Wilderness Calls Us Back to Ourselves

When I tell people I work for Opal Creek, I see an envious glimmer enter their eyes.  Perhaps they imagine me and my coworkers, hiking off-trail in the Opal Creek Wilderness to a mossy rock ledge, where we pull out our laptops and write grants, make staff schedules, and do double-entry bookkeeping to the sounds of wind and birdsong.

The reality for those of us in the Portland office is slightly less glamorous, but it puts me in a position to shift seamlessly between the worlds of the city and the forest; and with one foot in each, I can see both more clearly.

The city may have quiet moments but it’s never still.  I once had a porch overlooking I-84, and I would spend minutes on end transfixed by the constant flow of humanity.  Even in a green city like Portland, our feet slap pavement or gravel, disconnected from the earth layers below.  Downtown or in our neighborhoods, we may say hello but the people we pass are strangers.  I have never felt as alone in the forest as I can in the city.

The forest around Jawbone Flats is remote but never empty.  My wilderness is peopled with the memories and ripples of those who have gone before me—loggers, miners, forest rangers—and the plants nodding at me in the breeze—twin flower, favorite of Linnaeus; fireweed, pioneer of disrupted ground; Pacific yew, treater of cancer.  With each step my interaction with the physical world is reaffirmed, whether the spongy bounce of a mossy carpet or the release of aromatic cedar oils as I pass over the worn shreds of downed trees.

And remote as Opal Creek is, once you climb above the shaded creek beds and mossy glens, the touch of humanity is there just as surely as in the iron-girded buildings of downtown.  This summer I stood atop the Whetstone summit and gazed south at the Opal Creek watershed.  From ridgetop to ridgetop all I could see was forest, dark green old-growth, here and there cut by a stream gully carrying clear mountain water towards the bottom of the canyon.  To the north I could see the patchwork scars of clear-cuts, and electric lines cutting across the landscape like stitches.

Journalist William Langewiesche writes “Such was the appeal of the wilderness to me…the appeal of a surrender.”  But surrendering myself to Opal Creek is not the liberating experience he means.  To me, the Opal Creek Wilderness is a place that calls me back to myself, back to my relationships with the physical world, whether composed of timber or concrete.  But with these relationships comes a moral responsibility that is never more clear to me than when I have just returned from wilderness.  The wilderness asks me hard questions about the way we consume and replenish resources, about the decisions we have made and continue to make about land use, about the histories we choose to tell and those we let slip by unnoticed.

For us city folks, it’s easy to idealize the wilderness, to go out and get our ‘fix.’  It’s also easy for the city to feel like the norm, to get used to never-ending exhaust-spewing traffic, to get used to vacant lots full of nodding wildflowers being paved over and replaced in less than a day with steel skeletons.  But much as we want to see it that way, the world is not a binary place.  We recognize that time spent in wilderness has an immediate and lasting effect on our psyche, on our spiritual and emotional health, but we are quick to forget that our actions out here in the ‘real world’ have a greater, and often negative, impact on the wild places we cherish.

Along the ridge up to Whetstone you will come across places where thick metal wire dangles from hooks high up on a tree trunk.  These are the remains of the telephone line that used to connect Jawbone Flats to the outside world.  The wires may be cut but the connections are still there.