“The Light that Pierces through Darkness,” Gibson Reservoir in the Bob Marshall Wilderness during a morning thunderstorm. Photo by Caden Gallagher.

Mountains and meadows, rivers and flowers, 

Thinking of landscapes I stare at for hours, 

Great big white clouds and thunder that rings, 

These are a few of my favorite things!

Daily Journal Excerpt from 06-25-2021 Snowcrest Mountains, Mt.:

“Today was a blur. I didn’t feel great for most of the day, but I have a memory of one part in the day when we were halfway down the ridge and I decided to lie face first in the grass with my backpack on. I can’t remember why I did this (I was probably tired and sore), but I do remember how I felt. I was warm in the damp grass and my pack was forcing me to breathe more intentionally. For whatever reason, in that moment I felt immense gratitude for the place I am in, the people around me, and the opportunity I’ve been given to be a part of this program. I had been searching for that feeling for years and I finally achieved it.”

My time in Montana has been filled with wonder. I’ve traveled far over loose soil on my dependable feet with the 2021 Conservation Across Boundaries WRFI field course. I stood on mountain tops, explored Big Sky Country, and I made my own memories and connections along the way. Now, more than ever, I am able to articulate why I partake in outdoor recreation. I can explain what these places mean to me. More than ever, the wilderness that I long for—that I crave—is a part of who I am.

I ask for your participation in an activity: please take a moment to find a window, step outside, or find a house plant. When you see this symbol “∆” please look away from your screen.

Right now, I am sitting in my tent, rainfly open, smoke in my nostrils, sore feet, and a view of Sheep Mountain in the Bob Marshall Wilderness at Horse Creek in mid-July. Where are you? How much time do you spend there? What memories do you have here? What relationships have you formed where you are? Tell me about it. I’m curious. ∆

Thank you for establishing yourself.

I look to the foreground for this activity, even though the grand majesty of the peaks and scenic views in the background are always first to draw my attention. In my foreground I’m joined by grasses, shrubs, small dead trees, and many eager flies. I see the prismatic coloration of the sandstone and wolf-fur gray mature lodgepole pine bark. The bark peels upwards, creating a landscape of miniature mesas and a tangled web of highways for pea-sized ants to travel up and down. What’s in your foreground? ∆

Now, look closer, this time take your attention to the details you’ve never noticed before. I see two leaves in front of me. Both with branching veins connecting back to the main stem of the leaf. One thick and strong with branching veins peeling away from the central vein, then quickly turning and running parallel with it. Each branching stem has smaller veins peeling off of them, repeating the pattern and looking like a deep history family tree. The other leaf is more disorganized. Large veins peel from the main stem and create a chaotic pattern that could not be repeated in even the finest clothes. What do you see in the details in front of you? ∆

Tell me about it: tell me of the structures, the patterns, the shades of color. Tell me of its movement or its stillness. How do you communicate such a thing? Now look again to your foreground. Dig deeper. Interact with what you see. Be a part of the life that exists in this small patch of Earth. How does the world respond to you? ∆

Are you cold? Are you hot? Are you tired? Hungry? Sick? How do you respond to the place you are in? On this course, we’ve discussed place-based learning and place attachment as ways of knowing. Place-specific ways of knowing can lead to observations and stories more valuable than a lifetime of classroom lectures. As you look back to the world around you, consider what you know of this place. What are its secrets? Who has lived here before you? How have you learned to move through this place? Look back to the foreground—to the details—and go smaller. Think like an ant. Get your face on the ground and open your eyes to a world you’ve never lived in. What do you see? ∆

Now, with my face in the dirt, I remember my childhood backyard where I would spend hours observing and interacting with black and red beetles. I immediately remember the clarity and simplicity of that time. I open my eyes and I’m taken to a forest I’ve never seen before! Fireweed patches create dark zones—places it seems I’m not meant to enter. The wild rose’s thorns seem aggressive—threatening to my life and limb when I once thought them a mere nuisance. Every pebble is a boulder—an obstacle that must be faced with courage and determination. The world here is quiet without strong influence from the wind, but this world is not still. The dirt shifts and reorganizes itself with every wave of the towering grasses above and every move of the ant as it dares the boulders. The ant travels intentionally and never checks the same crevasse twice. It knows this terrain well—it knows this patch of Earth in greater detail and through senses more complex than I could ever imagine. It makes me consider the connections the Blackfeet People have to this place and how their ancestors may have once known this place with a greater understanding than even the ant before me. Who was here even before them? Has this site ever been home to a wolf’s den or a summer gathering space for peoples known by a different name? How will a future visitor of this place leave evidence of their travel—what evidence am I leaving? What assumptions am I making about this land and what assumptions will be made about my actions as a recreationist? Look inward to yourself: What do you notice? What can shifts in perspective add to your life? How might you think differently of the world at the scale of an ant? ∆

When I think small—when I draw my attention to the squishable, the delicate, the stuff closest to me—I experience complexity and wonder far more magnificent than the grand mountains beyond. When traveling in Wilderness areas, National Parks, and remote corners of the world, it is easy to distance oneself from “real life”—to live apart from, or outside of yourself. I’ve learned a great many things during this course but the greatest lesson of all has been learning to balance the wilderness out there and the wilderness inside myself.

Our cultural history has a way of distancing wilderness from our everyday lives. When we draw lines of separation—boundaries of political importance and ecological consequence—we see the world divided into wilderness and humanity. Many indigenous cultures do not make this conceptual error. They are interwoven into their place of living and recognize their actions as that of another animal interacting in the ecosystem. In the recent past of Western culture and literature, wilderness was demonized—a place to fear, where only the brave and mad venture. But that was then. Now, wilderness is seen as a refuge, a place to escape our loud busy lives to find solitude and feelings of peace. I know the feeling well. I’ve spent most of my life running away into the woods. I found myself there, and I’ve left parts of my identity scattered throughout the Northern Sierras where I grew up. It took me tearing a tendon, walking in a boot for 7 months, and spending a month lying with my foot above my head to see the world differently. During my recovery period, I got nervous. I’ve always moved through landscapes and for the first time in my life I was stationary and restricted to my backyard. There I sat for over 30 days staring into grass, looking to shrubs and trees, and searching for relief from an itch I couldn’t quite scratch. I got low. Changed my perception and reframed my world. I read of Walden Woods and the movement of ants upon a log. I found the Wilderness in my backyard. I found the uncontrollable, the untamable, the survivors of pesticides and machines, and they marched onwards.

The way I see it, humans are no different from beavers. We construct our dams, farm our fields, build homes, and importantly, have the power to structurally change our environment. We choose to not see the Wilderness in our everyday lives. We choose to structurally alter our world and disregard the negative feedback it sends us. We choose every day to walk past whole little worlds on the ground and not recognize them as a complex interconnected network of relationships between individuals, groupings of species, and voluntary acts of reason, logic, and autonomy. I encourage you to spend as much time looking at small steams and decaying logs as you do mountaintops and ridgelines. Find the wilderness in our big interconnected world. Find the wilderness in yourself.

On this course, I have been asked to think critically about Wilderness. Writings about wilderness show an evolution in Western culture’s framing of the “wild,” from early writings like Robert Marshall’s 1930 “The Problem of Wilderness.” In his writing, Marshall recognized the spiritual and intrinsic value these places serve to the culture of the United States, but it is through the lens of creating a better American and an American Dreamer. This framing is anthropocentric, masculine, and of a time when wild places were still being conquered and tamed. The language of the 1964 Wilderness Act viewed land as recreational “use and enjoyment” or “primitive” and “without permanent improvement or human habitation.” This language does not recognize Native people and their connection to and habitation in Wilderness areas. The problems in defining land as Wilderness and other lands as not-Wilderness continues the cultural precedent to see these lands in a dualistic relationship. This concept is well defined in William Cronon’s 1995 “The Trouble with Wilderness” and has implications for how we fail to take responsibility for the sustainable management of urban, rural, and wilderness areas. A 2014 article by Christopher Ketcham, “Taming the Wilderness,” recognized Wilderness land designation as “… fundamentally antithetical to the American Way and the American Dream” for its representation as a limit to growth and a barrier to economic gain through resource exploitation. This thinking is more aligned with the discourse of ecological economics and represents the real implications of changing our classical framing of wilderness to one that is interconnected in human society and recognizes humans as a keystone species of Earth.

Think now about what you saw in this activity. What Wilderness is around you? What grows in the cracks of pavement? What species have adapted to urban ways of living in your neighborhood? I now live in a place where raccoons use street drainage as a subway system and take advantage of misplaced trash. These raccoons are as wild as they ever were, but now they live in a structurally altered ecosystem and they live very well—fat and happy. Here, the line between wilderness and human landscapes is blurred. Do you exist outside the world of Life? Can you identify parts of your current place that show evidence of wilderness? ∆

In Yellowstone, an instructor, Joe, led us in calling ourselves in from the wilderness. I stood dirty in a wallow—a landscape feature created by wild bison—and I looked to the mountains of the Lamar River Watershed, then screamed my name. No reply. I stood staring and felt warm as my sadness at leaving the backcountry dissipated. I was empowered by my connection to this place. I hadn’t left a bit of myself “out there” in the wilderness this time. This time, I took it with me. I connected the two worlds I grew up in. I felt whole and strong—overcome with excitement for a new perspective—a new way of knowing myself.

I am Caden Gallagher. I live everyday in wilderness. 

I am Caden Gallagher and I have wilderness within me.

Journal Excerpt Continued:

“… at this moment I can think of nothing better than how I felt lying face down in the weeds—tired, sore, hungry, and happy.”


Caden Gallagher studies Environmental Science and Policy at Southern Oregon University.

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