by Ray Grigg
A powerful and urgent calling attracted about sixty prominent naturalists, ecologists, conservationists, biologists, philosophers, sociologists, poets, novelists and academics from across Canada and the United States to gather in the Upper Clearwater Valley about 125 km north of Kamloops, BC, for an event called Speak to the Wild. Although supported and hosted by Thompson Rivers University, the invitation officially came from Trevor Goward, a naturalist and internationally known lichenologist who lives in the remote valley that intrudes into one of BC’s oldest and largest provincial parks, Wells Gray.
Goward’s reputation as a profound and respected thinker of comprehensive depth and breadth was a factor in attracting so many guests of such diversity, insight, scholarship and wisdom to the valley’s rustic accommodations, to its log community hall, and to Edgewood Blue, the home he has built for over 20 years — now intended as a naturalist’s learning centre. Goward’s passion and conviction as a conservationist also helped to lure so many people of such quality and accomplishment to readings, commentary, reflection, appreciation, discussion and sharing for five long and intensive September days. But they also came because of their love and concern for wilderness, for everything in our individual and collective psyche that is rooted in the formative power of the few and dwindling places that still remain wild.
Wilderness, of course, is what remains of the world in its most pure and authentic condition. It comprises the ancestral source from which each one of us came, the original and living pulse of nature before we disturbed it with the destructive meddling so characteristic of our industrial and technological compulsions. Wilderness, then, is who we are at our deepest and most elemental level. If we are to ever know ourselves as individuals and societies, if we are ever to find our essential identity as human beings, if we are ever to survive our terrible ingenuity and learn to live in sustainable accord with nature’s implacable terms, then we must do so by understanding and acquiescing to the wisdom inherent in wilderness. Such rare and endangered places are the culmination of a biological intelligence that has somehow managed to evolve a diversity of unimaginable complexity into a system of exquisite balance and harmony. Wilderness, then, should be preserved as an untouched miracle of design, as a wise mentor deserving nothing less than our awe.
Perhaps this awe was the unspoken lure that brought together so many people of such stature. Some of the finest and most discerning thinkers of our age gathered within the embrace of high mountains to remind us that we are a civilization heading toward serious environmental trouble. All were conscious of the intrinsic and essential wisdom inherent in wilderness. And all were profoundly concerned about the ecological deterioration that is systematically obliterating the natural fabric of our supporting ecologies. This, too, explains why they came to Speak to the Wild. Driven by such awareness and powered by the worry of unrelenting loss, they came to speak on behalf of wilderness, to listen carefully to each other, to ponder the poignant rush of waterfalls, and then to briefly immerse themselves in nature’s grand and silent wisdom.
The first objective of Speak to the Wild was to protect wilderness by beginning the long and arduous process of instituting a land ethic into the legal structure of Canada — of 193 countries, Canada is one of only 12 that does not have constitutional laws guaranteeing a right to a healthy environment. A secondary objective was to save from extinction Wells Gray’s mountain caribou, an indicator species that charts the balanced health of ecologies. The intent of these objectives was to eventually protect wilderness and nature from the destructive urges of an economic and political system that seems to lack the understanding and imagination to know that it is methodically and obliviously defeating itself. So the ultimate objective of Speak to the Wild was to save ourselves from ourselves.
The precarious condition of wilderness is just one symbol of our tenuous existence on a planet whose complex ecologies we are unravelling with numb enthusiasm. Just as we cannot disregard the wisdom of the wild while dismembering and unbalancing the integrity of ecosystems, we cannot exist separately from nature without destroying ourselves. We would be dead in body without the critical services provided by the wild places we consider unused and useless. As they are creating the conditions we need for our survival, so, too, are they enlivening our experiences with the rich wonders of their inventive ingenuity. Indeed, we would be dead in soul without the mysterious beauty provided by wilderness.
An awareness and appreciation of these treasured gifts was the subtext that brought together such a diverse selection of sensitive and sophisticated people from such a varied range of talents and disciplines. Because they all felt the crucial importance of wilderness in their lives, and because they all felt the encroaching threat of its loss, they all bonded together in common cause. Their gathering was instigated by the fundamental awareness that we are losing wilderness, and in the process we are losing ourselves.
Those who attended Speak to the Wild were not airy and disconnected dreamers. Rather, they were all living with an intensity of grounded insight which was wholly anchored in the real world. They were invariably practical and earthy people so profoundly immersed in the mystery of being alive on a planet of extraordinary natural wonders that they seemed qualified to speak for all humanity — a humanity that is sadly and tragically losing its ecologies, its security, its direction, its roots, its meaning and eventually itself. Speak to the Wild was a call back to sanity.