We glorify the idea of the wilderness experience, long to experience it, honor and envy those who seek it when we lack the drive or the means or the ability to do it ourselves. But the value of the wilderness is overrated as the only or even the best way to experience nature. There are so few things that are fabulous about a wilderness experience that we cannot get close to home or right at home. Holding the wildnerness in such high esteem and assigning it mythical status as the only best way to experience nature is to deprive ourselves of frequent meaningful enjoyable encounters with nature on an extremeely frequent basis. It can be an excuse to deny ourselves nature. But it need not be.
Make a list of the things that you think you will or that you have experienced in the wilderness.
For me, it is the early morning mists, the process of the sunrise, the birds taking over the predawn from the silence of deep night, the changes in light patterns as the sun moves up into the sky, the changes in colors as the sun angle changes, the insects that move about, the sound of leaves and grasses moving, the heat rising up and drying off the dew and mist, the various bird species that come into activity, the insects that begin moving about as the air warms, the way the sun catches flowers and leaves at different angles, preparing and eating a meal outdoors, the pleasure of stretching out on a rock in the sun for an early afternoon nap, relaxing with closed eyes to listen, to feel the air on my skin, the rousing back to awareness of breeze and bird sound and leave rustle and insect buzz, the pleasure or working my body to hike or paddle, the warmth of the light as the sun angles low in the afternoon, the way that low light lights up the leaves of trees, the changes in bird and insect life as the days cools, the colors of the sunset in the sky, the cooling of the air, the way the wind rises and falls throughout a day, being there as a storm cloud moves in, as first small raindrops fall, as heavier rain builds, being out in thunder and lightning, the softening of the rain as it lets up, the building to a loud roar as the rain gets heavier, the tapering off as the clouds move on, wind rising then falling and rising again, these patterns within wind and rain and being out there to observe and feel them.
Now, what on that list can I not partake of in my nearby park or forest preserve or botanical garden or even in my own back yard?
It is not so much that we need to GO TO the wilderness to experience nature as that we need to be present in nature wherever we are, to make ourselves present for these changes and patterns, to observe these details. We can get up and go sit on the back deck before it is dark and experience the changes in light and air and the waking of the birds and insects. We can stay outside as a storm approaches. We can take out meals outside to the lawn or over to the park and sit there and eat them. We can go outdoors at the end of the day and stay there long enough for the changes to happen. We can sit quietly or with a book or magazine and be present for the changes. We can stay up past dark and sit out there to enjoy the ending of the day rather than turn on the lights and rush into the house. We can go to a place and close our eyes and listen and feel. And we can stay out there long enough to let changes happen, to be present for the patterns, to experience the moving and shifting of the natural world right in or own back yards and neighborhoods. We can stay outside of we are caught in a rainstorm or actually GO outside to experience one and stay there as the patterns of the rain and wind and clouds change.
We can experience this local nature with all our senses. We can make oursleves do this on purpose at first until it becomes normal for us, by closing our eyes and paying purposeful attention to what we can hear or to what we can feel on our skin or to what we can smell, giving each sense its own deliberate turn.
We DO need wilderness. We need wide open spaces for nature to practice her cycles and routines and extremes and for the whole continuum of plants and animals and microorganisms to fully flourish and prosper so that we have that resource to replenish other parts of the world as we diminish them, we need to occasionally experience the one thing about the wilderness that IS unique and that is the getting away part, the distancing, the bigness. So wilderness has inherent value and does need to be preserved and protected.
But to say that wilderness is the only or best way to experience nature is to cheat yourself. Get out there. Early, late, for extended periods, during adverse weather, in all varieties of habitats, stay, linger, listen, feel, and do it every day nearby, and you can enrich your life far more than that one rare trip to the wilderness ever will. We need the wilderness, but not for the reasons we think we do. To have amazing experiences with nature, we do not need to go that far or wait for that special occasion: We can have those experiences every single day in whatever part of the nature world we are present.