What is “wilderness”?
In the United States, we have a very specific, legal definition of the term. The Wilderness Act of 1964 (Public Law 88–577) defines wilderness as such:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
The American government defines wilderness as a road-less, car-less area, with no electricity or other modern conveniences. The use of motorized vehicles or other types of mechanized transport devices is strictly prohibited in these legally protected areas.
To many, the United States is looked at as a model for environmental protection and conservation initiatives. Yet if the American idea of wilderness really is to protect places where “man and his own works” do not “dominate the landscape,” there is a problem with many of the wilderness areas I’ve visited in the US. The overwhelming imprints of modern man are well apparent beyond the obvious things like roads, cars, electricity, and buildings. Airplane contrails crisscross the skies during the day, and numerous satellites blaze their trails across that same sky at night. Bridges and other trail improvements have been carefully engineered to make backcountry travel both safe and speedy. And although not nearly as obvious, even the very fabric of the landscape itself has been unmistakably altered.
Everywhere, pristine outdoor wilderness is covered by the heavy fingerprints of man, disguised by a thin veneer of wildness. It’s virtually impossible to escape. In countless ways both seen and unseen, the ecosystems we have worked so hard to set aside and maintain as natural have become strange hybrids—part natural, part man-made, struggling for balance all while under the watchful eye of human management. This is the new natural.
In contrast to the American ideal of wilderness, the Tuli Wilderness in eastern Botswana is crisscrossed by roads, traversed daily by vehicles, and features permanent inhabitants who live in a few houses connected to the electrical grid. But the roads that mark the landscape of the Tuli hardly disqualify the area from being referred to as wilderness. I’ve hiked on trails through wilderness areas in and near Yosemite National Park that are much more eroded and have caused much more significant damage to the natural environment than many of the roads in the Tuli Wilderness have. And while the American wilderness is defined as a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” man has been present in the Tuli Wilderness for probably as long as humans and their immediate ancestors have been on earth. Man is an inextricable part of this wilderness.
In the end, “wilderness” is just a word, used by different people, in different ways, to describe different things. I preferred bundu. The word “bundu.” It’s a less restrictive definition of wild places, not bound by strict legal mandates. It’s more…natural.
Even though the Tuli Wilderness may not be “wilderness” by the American definition, it is one of the wildest places I have ever had the privilege of visiting. I guess that true wilderness is where you find it…
This blog post is excerpted from my new book, Back to the Bundu, now available on Amazon.com.
In January 1976, I moved to South Africa. I was 13 years old. It was my first time out of the United States. It was my first time on an airplane. But it wasn’t my first time moving away from home: for as long as I could remember, we had been moving, from one southern California suburb to the next. Changing schools and having to make new friends was always unpleasant. But this was different. I was moving halfway around the planet, to a strange, foreign land.
My apprehension was tempered by excitement. After all, this wasn’t just another cookie-cutter southern California suburb we were moving to; it was Africa. I yearned for it to be an amazing adventure.
And it was.
I saw large, wild animals in their native habitat. I spent countless hours wandering through the brush and grasslands by myself. I entered high school, made new friends, and attempted to learn a new language. I experienced riots, unthinkable repression, and even war. I hiked across the stunning high plains and tasted some of the best that Africa had to offer. I built cool things, explored interesting places, and reached for the stars.
My move to South Africa took place more than 35 years ago. I think about my time there frequently, reliving the unforgettable experiences of my adolescence. But only recently was I able to put all of those experiences into context. Although I only lived there for a short time, it happened during an important stage: my transition from child to adult. And this is the story of the most disturbing thing I saw while I was down in Africa.
Once we moved out of our temporary quarters at the Johannesburg Holiday Inn and settled into South African suburbia, I began attending Florida Park High School in Roodepoort, just a couple of miles down the hill from our townhouse in Quellerina. In a country ruled by the iron fist of apartheid, I wasn’t surprised to be attending a whites-only school. But I hadn’t realized that in a society so heavily steeped in divisiveness, there was even a division between whites: the great English / Afrikaans divide.
Afrikaans is a language which evolved in southern Africa from the Dutch speaking peoples who settled there in the 1600s. A good friend of mine from Belgium, who spoke fluent Dutch, once described her experience on an extended trip she took through Botswana and South Africa with horror as such:
“It was so weird, it was like everyone was speaking some sort of strange 17th century Dutch dialect…”
Even though I was attending an English high school, all English speaking whites were required by law to take classes and become fluent in Afrikaans. (The opposite was also true—native Afrikaans speakers were required to learn English in the Afrikaans school as well.) English speakers like me who were dropped in to this alien territory without being exposed to Afrikaans since our first day of kindergarten were obligated to take “Immigrant Afrikaans” classes—accelerated language training that, at least in theory, would in very short time let the slow kids like me “catch up” with the rest of the class.
On my first day in Afrikaans class, the teacher put me in a corner and had me listen to a recording of 20 basic Afrikaans words. I then took home a piece of paper with those words on it, to study that night. The next morning in class, she said “So, you’ve memorized those 20 words”—it was more of a declarative statement than a question—”now let’s move on to the next 20.” I immediately knew I was in trouble. Deep trouble.
In the United States, we use the “A/B/C/D/F” grading system, where “F” stands for “fail” and is the lowest grade you can get. But in many places outside the U.S., you can actually be more stupid than getting an “F”. My first term grade in Afrikaans class ended up being a miserable 23%. Yes, I got an “H” in Afrikaans.
Ironically, the Soweto riots in 1976 were originally started by high school students just like me—black high school students no more than 10 miles away from my school—who were protesting the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which required all black schools in South Africa to teach classes half in English and half in Afrikaans. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with learning Afrikaans.
Apartheid was an elaborate architecture for racial segregation, practiced in South Africa for more than 45 years. Many people oversimplify apartheid as a “black / white” thing, but it was more complicated than that, taking into account races other than black and white, and mixed race people as well.
Protests and uprisings against apartheid and related policies took place across South Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, led by Nelson Mandela and others. In June of 1976, there was yet another uprising, this time in the town of Soweto. But this uprising was different. It caught the attention of the nation and the world, shining a new light on the dark condition of apartheid.
From the standpoint of ending the injustices of apartheid in South Africa, the Soweto riots of 1976 were a failure. But their real success was in bringing the apartheid situation to the forefront on the international stage. “Soweto”, a non-descript shanty town west of Johannesburg, quickly became a household name; a symbol for a South African government out of step with modern ideas about equality and freedom, a term synonymous with injustice.
Mandela himself was imprisoned about a week before I was born; while I lived in South Africa, he was incarcerated at the notorious Robben Island Prison. He wasn’t released from prison until 1990. Three years later he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and then in 1994 was awarded the ultimate redemption when he became president of South Africa.
The Soweto riots did not the end apartheid. But they certainly marked the beginning of the end.
I vividly remember that afternoon in shop class at Florida Park High School. It was Wednesday, June 16th, 1976. Word was passed down to each classroom from the school administration. Our teacher shared the news with us rather bluntly:
“The blacks are rioting.”
We all huddled around an old AM radio trying to hear what was going on. There was tension in the air, not unlike that thick, heavy feeling as the skies darken right before the clouds burst open with a violent thunderstorm. It was unclear how far the riots had spread out from Soweto, and whether or not our bus route home that afternoon would be affected. In fact, we were at least 5, probably closer to 10 miles north of any reported violence, and the ruling white government cracked down hard on the rioters to make sure that the violence stayed relatively in a relatively confined area. But that did little to ease the tension.
Fearing the worst, several students began to arm themselves with large bolts and scraps of metal from shop class, which they placed in the front pockets of their school blazers. On the ride home, everyone was on high alert, positioned at the windows, scanning for signs of attack. For a few minutes, I was caught up in the frenzy, before I realized that we were all just a bunch of rich white kids living in a safe community. We were in no apparent danger from anyone, and even if we were, there was nothing we could really do about it.
I sat back in detached indifference and watched the events unfold as if watching a show on television. As the bus drove along the road, a core group of agitators got themselves more and more worked up. But there was nothing going on out there on the streets. No attacks. No threats. Not even a peaceful demonstration.
At some point, my schoolmates could no longer contain their nervous energy. Boredom is an evil motivator.
Why wait for the inevitable attack? They quickly changed from defensive mode to offensive mode, and made the decision to strike first.
And that’s when things got real ugly.
The unlucky victim was a young black man, probably in his mid-twenties, walking home from the store. He wore a dark hat and dirty suit which were probably 20 years out of style, and in each hand he held a bag of groceries. A random student on the bus pointed at this random victim, yelled something to his partners in crime, and then a flurry of assorted bits and pieces of shrapnel started flying out of the windows of the moving bus.
One large chunk of scrap metal met its mark, striking the unsuspecting victim squarely in the abdomen. He let out a squeal of pain as he dropped to his knees, then he doubled over on the pavement, both hands releasing the bags of groceries to clutch the point of impact in his midsection. My fellow students on the bus let out a collective roar, cheering loudly as if they had won not just the latest battle in the uprising, but the entire race war.
As the bus chugged along, the driver seemingly oblivious or possibly just indifferent to the injustice which had just taken place, I looked back and saw the poor man on the ground, writhing in pain, as the canned goods from his now empty bags scattered, rolling down the pavement.
It was one of the most disturbing things I have ever witnessed in my life.
Up to that point, apartheid had been sort of an abstract concept to me. Sure, I was living in the thick of it, and it obviously affected everyone and everything around me. But I felt somehow removed from the whole struggle these people were experiencing, an emotional distance which was there probably because I was just a temporary visitor in this strange land, and probably also because I was white and was not myself a victim of the institutionalized discrimination blacks suffered under apartheid. But I had now seen firsthand the ugly face of it. The day I saw that man—the man who just happened to have dark-colored skin—drop down in the street, a chunk of scrap metal smashing his gut as well as his dignity to bits, it all became very, very real.
A society built on a foundation of contempt for people who are different cannot last.
This story is excerpted from Matt Artz’s book Down to Africa.
In June of this year, the National Academy of Sciences released a report examining the likelihood of earthquakes being induced by underground energy technologies in which there is a net deposit or withdrawal of fluids—on other words, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), CO2 sequestration, and geothermal energy extraction. The study concluded that all of these technologies “have at least the potential to induce earthquakes that could be felt by people” and recommended these impacts be mitigated by using techniques which “maintain a balance between the amounts of fluid being injected and withdrawn.” In other words, the National Academy of Sciences did not call for an end to fracking because of the likelihood that it would lead to an increase in earthquakes; they instead suggested a solution based on sound science.
Potentially much more significant than “earthquakes that could be felt by people” (but may cause little or no actual injury or damage) is the scenario where critical groundwater resources are contaminated by fracking and other underground energy technologies. The gas industry says fracking is absolutely safe. Environmental groups and concerned citizens say it is not. The true answer will only be found through sound, unbiased science. But where is this science?
A few studies have looked at the likelihood that fracking can cause groundwater contamination, such as a recent study by Duke University and California State Polytechnic University at Pomona that examined shallow aquifers in Pennsylvania (PNAS, 09 July 2012). The results have been inconclusive, and thus easily framed by either side of the debate thanks to their confirmation bias.
It’s time for the Department of Energy to call on National Academy of Sciences to examine all of the scientific evidence and deliver an impartial, peer-reviewed consensus report on the subject. This is what they do. The true believers on either side may choose to ignore those parts of the report that conflict with their mental models, but those of us who base our decision making on rational science can move forward in a way that balances both economic and environmental concerns.
By Matt Artz
Botswana is an interesting case study in what a country can do right in Africa. When Botswana first gained independence from the British in 1966, it had a GDP per capita of just $70. A paltry 22 citizens out of a population of 2 million had graduated from college, and only about 100 were high school graduates. The physical infrastructure was practically non-existent: in the entire country, there was less than 10 miles of paved roadway.
Soon after independence, diamonds were discovered in Botswana. The country is now one of the world’s largest producers of diamonds, but has for the most part avoided the “resource curse”—the trap often seen where countries more heavily reliant on mineral exports experience more slowly growing economies. This “curse” is actually a practical result of poor wealth management in the face of a windfall. A poor country that suddenly finds itself sitting on one of the world’s largest diamond deposits is like a poor person struggling to pay their rent who suddenly wins $50 million in the lottery. While it sounds like an amazing stroke of luck, rarely do these situations work out as well as envisioned for the country—or for the lottery winner.
But Botswana is one of those rare examples that bucks the trend. It’s an amazing success story. Careful management of its mineral wealth has transformed the country from one of the 25 poorest in the world to a thriving upper-middle income economy over the course of just a few decades. By 2012, literacy had increased to near 80%, and GDP per capita had risen from $70 to an astounding $16,200. Today, Botswana is one of the fastest growing—and least corrupt—countries in Africa.
One of the ways that Botswana managed to avoid the “resource curse” was to become less dependent on the revenues from the mining sector. The country did this by pursuing a strategy of economic diversification. And one of the keys to this strategy was to leverage its rich wildlife resources and abundant natural beauty for tourism. In fact, tourism is now an important component of the economy, and its importance in growing every year.
In his State of the Nation address on November 5th, 2012, Botswana’s President, Lt. Gen. Ian Khama, doubled down on this strategy by declaring that by the end of next year Botswana will implement a complete ban on commercial hunting of wildlife on public lands:
“Of additional concern is the rise in cross border and domestic poaching incidents and trafficking of live predators, which are the subject of our new and evolving National Anti-Poaching Strategy. At the same time we have reached the decision to stop the commercial hunting of wildlife in public areas from 2014 as the shooting of wild game purely for sport and trophies is no longer compatible with our commitment to preserve local fauna as a national treasure, which should be treated as such.”
It’s a bold move, but not unprecedented in Africa. In 1976, Kenya instituted a similar ban.
While conservationists and photographic ecotourism operators have applauded Botswana’s move, it is not without controversy. Some argue that a complete ban on trophy hunting is a recipe for disaster in terms of poaching, and point to Kenya’s ban as a case in point. Prior to the ban, hunting concessions were granted for specific areas, and operators were responsible for managing their territories and controlling poaching. With the ban on trophy hunting in 1976, the protection offered by the operators evaporated, and some observers say that poaching increased drastically thereafter.
In some areas of Botswana, such as the Tuli Wilderness in southeastern corner of the country, management of elephant populations has been so wildly successful that the animals are overrunning the area and beginning to damage the natural ecosystem. Culling of wild animals is always a contentious proposition, but it’s a management technique that’s often necessary when humans significantly alter an ecosystem and need to stage interventions to regain a semblance of naturalness. Some point out that commercial hunting of animals which will be killed by culling anyway is a win-win—it achieves the desired goal of reducing wild populations to a sustainable level while still contributing to the economy.
Will President Khama’s initiative have the desired result and “preserve local fauna as a national treasure”? Will it damage the tourism industry as hunters choose vacations in other countries where hunting is still allowed? Will it lead to an increase in poaching? Only time will tell, but on a continent plagued by mismanagement, poverty, corruption, and resource problems, Botswana’s transition from away big game hunting to purely photographic ecotourism is yet another courageous move by a country with a remarkable track record.
By Matt Artz
The relationship between humans and nature is defined by change.
We evolved as did other animals—just one small piece of a very complex ecosystem. This changed radically when we began to leverage technology in an ill-guided attempt to subjugate that complex ecosystem and exploit its resources, with little or no consideration for anything beyond ourselves. This was the age of exploitation.
When we began to understand the devastating effects of mass exploitation on the earth, we reacted with conservation. For all the successes, the age of conservation is not without its problems; we were conserving and preserving dramatic, representative, and remnant pieces of ecosystems, but in the process we were still losing whole ecosystems.
So what’s the next logical step in the evolution of our relationship with nature?
It’s the age of design.
It’s about actively creating an environment ideal for both humans and nature.
And it’s driven by technology.
Technology is the New Natural
Humans are incredibly smart, and have an amazing array of technologies available to extend their abilities. We may not be able to fully restore the complete ecosystems we have damaged or destroyed, but we now have the scientific and technical ability to design them—and to do it in such a way that we can meet both our need for resources and our desire for conservation.
In the age of exploitation, we asked: “Is this good for me?”
In the age of conservation, we asked: “Is this good for the environment?”
In the age of design, we ask “Is it good for me AND good for the planet?”
It’s a much more complex question that requires a much more reasoned response—a response informed by science and enabled by technology. Aided by new technology, we are at the dawn of a new era in man’s relationship with the environment: the age of designing. As we move from exploiting nature, through conserving nature, to the new paradigm of proactively designing nature, we are redefining what it means to be masters of our environment.
By Matt Artz
Roads and highways, gas and electricity and water distribution systems, wastewater collection and treatment systems, railroads, airports, cable television, the Internet … all are important components of our infrastructure, upon which we rely every day. Together they form a sort of man-made ecosystem.
If we can think of our human-built environment as a man-made ecosystem, can’t we also think of the natural environment as a form of infrastructure?
As we move from a practice of stove piping knowledge and towards a new philosophy of systems thinking and consilience, the inter-relatedness of everything becomes apparent, and we begin to realize something very important: in this new world we find ourselves in—a world of our own design—there is really just one infrastructure.
A convergence is upon us: the convergence of infrastructures. The lines we have drawn in the past are already beginning to blur, and in a decade or two those lines will be completely gone. Man-made infrastructure and natural ecosystems will be recognized as the same thing, and they will be managed and designed using the same tried and true tools and techniques.
We already see instances where the line between infrastructure and nature is blurred. When a flood control project alters the course of a polluted urban stream, and part of the environmental mitigation is to restore the riverine habitat to make it usable again by native flora and fauna, it becomes more than just an engineering project. We’re not just designing a flood control project: we’re designing nature.
Our problems are many, our problems are complex, and our problems are hopelessly intertwined and inter-related. So why do we still insist on dissecting and parsing everything? Solving these problems requires an integrated, unified approach.
Stove pipe solutions in isolation from one another is the way of the past. Such solutions may be seen as successfully fixing the problem in a microcosm, out of the larger context, but at the systems level—especially at the earth systems level—they are doomed to failure. Or even worse: they may do more harm than good, throwing the entire system out of balance and wreaking havoc.
This convergence of ecosystems and infrastructures is ultimately made possible because many of the same tools, techniques, and technologies beneficial to natural ecosystems can also benefit man-made ecosystems, and vice versa.
We are finally approaching an era where we will be able to see both natural and man-made ecosystems as what they really are: a single, integrated system; a vast human-dominated landscape to be analyzed, modeled, exploited, preserved, enjoyed, designed, built, and managed as a single infrastructure. All watched over by machines of living grace…
By Matt Artz
“Without the possibility of death,
adventure is not possible.”
—Reinhold Messner, Mountaineer
Quotes like this one from Reinhold Messner feed the stereotype that extreme outdoor adventurers have some sort of sick death wish. And while not a direct quote, I can paraphrase what I’ve heard a lot of rock climbers, mountaineers, and other outdoor adventurers say by the following statement:
The closer you get to death without dying, the more you feel alive.
In my own experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, mountaineering, rock climbing, mountain biking, or doing almost anything else in the outdoors truly can make you feel alive—and you can also die in the pursuit of such “extreme” activities. But look at the statistics. You’re much more likely to die doing something mundane. Like driving. Or walking.
While researching Eastern Sierra paddling spots on the Internet, I ran across a sobering story about Klondike Lake.
Klondike Lake is nondescript little body of water right off the side of Highway 395 in California. It’s kind of hard to see from the highway, even though the landscape is flat and barren, with vegetation no more than waist high throughout. You would probably never notice it was there unless somebody told you about it.
In January 2006, a 30-year-old kayaker named Gilbert Freewald was found dead on the southern shore of Klondike Lake. Apparently he had exited his vehicle and slipped on the ice on the shore, falling head first into the lake, knocking him unconscious. He drowned, by himself, before he even had a chance to remove the kayak strapped to the roof of his car.
The last time I saw my friend and co-worker Phil alive was when he, Tom, and I went rock climbing on some easy to moderate face and crack climbs up at Deep Creek Narrows.
Phil was crazy. We would climb to the top of the rock, and when it came time to belay us down, Phil would let us drop almost in a free-fall, and then just a few feet before hitting the ground he would quickly “catch” us with the rope. Tom and I were a little shaken up by this, but Phil just laughed. He knew exactly what he was doing. His expert command of the ropes came from his many years of both rock climbing and working with the search-and-rescue crew.
A few years later, two teenagers drugged up on Jimson weed were reported missing in Joshua Tree National Park. On the drive out there early one morning to help in the search for the young men, Phil died in a tragic traffic accident—a head-on collision caused by a drunk driver.
Remember the mountain biker who died in Southern California in a mountain lion attack back in 2004? It was all over the news. A grand total of 6 people have died of mountain lion attacks in California since 1890. Meanwhile, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people die of influenza in the United States each year, but you don’t hear a whole lot about that epidemic. And nearly 100 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents in the United States each day, but there is little interest in this tragedy. What you do hear about is the small handful of people who die as a result of outdoor activities.
When someone you knows dies of a heart attack attributable to a poor diet, 20 years later do you re-tell that story to every person you see eating a cheeseburger and fries? No. Then why is it that if someone hears about someone dying in some sort of spectacular outdoor accident, it dominates our interest? It seems that we give all of our attention to what is rare and spectacular, while what is constant and widespread becomes mundane and thus completely ignored.
I’m not trying to say that there is not a high level of risk associated with some outdoor activities. What I’m trying to say is that as a society, the amount of attention we expend on each of these is totally out of proportion with reality.
In my life, I’ve know a lot of people, and I’ve known a fair number who have died. Most have died in the most mundane, commonplace ways, while very few have died while pursuing what they loved most. And each death is a tragedy in itself, no matter what the cause.
The outdoor lifestyle is not a death wish. It’s a love affair with life.
By Matt Artz