Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.
― Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water
I live within a couple of hours of the wildfires raging in Napa and Sonoma counties. Every time I walk outside, the smoke that chokes the air is a reminder of the lives and livelihoods destroyed.
It’s also a reminder of the wildness, fragility and vulnerability of nature. Beautiful, idyllic wine country has been reduced to rubble, to a landscape out of a dystopian future novel.
Wildfire is an integral and expected part of California life. We even have a fire “season,” like baseball season or spring. Its destructive properties seem to get worse every year, encroaching more and more into populated areas, as we encroach more and more into nature.
Many of our cities have an urban boundary, a green space that delineates them from the rural areas beyond and from each other.
Yet even in this day and age, when cities are trying to focus on development in vacant spaces within their boundaries and on revitalizing blighted areas, that the green space surrounding cities is still under threat, and with it, our natural wild spaces that provide so much inspiration to writers and artists.
Maybe I live in a “smart growth” bubble, but I was shocked to learn that out here in the West, we are still chomping away at the edges of our wild lands, with California taking the biggest bites.
With our redwood forests and coastlines, rolling hills and rocky Sierra outcroppings at risk of being lost, that means that we, as creative people are at risk. Once we lose our wild lands, we lose our inspiration.
How many authors and artists have been inspired by beautiful and brutal nature? The West itself is legend for its wildness, its stark and lonely places, its measureless expanses promising freedom, anonymity, a new start.
As creatives, how many times have we been told to go outside? To clear our heads and experience our tiny place in an enormous world. Even now, the song “Take a Walk” by Passion Pit is on the radio, extolling the virtues of being outside to get perspective.
Camping in the forest, picnicking in a meadow, taking a deep breath as you run along the Pacific, just out of reach of the lapping waves and the creatures within. Who can experience these things and still think sprawl and taming of our wild places is OK?
It makes me sad and discouraged. I thought we were making progress. I thought it was generally accepted, especially in California, that sprawl, which defined so much of our post-war growth, was becoming a thing of the past.
There are more of us out there who benefit from these natural spaces: artists, authors, photographers, other creative people. Anyone who wants to get away, to rejuvenate their souls. So do the people who hang the work of creative people in their homes and offices — you often see an Ansel Adams print of Yosemite. You rarely see a print of a local strip mall or tract homes.
I refuse to believe that this way of thinking from the 1950s that values sprawl will win out in the end. Perhaps it’s my relentless optimism, but I refuse to give in to this disillusionment. The first step is understanding that this is still a problem; the next is fighting it tooth and nail. We have to.
We cannot keep smothering our natural places. We cannot keep smothering our muse. As Stegner said “We simply need that wild country available to us.”