“Let’s get out into the wilderness – wherever that is,” Greg Dalton invited the audience at a recent Commonwealth Club gathering. But with the stamp of human footprints in nearly every corner of the globe, is there any such thing as true wilderness anymore? Can we still hope to go, as Maurice Sendak wrote, “where the wild things are?”
Jason Mark, author of Satellites in the High Country, says there’s still quite a bit of wildness to be found, “as long as you understand that wildness…doesn’t mean pristine.”
Ours is a post-pristine age, Mark says.
“There's really no place that's been untouched,” he continues. “The human insignia’s everywhere. But if you understand wilderness to mean places that are undominated by human will and undominated by civilization, places that are still self-willed then, yeah, I’m happy to report that there's a lot of wilderness still out there.”
Bernie Krause is a soundscape artist who has been recording both the beauty and the decline of the natural world for several decades. While most documentation of nature focuses on what we see, “the natural world has a voice,” Krause explains, “and I wanted to give that voice to as many people as possible through these recordings.”
What he hears, he says, is a world that is gradually going silent.
Recordings made over the course of ten years in California’s Sugarloaf State Park tell a dramatic story. “When I first started recording there, spring occurred at a certain time of the year,” Krause explains as the sound of forest birds fills the room. “Now it’s two weeks earlier. You can see how climate change and the drought is affecting the bird populations.”
As the audience listens, the robust forest sounds grow quieter.
“The final recording, made in 2015, was nearly silent,” Krause tells them. “This is the first time in 77 years I've experienced the spring without bird song.”
Sadly, younger generations may not miss what they’ve never experienced. “The baseline is always shifting,” says Jason Mark “So what a baby boomer might remember as a degraded landscape would then for a Gen X-er be the norm. And then a Millennial will come along and might think it's like paradise…rich and full and vibrant.
“And so it makes the work of conservation really hard.”
But certainly worth the effort, as everyone on the panel agrees. Tanya Peterson of the San Francisco Zoo says that environmental changes are transforming the role of zoos from exhibition to preservation.
“We view ourselves as sanctuaries, the Noah's Arks of the species, if you will,” Peterson says. “All of the animals now at the zoo are either endangered, threatened or rescued. And our hope is one day we can return some of the species to the wild.”
Everyone has their favorite wilderness escape, whether in far-off continents or here in our own backyard. But there’s no doubt the planet is changing, thanks to human-caused climate disruption and other environmental factors. The wild places we know may be transforming, shrinking or even disappearing altogether.
“The challenge is...how do we continue to have an intimate emotional relationship with landscapes, even as those landscapes change before our eyes?” Marks asks.
“How do we sustain our love for Sequoia National Park, if the Sequoias start to move northward? What if there's no Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park, or no glaciers in Glacier National Park?”
Modern conservationists hope to slow the march of environmental degradation and preserve these natural wonders for future generations of humans, and of other species. But in the end, says Jason Marks, whether it’s for our own enjoyment, the health of its creatures or just for the sake of nature itself:
“It's about trying to save a world worth saving, right?”