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A Different Kind of Wild

May 24, 2013

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.

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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.

product_thumbnail.phpIn 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…

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This story is excerpted from Matt Artz’s book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ].

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