Understanding the Value of Wild Places

Wilderness reminds Barbara Kingsolver of man's place in the world, and that the choices we make today will matter a great deal in the future.

| October/November 2001

One day not long ago I had to pull myself out of my writerly trance, having become aware of a presence over my left shoulder. I turned my head slowly to meet the gaze of an adolescent bobcat at my window. Whether he meant to be the first to read the story on my computer screen, or was lured in by his own reflection in the quirky afternoon light, I can't say. I can tell you, though, that I held my breath and looked straight into bronze-colored bobcat eyes for longer than I knew I could hold my breath. After two moments (his and mine) that were surely not equal — for a predator routinely passes hours without an eye blink, while a human can grow restless inside 10 seconds — we broke eye contact.

He turned and minced away, languidly, tail flicking, for all the world a cat. I presume he returned to the routine conjectures and risks and remembered scents that make up his bobcat life, and I returned to mine, mostly. But some part of my brain drifted after him for the rest of the day, stalking the taste of dove, examining a predator's patience from the inside.

It's a grand distraction, this window of mine. "Beauty and grace are performed," says Annie Dillard, "whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there." I agree, and tend to work where the light is good. This window is the world opening onto me. I find I don't look out, so much as it pours in.

I consider myself lucky beyond words to go to work every morning with something like wilderness at my elbow.

What I mean to say is I have come to depend on these places where I write. I've grown accustomed to looking up from the page and letting my eyes relax on a landscape upon which no human artifact intrudes. No steel, pavement, or streetlights, no architecture lovely or otherwise, no works of public art or private enterprise — no hominid agenda. I consider myself lucky beyond words to go to work every morning with these wild places at my elbow. In the way of so-called worldly things, I can't seem to muster a desire for kitchen gadgets or cable TV or to drive anything flashier than a dirt-colored sedan that is older than the combined ages of my children. My tastes are much more extreme: I want wood-thrush poetry. I want mountains.

It would not be quite right to say I have these things. The places where I write aren't exactly mine. In some file drawer we do have mortgages and deeds, pieces of paper (made of dead trees, mostly pine, I should think), which satisfy me in the same way that the wren yammering his territorial song from my rain gutter has satisfied himself that all is right with his world. I have my ostensible claim, but the truth is these places own me: They hold my history, my passions and my capacity for honest work. I find I do my best thinking when I am looking out over a clean plank of planet Earth. Apparently I need this starting point — the world as it appeared before people bent it to their myriad plans — in order to begin dreaming up my own myriad, imaginary hominid agenda.

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