New England Wilderness

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(HOST) Wilderness is as much a concept as a location. Commentator Tom Slayton has been thinking about New England’s highly accessible wilderness.

(SLAYTON) We don’t normally think of New England as a wilderness locale, though it actually has plenty of wild natural places. Some of them are so close to civilization that they don’t seem like true wilderness; yet if you get lost in them, you will quickly discover that wilderness is not such an abstract concept after all.

Earlier this fall, some friends and I took a long walk through the Province Lands of Cape Cod – the undeveloped acres of sand dunes and beach grass out behind Provincetown.

It was raining and blowing, but we really didn’t care. The sound
of the sea is loudest after a storm, and we liked that. We trudged through the wet sand, the pounding surf loud in our ears. When we climbed the final wall of dunes and looked out over the heaving gray sea, the sound was even louder. We clambered over more sandy hills until we came to a broad, marshy plain, where a huge flock, hundreds and hundreds of rough-winged swallows sat resting. Had they taken shelter from the raging ocean while migrating? Or perhaps they had blundered from the mainland out to this spit of sand. As we approached, they all flew off, leaving us to speculate on the reason for their presence.

Nature often poses such unanswerable questions. The mysteries of a wild environment are part of the reason we enjoy it, after all.

Back in Vermont, the following weekend, we sampled a different kind of wilderness, and climbed White Rocks, a small, steep nubbin of a peak in the Worcester Range. It had snowed a few days before – not enough to require snowshoes, but enough to make the going icy, especially on the steeper, rocky parts. The upper reaches of the mountain looked like midwinter in the hall of the Mountain King – every tree frosty white and sparkling.

From near the top, the snowy landscape spread out below us in all directions. We watched as the sky turned from bright blue to gray, and the next weather system began blowing in. We had to pick our way down the mountain carefully to avoid slipping on the icy rocks. It was getting colder.

Fortunately, within a couple of hours we were all driving homeward, headed for the warmth of Sunday afternoon kitchens and hearths.

That seems to be the way it is with New England’s wilderness. It isn’t often vast or awe-inspiring, but it is close at hand. Maybe it isn’t true wilderness at all, but something Henry David Thoreau would have simply called “wildness.”

Wilderness – a classic western kind of wilderness anyway – might be hard to find around here. But wildness is everywhere, close at hand, easy to find and savor.

It’s as close as the birds at your feeder, as small as dandelions and as immense as the vast northern forest that stretches into Canada. Wildness can kill us if we trifle with it. Yet it also supports and sustains the life of each one of us.

Which may be why it feels so good to sample it – and then return, to our other home.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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