“I had hiked to the top, going from 3,500 to 11,000 feet. … I sat there looking over this valley; I could see for miles. The feeling of the insignificance of me in the world was tremendous — but such a grand setting, the immensity of it all, was overwhelming. And then I realized, ‘This is my church; this is my cathedral.’” — Gerard Voos, UNC Asheville director of Graduate Studies
In the wild, where all the trappings of our culture are stripped away, the primitive landscape serves as a mirror that reflects our most fundamental identities. Communing with wilderness, therefore, can help us to understand the wilderness within. The experience can transform and inspire — provided we protect and preserve those areas.
“I had no idea how being in the woods would help me,” says Sarah Blair Jenkins, who was a wilderness-therapy client at SUWS Carolinas in the winter 2007-2008. “I learned to be present out there. For the first time, I had to be present with my pain and also with my joy.”
Such transformative experiences inspire creative interpretations, too — Lori Kincaid’s photography of wild areas like Shining Rock and Linville Gorge; Robert Cox’s fanciful paintings, based on wilderness scenes; composer Stephen Wood’s music, infused with natural rhythms. “I went out there [to the wilderness] to find a great connection with nature, away from humanity and modern society,” says Wood of one particular experience. “But what I came to realize, understand and embrace was that all my perceptions were of humanity. All my observations were being formulated as a human being.”
These are some of the artists whose work is featured in a local exhibit and its accompanying discussion series, Within the Lines: Creative Perspectives on Wilderness. The exhibit showcases visual artists and photographers; the panel discussions take it further (an Oct. 3 forum features regional writers, educators, leaders and activists). As part of LAND/SCAPE, an ongoing project of the Southern Appalachian Office of The Wilderness Society, the aim is to draw attention to the intersection of art and nature by featuring the work of regional artists, writers and poets who are inspired by nature. Within the Lines, specifically, implores us to protect those wilderness areas.
“The woods are one of the few places I can go and be disconnected from the outside world,” says Robert Cox, an artist who both participated in and helped to organize the exhibit. “Wilderness has the power to inspire a lot of people, and wilderness areas have a quality that cannot be found anywhere else.”
Within the Lines calls on us to reconnect with nature and save what wilderness we have left. Hosted by HandMade in America, the exhibit also marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act — a federal program that, so far, has set aside some 109 million acres of wilderness that can’t be logged, turned into subdivisions or developed for commercial use (see “Celebrating the Bond”).
The act started by protecting 9.5 million acres, mostly in the West. But notably, two key, then-remote areas were in Western North Carolina: Shining Rock and Linville Gorge. As one of Within the Lines’ featured photographers, Lori Kincaid, a Hot Springs resident whose photos often include scenes of both WNC areas, says, “My work speaks to my own deep and personal connection with nature and the emotions I experience in wilderness — whether of sheer joy at the dawn of a new day or sadness and loss in the presence of a majestic hemlock dying from a woolly adelgid infestation. My hope is [that my art] will speak to others too.”
“I have a horse trail on our property that I walk nearly every day, and there is a swale that I look up into that is like a woodland cathedral,” says the exhibit’s watercolor artist Elizabeth Ellison, who lives on 46 acres bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City. “I always stop and commune with a power greater than I am, and it just feels right. … It makes things meaningful to me. With my painting, I try to share this love and hope it will make people aware of the beauty that we have and that we all need to protect so that it will be here for future generations.”
Wood says, “We’re conservationists and have a passion for our environment. As artists, we have a unique role as … communicators for a cause.”
Ellison puts it another way: “I talk softly and use a big brush.”
They’re each speaking, through their various art media, about our connection to the environment.
Re-Wilding to save our souls
“Genetically, we have more in common with what is growing in nature than not. But we have separated ourselves from that, and that’s problematic,” says Gerard Voos, director of UNC Asheville’s graduate studies. “We are nature,” he says. “To me, it’s about more people needing to get somewhere where daily distractions aren’t interfering — somewhere where they can blend with something else that’s bigger than they are. All of their technology and all of their ‘things’ mean nothing out there.”
Mark Harvey, an environmental psychologist as well as a UNCA professor, says the need runs deeper: Connecting with nature is essential to the human psyche. “So much of our lives, in our digitally dominated, industrialized world, are consumed by the focused processing and manipulation of symbols. Time spent in forests and parks helps us recover from that,” he says.
Harvey also speaks about the evolutionary roots of humanity’s need to commune with the natural world, noting several theories that try to explain this aspect of our psyche. Wilderness has the power to “re-wild” the human consciousness, Harvey suggests. “Wilderness provides opportunities for experiencing the raw, untamed, yet self-organizing aspect of our human nature,” he says.
Wilderness-therapy programs rely on this connection and put the theories to practice. “One of the first things that wilderness therapy does is put kids back in contact with the wilderness,” says Shawn Farrell, executive director of SUWS of the Carolinas. The program helps young people overcome behavioral issues, he explains. Being in the wilderness “reduces distractions and provides people a place to sit with themselves. At times that can be really scary, and at times that can be really comfortable,” Farrell says.
“One of the tenets of wilderness therapy is just to provide a place where people can get away from everything else and figure out, ‘Who do I want to be?’” Farrell says. There’s the inherent challenge of surviving in the wilderness — how factors exist that are beyond people’s control (insects, weather, the need for food and shelter), and how those factors force people to take action. In surmounting those challenges, people achieve a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem, he explains.
Sarah Blair Jenkins came to SUWS when she was 17 years old, “experiencing a high level of despair and dejection” and depression in the winter of 2007-2008. Tossed into a wilderness setting, she recalls being “at first terrified.” Now — after coming back to SUWS as a staff member and working in the mental-health field — she says, “The woods completely changed my life [and] led me to be the person I am today.”
“People who come to wilderness therapy are struggling with some aspect of their lives that is out of control,” Farrell says. “Doing things in the wilderness teaches people that they can control things in their lives and that they can make decisions that will make their lives better.”
He also posits that one of the reasons the U.S. government created its system of national parks, forests and wilderness areas in the first place was to provide people with a refuge from an increasingly industrialized world. “The government realized that there was a need to go back and protect these areas, so that people could sit and visit with nature and with themselves,” Farrell says.
In other words, millions of tourists visit wilderness areas each year for a very primal reason.
“I had hiked to the top, going from 3,500 to 11,000 feet,” Voos recalls of one wilderness excursion. “I sat there looking over this valley; I could see for miles. The feeling of the insignificance of me in the world was tremendous — but such a grand setting, the immensity of it all, was overwhelming. And then I realized, ‘This is my church; this is my cathedral.’”
To overlook such moments, or to take the need to do so for granted, would be a travesty. And so, says Harvey, “Repealing or reducing the scope of the Wilderness Act would be … catastrophic.”
Art and activism
“Wilderness is as relevant today as it has ever been. It’s like a lung for this region. It’s where we get our drinking water from; it’s where we get our beer from,” says Brent Martin, regional director of The Wilderness Society’s Southern Appalachian office in Sylva.
To mark the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary, President Obama named September “National Wilderness Month,” Martin mentions. And Wilderness Society founder Howard Zahniser drafted the 1964 legislation, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Modern-day environmentalists like Martin are looking to the future, especially in WNC and the Southern Appalachians. Although 65,000 acres of wilderness have been set aside in WNC’s national forests, that’s less than 7 percent of the total land available for protection, Martin says.
“We’re thinking about what the landscape will look like 50, 500, even 1,000 years from now,” he says. Calling for continued protection, he remarks, “Wilderness is something we are all connected to.”
During a Sept. 5 panel discussion about the Within the Lines exhibit, Martin asked the featured panelists if they thought of themselves as activists as well as artists. The answer was a resounding “yes.”
In the ensuing discussion, Ellison said, “I know these areas aren’t going to be here unless The Wilderness Society protects them. And they have to be protected.”
“Nature and art both touch all of us deep in our souls,” Kincaid joined in. “As artists, what we’re trying to do is bring the wilderness to people.”
“A lot of people don’t go out into the woods. You have to bring awareness, and that’s what we do,” said photographer Charles Seifried.
Kincaid elaborated on his theme. “After a while, I realized that people didn’t go into the woods and didn’t know what was at stake — what they were losing. If I can use photography as a means of sharing how important this is, it’s going to be something that more people can relate to,” she said.
Several of the artists — who spend much of their time observing and recording nature — said that they had come to realize that the more society advanced technologically, the less time people spent communing with nature. “I’m really concerned about how much of our lives are spent in cyberspace,” said painter Robert Johnson (and just as he finished his sentence, someone’s cell phone started ringing). “I’m concerned about losing contact with real space. Wilderness areas connect us with raw spaces as they really are, and I think it is important to keep that connection with basic nature in its pure state.”
Wood summed it up: “Connecting with nature is something that is vital to the sustainability of everyday life. Wilderness preservation is most definitely a part of that connection.”
Looking to the future
The first 50 years of the Wilderness Act has been successful in a number of ways, but many challenges loom on the horizon, say the exhibit artists, organizers, scientists and advocates. “Climate change can wreck everything as we know it,” says Voos, who teaches courses in UNCA’s climate-certification program.
Wilderness areas also become islands, isolating wildlife populations, he adds. “Many wilderness areas are located in the middle of national forests where logging, road-building and other developments are permitted,” Voos says. Others face encroachment from urban development. “The end result is that [these] areas — and the plant and animal species that flourish [there] — are separated from one another,” he explains.
To counter this “island” effect, Voos advocates creating wildlife corridors and buffer zones that would connect the existing wilderness areas. In this system, “Wildlife could live their lives in a realistic manner — without being restricted to these islands,” he says.
Martin says, “As Western North Carolina grows — coupled with energy, water and infrastructure demands — more and more pressure will be placed upon our public lands. We need to protect our public lands to the highest degree possible to ensure that wild places exist for future generations.”
Harvey notes similar concerns, too, and suggests that a life lived in harmony with nature is likely to be more profitable in the long run. He also mentions studies showing that people who spend time in the wilderness (and away from technology’s conveniences) become more self-reliant, experience greater personal benefits and live in a more sustainable manner. In other words, people who connect with nature also tend to work toward preserving it.
As Wood points out, protecting and promoting wilderness areas is about more than hugging trees – it’s about connecting with the very essence of our humanity. “Of course, I am human. Of course, my perception comes from humanity. What I am speaking of, though, is not a perspective that separates humanity from the elk, bear, mountains and trees. I [feel] a great connection with being a human in our world, connected to all the great societies of this Earth. My humanity is something that doesn’t have to be in conflict with the world.”
Within the Lines continues through Wednesday, Nov. 26, at Handmade in America (125 S. Lexington Avenue, Suite 101). Artists with works in the exhibit include Robert Cox, Elizabeth Ellison, Marianne Hall, Lori Kincaid, W.T. Dooley, Doris Gabel, Robert Johnson and Charles Seifried.
The next panel discussion — “Interdisciplinary” — will be held Friday, Oct. 3, at HandMade.
For more information, go to avl.mx.0gz.