer who is retired from public affairs. For nearly 40 years, he has explored wilderness and historic areas such as the Oregon Trail, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Utah Canyonlands. He is the author of "Saving Quetico-Superior, A Land Set Apart."