Wilderness and Wilderpeople


Crew Leader James Lautzenheiser

By James Lautzenheiser, Crew Leader



Wilderness Conservation Corps crew on the misty trail.

I like remote, unpopulated places. Fewer humans, more wildness. Finding myself in wilderness has perhaps become more commonplace than some sociologists might prefer, but they may not understand just what goes on when like-minded people come together in those places. As a wilderness steward, I get to spend my time in wilderness areas not only alone but with others who share a common and critical passion for giving back to the wild areas that give so much to us all.


Understanding the commonalities between wilderness and those who like to work in it is fascinating. The wildernesses we have in southern Appalachia bring a diversity that can possibly only be rivaled by a deep-sea stream vent. These wildernesses tend to be surrounded by the rural South, a patchwork of low population mountaintops, and higher population hollows. Inside the wilderness, however, the same geographical folds that are populated by people just outside are populated by a tableau of nature’s nonhuman forms. A balance exists, with antidotes growing next to antagonists, predators working to find their prey, scenic beauty precipitating savage meteorology.


Those of us who congregate in the wilderness share many of these differences. The conservative Christian next to the liberal Feminist. People old enough to be pictured in the dictionary with “anachronistic” hanging out with young adults who have not had a chance to vote yet. And so on.


It is not, however, the differences of the wilderness that bring it together, and it is not our differences that bring us together as wilderness stewards. It is our ability to adapt, our changing futures, our connectedness. Perhaps most importantly, it is our wildness. The wilderness is not a soft pillow that lays comatose on your bedsheet, and likewise, its stewards have senses of life and humor not often seen in town. Things happen. People do things and say things with those that they might not normally. One minute we may have a demonstration about alternative uses for firewood, while the next we are finding out technical terms for throwing people out of windows. All this can happen because we have a wilderness facilitating a free environment for like-minded people.

Sunrise gleaming off a wilderness web.

Spend some time in the wilderness, and you will see for yourself what happens. Spend some time giving back to it, and you will see what more there is. After all, it is not what the wilderness can do for us, but what we can do for our wilderness.

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