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Defending the Narrative of Wildness

July 26, 2018

 

From my house in eastern Salt Lake County, I’m a ten minute drive then a ten minute walk to the Mount Olympus Wilderness—the big W, political designation kind of Wilderness—and every July, I can’t get enough of these beautiful slopes and peaks and draws in the Wasatch Mountains. This year, the trails are dry and dusty, the wildflowers fading fast under too-dry skies. But the canyons are cool and small streamlets still trickle, and I’m grateful to have forests of firs and aspen to retreat to as the asphalt city bakes. This respite of wildness renews my spirit and rejuvenates my energy, essential stuff as Torrey House Press stands ever stronger to fight for public lands with story. Utah’s congressional delegation and the executive branch race to roll back protections, accelerating destruction that would wipe out hard-fought gains, and it’s starkly clear that every purple aster or redtail hawk I see in the mountains above my house is there because storytellers long before me spoke from the heart about beauty.  

 

People have been telling stories about their surroundings since people started talking, of course. How many humans over how many millennia have walked the Wasatch Mountains, returning home to share the year’s first columbine blossom or the hidden shake of a rattlesnake, politely identifying itself? But the narrative of wildness got pretty lost as colonizers exploited continents and populations boomed. Called to a moral defense of the natural world, writers like Susan Fenimore Cooper, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Terry Tempest Williams, asked folks to wake up to wild beauty, taking readers into the places they loved. Some of their words compelled action, including the very act of Congress that make my walks in the Wasatch possible.

 

Wallace Stegner’s 1960 Wilderness Letter is worth a ceremonial read each year as a reminder that words matter and make a difference. Plus, it’s beautiful. When my spouse Mark Bailey and I got married, my son read a portion of Stegner’s Wilderness Letter during our ceremony in Capitol Reef National Park, and I think of its power and eloquence every time I hike by a sign announcing a Wilderness. “We simply need that wild  country available to us,” Stegner insisted. “For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” His letter inspired and informed the Wilderness Act of 1964, which enables the highest levels of landscape protection, allowing plants, animals, and ecosystems to flourish without industrial or residential development in over 100 million acres in 44 states—about 5% of the entire United States land mass. Contrary to the assertions of protection opponents, people have open access to these splendid public lands via foot, horse, and paddle—traveling as people have for thousands of years—and some of America’s most scenic byways take folks by car through the forests, mountains, and deserts that contain America’s 765 Wilderness areas.

 

The Wilderness Act and the wilderness idea are under attack, with all the levers of power at the hands of those who would—and do—turn nature’s splendor into false flags of fear and exclusion. They strive to control the narrative as much as the landscape. But the compelling human truths found in our connections with the plants and animals of our home grounds are not available to these short-sighted extractors. At Torrey House Press, it’s our job to speak truth and beauty to the forces that would abandon wild places and creatures to greed and destruction. And we are poised and ready to do it, with the strongest staff in our history and a growing list of fantastic authors. As the only nonprofit literary press focusing on conservation through literature, the books we publish bring to the page important stories that sustain the spirit, inspire action, and share essential beauty. We’re filling a vital role in the conservation movement, and we need your help to do it. Please join us by making a gift today.

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