Downtown Asheville on a Friday night is a confetti of street-corner jugglers, sidewalk musical acts, exuberant vendors, hoolahoop artists, drum-circle rhythmists, ogle-eyed tourists and colorful locals oozing individuality. But tucked just beyond the bustling froth, in a space on South Lexington Avenue, a gallery beckons visitors to separate for a moment from the night-life clatter and reconnect with the silence – internal and external – that can only be found in the wilds of nature. On Friday, Oct. 3, Handmade in America hosted the second of three panel discussions that are part of its Within the Lines: Creative Perspectives on Wilderness exhibit.
Presented by The Wilderness Society, the exhibit celebrates the 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Act and includes works by eight artists who are both devoted to and inspired by the natural beauty of the Southern Appalachian region. The second discussion of the exhibit series — Interdisciplinary — lived up to its name as it included a variety of panelists from a variety of backgrounds – each of whom brought his or her own perspective to a discussion that centered on the many challenges wilderness conservation faces in the 21st century.
Panelists included Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, executive director of the Cherokee Foundation; Will Harlan, author of Untamed – The Wildest Woman in American and the Fight for Cumberland Island; Jay Leutze, best known for his book Stand Up That Mountain; Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian regional director of The Wilderness Society; Dr. Kathryn Newfront, author and environmental historian at Mars Hill University; and Rev. Mark Ward of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
The variety of the panel members extended to the audience as well. Many local and regional conservationists were in attendance, and discussion was lively even before the panel itself began. Brent Martin talked about the issues around conservation with which society was wrestling. “Tonight’s panel is getting into some of those issues,” he said. “Young people, especially, are getting more and more disconnected from nature. The real challenge is to get young people reconnected with wilderness.”
Martin went on to mention the part that the SAWS (Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards) program played in enjoining young people to interact with wilderness. Brenna Irrer, the SAWS outreach coordinator, was also in attendance and talked about how SAWS recruited young people to assist in the stewardship of designated Wilderness Area, taught them how to maintain trails and educated them on why Wilderness Areas are such an important resource.
Stephen Wood, a composer, performer and naturalist who has been affiliated with the exhibit since it opened, talked about a Wilderness Area performance series that he’d been coordinating from his residence in Atlanta. Wood said that each artist who was part of the series attended a seminar at a given Wilderness Area and then created a piece inspired directly by that venue. The idea behind the series, he said, was to explore the connections between communities, conservation groups and their local Wilderness Areas. “Our perspective of wilderness begins inside,” Wood said. “The wilderness of the mind affects our connection with nature.”
Other local conservationists on hand included Josh Kelly of the Western North Carolina Alliance and Mary Ellen Dendy of the Southern Appalachian Office of The Wilderness Society.
By the time the panel itself got underway, discussion was lively and the approximately 60-person audience was eager to hear what the speakers had to say. Taylor Barnhill of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition moderated the evening’s talks. After he introduced the panelists, he warned them that “We’re going to make you work tonight.” Barnhill lived up to his promise, opening the discussion with a dire question: “Is wilderness as an idea really dead?”
Harlan chimed in early, saying, “I don’t think wilderness excludes people, I think it invites people. Walking into the wilderness is like walking into a church: It changes people’s behavior, if only for an hour.”
Rev. Ward followed up on the spiritual tone of Harlan’s comment, noting that, “There’s been this incredible thing that’s happened in the last 50 years. We’ve turned a corner, and now people are re-imagining old Biblical passages as directions to conserve nature.” Ward continued, “The challenge is to realize how we are fed spiritually by the wilderness. It helps drive larger movements in our culture. The question is: How do we articulate that?”
Leutze picked up on that theme, proposing that, “We will not have advocacy for wilderness unless we have people who have had experiences that thrust them back in time. People have to hear the message and have the experience. A lot of that involves dragging people into the woods. We have to sell this idea to a new generation of investors.”
Discussion of just how to secure those “investors” then ensued. As Harlan put it, “Overpopulation is the elephant in the room. How are all these people going to recreate on public lands that are not growing?”
Dr. Newfront agreed with Harlan’s observation, saying “That’s a tricky wicket.”
Martin expanded on those concerns, discussing the problematic nature of selling wilderness conservation politically. “The future of the wilderness is what concerns me,” Martin said. “Is wilderness dead? That question scares me. A lot of people are attacking wilderness who, historically, would not have,” he continued.
All of the panelists seemed to agree that the fundamental problem underlying wilderness conservation is the separation that now exists between people and nature. Dr. Newfront explained that native people did not even have a word for “wilderness,” because they did not see themselves as being separated from the land. Now, in order to protect any tracts of nature from urban sprawl and unceasing development, boundaries must be legislated. As Leutze put it, “I think we are in grave danger of losing our last, best opportunity to preserve wild places.”
Moderator Barnhill’s next question continued the discussion on the fate of our remaining Wilderness Areas. “Does the limiting of wilderness protection mean we’re facing a crisis?” he asked.
Again, the panelists all expressed concerns about negotiating conservation efforts in a politically divided, commercially driven society. Leutze was the first to chime in, saying, “This is the kind of tradeoff we’re very uncomfortable with. It feels wrong making these tradeoffs and striking these deals, but we’re living in an economic universe.”
Martin agreed. “We do operate in a difficult political time,” he said. “As the political climate has gotten more toxic, these deals are the kinds we have to make.”
Harlan brought up the issue of climate change as well. “We are going to have to deal with climate change. We need to uphold the letter of the Wilderness Act as much as we can,” he said. He also noted that, “The only place I find hope is to expand equality to nature as well.”
Barnhill then invited questions from the audience, many of which concerned the same themes. The idea of recruiting younger generations resurfaced prominently. As Clapsaddle put it, “It does my heart good that there’s a new generation discovering wilderness even if it has to be through TV.” She continued, “Always remember that youth should be learning right alongside adults how important conservation is to our future.”
Another question that garnered significant discussion involved whether or not there was any wiggle room in the Wilderness Act for re-envisioning how wild areas are protected.
While Martin acknowledged that the Act did have some flexibility, he warned that making changes to the policy brought inherent dangers as well. “Changing the Wilderness Act opens a Pandora’s Box for all the bad things that could possibly get in there,” he said. “I fear that opening up the Wilderness Act is like a snake eating its own tail – we don’t want to admit that we’re the problem,” he added.
Other panelists agreed. Dr. Newfront said, “The Wilderness Act is about the brightest and most protective line for conserving areas that we’re ever going to get. I think if we revisit the Wilderness Act, we’re going to come away with something weaker.”
Although the questions posed at the Interdisciplinary panel raised daunting issues, a sense of enthusiasm and hope pervaded as the night drew to a close. The Within the Lines exhibit is, it would seem, about more than just celebrating the Wilderness Act’s first 50 years – it is also about planning for another 50 years of conservation, sustainability and reverence. Rev. Ward said, “I define faith as where your heart finds peace. That’s a pretty clear connection, to me at least, with the natural world.”
The third and final “Within the Lines” panel discussion – “Writers” – is slated for Friday, Nov. 7, at Handmade in America (125 S. Lexington Avenue, Suite 101). A reception will begin at 6 p.m., and the panel will follow from 6:30 until 8 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.
More details can be found at www.southeastwilderness50.org.
To see more of photographer Lori Kincaid’s work, visit her website at kincaidphoto.com. She’s one of the artists whose work is featured in the Within the Lines exhibit.
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