I went into the wilderness smelling like a human. I came out of the wilderness heavy with the sweet and spicy aroma of sagebrush clinging to my clothes and boots.
My story often begins with sagebrush.
Big Mountain Sagebrush – Aretemisia tridentata.
Some say sagebrush smells like the west – like freedom and open space – but when I first moved to Wyoming the openness of sagebrush shrubland was jarring. It left me feeling exposed. I was exposed. Back east the hills are covered in tall oaks, maples and birch. Viewed from the right angle entire towns could lie hidden in the shade of their broad leaves. It felt secure and nurturing to be enveloped in a sea of trees. Sagebrush offers none of these things.
As I move through their miniature forests their thick and twisted trunks push against me. Dead limbs crack and snap against my legs. An indecisive wind carries my scent in random directions. A wind like this make elk nervous. A herd of cows and calves bedded on the hillside stand and stare in my direction, then scatter as I approach.
Eventually the sagebrush gives way to Douglas fir and an understory of grasses as tall as I am. The nearly constant rains this summer have created a tangle of undergrowth so thick I find myself looking down more often than usual to avoid tripping over hidden logs. A fresh pile of bear scat lies in my path and I remember to make noise and look up for bears. This country is wild.
Webster defines wilderness as “living or growing in its original, natural state.” I’m with you there, Webster. But farther down the page the definition reads “waste and any barren, empty or open area, a large confused mass.”
In these definitions exists wilderness as I see it but also includes the fear people have of wild places. Of being vulnerable.
I climb to a ridge and follow along its narrow spine. Through the trees I see the cliff I’ve come in search of. It’s close. I’m close. Too close to the golden eagle’s nest built into a ledge in the rock wall. Not wanting to disturb the nestling I hope is there, I stay back straining to see through the tree limbs and grass. Then I see it. A young golden eagle with tufts of down bursting through dark juvenile feathers. She or he, I’m not sure which, turns and looks. It knows I am there but is unsure of what exactly lies across the narrow canyon.
The nestling is not yet ready to take its first flight, but when it does it will fly into the space between the only home it has known for the last 10 weeks and the rest of the world. It will hunt for rabbits and squirrels in the sagebrush below. Perhaps it will kill a young deer or pronghorn.
A dark wall of clouds has formed to the west and I know it’s time to make my way down through the sagebrush sea. I encounter the same pile of bear scat and remember to make noise and look up for bears.
I am not afraid, but it is in moments like these that I understand this fear of wilderness. Though I know I need wilderness. I know wilderness does not need me. It is written all over the landscape. In the bones of elk scattered on the ground. Entire rib cages and legs with hair and bits of rotten flesh still attached. It is written in the piles of fresh bear scat on the trail. In the thunderstorm building overhead. In the cracked limbs of sagebrush that resist my movement.
It is as if wilderness is telling me I’m not as important as I think I am. Perhaps that is the reason I need wilderness. For perspective.