In the days of social media and iPhones, when people know more about Googling the definition of wilderness than how to discover it for themselves, I found myself and six other brave souls stepping into the Badger Two-Medicine area of northwest Montana. This land at the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, we discovered, is a sacred landscape just as wild as any other.
As our shoulders ached under the weight of nine days’ worth of rations, and our feet blistered from the never-ending steps of our journey, our thoughts were directed to the idea of wilderness. As defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964, these areas are “untrammeled,” and void of signs often associated with human contact. In these federally protected lands, not even wheels are allowed. This means no ATVS, no motor boats, no airplanes, no bicycles, not even wheeled coolers are allowed in wilderness spots unless specific exceptions are made. Over our nine days of trekking in the backcountry, the group discovered how these areas and their definitions evolved, as well as the different meanings and significance that these wild landscapes can hold. Despite the notion that these wilderness areas are “virgin” or unaffected by man, these lands have been shaped by their human inhabitants for thousands of years. Even the Badger Two-Medicine, a part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, is an area sacred to the Blackfeet people. Native peoples roam the plains and this section of the Rocky Mountains, known to them as the Backbone of the world, even today. Though these areas may hold different significance for tribal and non-tribal members, they hold importance in the hearts of many.
On our long walk we learned that Aldo Leopold had been ahead of his time in 1949 when he said that two impending changes are occurring: “the exhaustion of wilderness in the more habitable portions of the globe” and “the world-wide hybridization of cultures through modern transport and industrialization.” Similarly, in 1969, Wallace Stegner claimed “something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.” These ideas have resonated with our group, and reflect some of our ideas about why wilderness is important to us.
We have learned these things and more about the landscapes that have surrounded us for the past two weeks, but perhaps the most important thing we have learned through this adventure is the power of honest listening. We listened to the creaking of the heavy packs on our backs, to the powerful rushing of the countless creeks that we crossed, to the first droplets of rain in a storm, and to the heavy breathing of our fellow comrades. We listened closely to the blisters forming on our feet, to the clouds moving through the sky, to the faint scent of an open meadow, and to the taste of glacier lilies. Throughout our journey, we have learned how to listen to the wild and how to listen to each other.
A wise rancher named John Hollenbeck told our group that the most important thing missing from land management today in our country is genuine listening. Though he was speaking in regard to private land owners and restoration practitioners, I found his words to ring true in many aspects of land management. Had settling Westerners truly listened, they might have realized the connection between native peoples and the land. That this landscape was not “pristine” or “virgin,” but that humans impacted this land as much as it impacted them. Had genuine listening occurred, perhaps the restorationists of today would be less confused about the ideal landscapes that they are trying to recreate in the absence of human presence. Rather, they might understand that sustainable ecosystems can exist because of human interaction rather than in spite of it. Had more people truly listened to the ideas of Leopold, Stegner, and those before them, perhaps more valuable ecosystems would have been protected from human development. Not just the mountain tops and high elevation forests where humans struggle to live, but the grass prairies, the wetlands, and the coastlines that we see vanishing today. In 1855, the Treaty of Hellgate was signed, forcing the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend O’reille tribes onto a reservation that is a fraction of the size of their original territories. Had genuine listening occurred prior to this and other treaties like it between native peoples and Western settlers, perhaps more traditional ecological knowledge would be alive today for current and future generations to learn from.
Though these reflections may seem to do little for our past, they represent how crucial this idea of honest listening is for our future. As the seven of us stepped back into civilization, we took what we had learned from our time in the wild with us. These places promote deep and honest reflection unlike any other, and our nine days in the Badger Two-Medicine without contact with a single other human has given us just that. To us, this place is just as much a wilderness as any other. Though we are now headed on to our next adventure, we will take all that we have learned from our wilderness with us and we will head north with open ears.