Monica Patel is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wilderness Fellow who worked this year at Great Swamp and Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuges in New Jersey and Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. She has a master’s degree in environmental management from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University
What does “wilderness” mean to you? You’ve got to love this answer, credited to a 16th-century European settler:
a “dark and dismal place where all manner of wild beasts dash about uncooked.”
In recent decades, most of us have grown more appreciative of the country’s last remaining wild places.
Lately, I have been thinking about how I view wilderness. It all started with a hike into the woods.
As I hiked in Maine’s Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge congressionally designated wilderness this past summer, I stood stunned at the threshold of a lush forest of magnificent balsam fir. I watched the sun’s rays filter through the dense canopy, illuminating life on the forest floor. Distinct scents filled the forest. I sat on a bed of needles coating the foot trail and in the silence asked myself, “How did I get here?”
I grew up in a bustling city, full of noise and congestion –like so many young people these days. My fondest memories are of playing and exploring my backyard and the few urban parks of the city’s concrete jungle. But the parks’ manicured green patches -- complete with cautionary signs and fences -- were by no means wilderness, a place where one can retreat from civilization.
Retreating from civilization has become harder in this age of technology, when wireless internet, smart phones and social networks have forever changed the way people perceive and interact with each other and nature.
Luckily, I decided to unplug.
I shut off my cell phone, picked up my compass and map and headed for wilderness. Five minutes into my hike, all my senses kicked into high gear. With each step I could feel the chatter of my mind subside. At first, I was apprehensive. Accustomed to all sorts of safety nets, I was entering a new “society,” where nature prevails and requires self-reliance from every visitor.
Before long, the forest opened up to a bog where green sphagnum moss blanketed everything from decaying tree trunks to rocks. There was no beaten-down path or honking traffic; as far as I could tell, only a moose had traversed these parts recently. This was an awesome moment. I felt incredibly connected to something larger and more intricate than I could ever understand, than any technological invention could provide.
Since that moment, wilderness has become for me more than just a place for plants and wildlife. It is a whole greater than the sum of its parts -- a place for solitude and self-discovery. As I continue to discover the meaning of wilderness, I am also uncovering a part of who I am.
The National Wildlife Refuge System has more than 20 million acres of Congressionally designated wilderness in 65 units.