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May 1998

A Blank Spot On The Map

We travel to New Mexico's Aldo Leopold Wilderness to understand the roots of the preservation movement and see just how far we've come.

“If I had to design a bad place to be in a lightning storm,” I say to Jim finally, “this would be it.” But luck is with us. We seem to be playing tag with the storms, huddling down in lower protected saddles when the worst of them smack the ridgelines, then making runs over the exposed sections beneath a cap of blue sky while boiling cauldrons of clouds brew up another storm just behind us. It is a nerve-wracking way to travel but we make good time.

In a moment of rain-washed sunlight, we step into a glade of aspen trees so beautiful we both stop in our tracks. Maybe it is the relief from the fear we’ve been hiking with, but the place seems to shine with an uncommon beauty. I think of Leopold: “And if you have come quietly and humbly, as you should to any spot that can be beautiful only once.” The light is perfect, a liquid green sifting through the leaves. In the wind, still restlessly whipping the ridges, the trunk of each tree sways slightly as if in a dance.

For all of his efforts at articulating the reasons for preserving wilderness-recreation, preservation of species, laboratories for science-there has always been something in moments like this beyond the reach of words, even for him. At one point, he resorts to calling it “numenom,” a philosophical term for an imponderable essence. But later admits his inability to put it down on paper. “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty,” he wrote. “It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”

This moment, in this aspen grove, with the trees bathed in this light, is one of those times.

After what appears to be the storm’s final volley, the trail tops out again near the summit of Hillsboro Peak. Our five-day circle is closed. We set up our final camp beneath the last tatters of clouds, watching the slow light of sunset spread across the distance, tingeing the hills a deep blue.

Aldo Leopold’s accomplishments go beyond the preservation of this small stretch of wilderness. His writings on the “Land Ethic” and his theories on the human place in the complex web of nature, have been the foundation for much of the ecological movement. It is likely that, if he were alive, he would not care to revisit his old haunts. “It is the part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness,” he wrote, “for the more golden the lily, the more certain that someone has gilded it.”

There is no doubt that the Aldo Leopold Wilderness has been “gilded.” Still, the ideas born here have changed the course of wilderness history. The National Wilderness Preservation System is over 100 million acres protecting in perpetuity some of the most magnificent landscapes on the continent-for wildlife, for science, for pack trips, and for our souls. We have embraced Leopold’s “crazy idea” more tightly than even Leopold himself could ever have imagined.

Even here, in the wilderness that bears his name, there is still wildness to be found. It is not as large as he would remember it. He might complain about all the trails and wince at the signs of overgrazing, but it is still here-in the views from Hillsboro Peak, in a day spent wandering nameless canyons, in one small aspen grove, even in time spent splashing in a waterfall. The Professor would have to smile at that, at least a little.

Just as I am thinking this, the first hikers we’ve seen in five days appear on the trail.

“We saw a mountain lion in the middle of the trail back there,” one of them tells us, still shaking with excitement.

Jim and I move quickly, hoping for a glimpse of the cat. It is gone, but there in the trail are huge, star-like tracks. “Just knowing there is a mountain lion somewhere in those trees makes this place seem wilder somehow, doesn’t it?” Jim asks.

I crouch down to trace one of the tracks with my fingers and think again of Aldo Leopold’s words: “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.” Me, too, I think to myself, following the tracks of the mountain lion into the shadows. Me, too.

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