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Photo of a group of nineteenth-century tourists posing outside the Summit House atop New Hampshire's Mount Lafayette OPEN SPACE

How Wild Is the Wilderness?
by Jane Brox

The eastward view from the top of Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire's White Mountains has no villages in it, no spires or white paint, just mountains beyond the mountains until they meet the soft and hazy far sky. This is the Pemigewasset Wilderness, officially designated and protected, though it is only distance, the overview, that makes it appear as some kind of primordial beauty. All that unbroken forest has been inextricably mixed up with history, a part of our own complicated past, with its exploitations, its ideas of the romantic and the sublime. Had I stood atop Mount Lafayette a century ago, I'd have seen huge clearcuts, littered with slash and deadfall, where stands of trees had been felled, trimmed, and dragged out. One visitor to these logging camps wrote, "It is desperately clean work that is going on… There was little talk -- simply concentrated effort and energy, and throughout it all a perfectly apparent genius of direction…."

Now in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, the railroad bridges have dropped into abysses. The main hiking trail into those woods is the old rail bed that follows the eastern branch of the Pemigewasset River. You walk on and around the last of the decaying wooden sleepers. Iron spikes shine out of the trail dust. There are stone foundations here and there, and mossy, lichen-covered bridge abutments. The river that runs alongside has a bed of tumbled stone and boulders, and when the spring water subsides, there are places shallow enough to cross on the rocks, and pools deep enough to swim in. I don't know why, but even five minutes in that water will leave your old skin feeling softer than a child's.

Almost in answer to all the ambition and excess determination of the timber barons comes an answering ambition and determination, not only to obliterate the marks of the logging days, but to create something absolutely pristine. The Wilderness Act of 1964 decrees that the land it protects shall be "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…. retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions…." One of the insistences of a designated wilderness area is that no pre-existing human structures are to be actively maintained, that the past should be encouraged to disappear. They say if you walk far enough into the Pemigewasset Wilderness you'll see the last railroad trestle still standing. I imagine it shrouded in woods and silence, the rock-strewn river running under it: odd, harmless, representative, and argued about vehemently. Some insist it is a nonconforming artificial structure in the wilderness that must be removed; others, an important historical artifact that by law must be preserved, suggesting everything of the long quarrel between remembrance and forgetting, of how much separates us from the loggers who once worked there. It can seem that more than a century separates us. We hikers are now so many that we constitute our own genius of direction, as the known world and the felt world, the maps of science and the maps of belief, become more distinct from one another.

And now the desire is not only to forget but to feel new in the wilderness, matching will against elevation, stone, and cold to make a hurt that keeps you from absence. Paths are not only maintained but made difficult. The Appalachian Trail has departed the valleys and towns and roadways -- where habitation and wilderness might mingle -- and has become more a trail of mountain ridges, full of desolate challenges. If you want to complete the Appalachian Trail today you'll have to wade through rough waters and crawl through icy caves. At the end of his journey Earl Shaffer, a hiker who, in 1998, at the age of 79, walked the trail for the third time in his life, couldn't disguise his bitter disappointment at the way the route had changed over time: "In 1965 the trail was perfect," he said, "but they were not satisfied. They make all these changes. They seem to be obsessed with the idea that you have to make it as rough as possible…. It's an almost impossible trip. "

Who are we? Where are we? Thoreau asked, and it seems to me the extreme did not define him. It undefined him.

Excerpted from Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm, to be published in September by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2004 by Jane Brox. All rights reserved.

Photo: Courtesy of Mount Washington Observatory

OnEarth. Fall 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council