It snowed: the first real winter storm of the season, and the entire landscape was finally veiled in a virgin blanket of white.
Early this morning, an hour before sunrise, I awakened and quickly peered out a window into the frozen forest beyond. At some point, the overcast had withdrawn and in a sapphire sky, bright stars glimmered through the pines and above the distant serrated horizon. A waning moon, still a few days before Last Quarter, shone luridly from high overhead, flooding the scene with a soft iridescent glow. The trees themselves cast long vivid shadows upon the woodland floor, even as countless tufts of powdery flakes clung tentatively to their deeply furrowed trunks. In the clear mountain air, all was quiet and serene.
The overwhelming splendor, while nearly indescribable, instilled in me profound reverence, and I stood at the window for a considerable length of time. Throughout, I sensed much more than just light, trees, shadow and snow. I realized beauty and sublimity, and a meticulous order unmatched anywhere in our synthetic human society. Though looking into the icy chill, a feeling of warmth passed over me, stirring my very soul and, at once, making me thankful to be alive.
Those of us fortunate to live in such grandeur know these occasions well. A colorful sunrise glistening through the pine boughs of a backlit ponderosa, a sudden change in the weather, or a golden alpenglow in the evening twilight each rouses our emotions, and as we pause quietly to appreciate the grand views before us, we concede their vital role in determining the quality of our lives. We recognize these values, however ambiguous they may be.
City dwellers, too, revere such moments, but frequent distractions invariably rob them of the peace and tranquility associated with valuable time spent in the great outdoors. With towering skyscrapers, neighborhood strip malls and widespread urban sprawl covering a reshaped topography for miles around, unyielding traffic congestion, persistent smog and the discordant drone of round-the-clock commerce prohibit solitude, clarity and calm. On typical workdays, brief respites from this human hive of activity are only possible with visits to artificially-groomed parks, a zoo or museum. On weekends, it seems, everyone flocks to the same countryside lake or pocket forest preserve. The intangible values of these experiences, while difficult to describe, are real and irrefutable.
Whatever our surroundings, each of us craves quiet and seclusion now and then. As residents of a modern technological world, we are not so far removed from the primitive and nomadic lives of our ancient ancestors that nature’s impressions have been effectively erased from our psyche. Humans have survived in, contemplated and depended upon their natural environment for tens of thousands of years. The advent of modern industrialization, along with our rapid migration from rural to urban settings, has only faintly transformed us for little more than a century or so. Indeed, our need for serenity seems more a psychosomatic requirement than simple preference.
If, then, by fulfilling our mental and emotional needs for quietude and innate spaces, we concurrently elevate the merit of our own existence, we can fully appreciate the substantial and undeniable worth related to them. These are not simple values measured in dollars and cents, but rather ones that transcend palpable exchange. They are difficult to define but, as Sigurd F. Olson once said, “they stir the emotions, influence happiness and thereby make life worth living.”
Even as we struggle to explain the intangible values found in nature, we can clearly distinguish them. Many times, in fact, we can categorize them according to levels of perceived implication.
For instance, if we stroll the path of a commercial wildlife park and stop to view the black bear exhibit, we quickly gain an up-close appreciation for a splendid omnivorous species indigenous to the wilds of our region. We find the experience both enjoyable and rewarding, yet the fact that the bears are penned up lessens the occasion somewhat. Only when we unexpectedly see one foraging in its natural habitat, do we get the exhilaration and full joy of a true bear encounter.
Back in the mid-’90s, Jackie and I lived in a small mountain town in northern Colorado, and for a couple of years, heard a pair of gray wolves howling almost nightly. Of course, they were confined to an unsheltered pen in a neighboring backyard, where we could see them constantly. They were large magnificent animals, and their lonely cries reminded us of the northern woods of Minnesota and Ontario. Nevertheless, we hated seeing such remarkable symbols of true wilderness caged like domestic dogs, and dreamed of watching them run wild and free, deep in some Colorado forest.
There can be no doubt about the intangible values inherent in nature, universally coveted and most often associated with what we call “the good life.” Certainly, as our population has increased over the millenniums and most people have taken to living in large metropolitan areas, the meaning of the good life has changed. But even today, most will agree that living well means enjoying a life of adequate prosperity, with freedom and plenty of open space, including natural surroundings rich with indescribable beauty and diverse wildlife.
Clearly, for us to know such a time in the face of today’s burgeoning population, global warming and dwindling resources, we must become wise stewards of what’s left of the natural environment. To now, we have recklessly exploited its intangible values for the simple sake of material wealth. We have opened and fragmented our forests, destroyed wildlife habitat and hundreds of wild species themselves. We have poisoned our air and waterways, and continue using the oceans as garbage dumps. In the name of agricultural commerce, we have extirpated wolves from Colorado and elsewhere, which we now know are critical to an ecological balance of the land.
In the recent past, we have witnessed the cutting of trees, the considerable movement of earth and the advancement of new roads and infrastructure to accommodate large commercial and residential developments along the highway through our town. Other projects of varying size have been in the planning and approval process, and others are envisioned for the foreseeable future.
Of these ventures, most consider them the inevitable progress that rises from rapid growth. But we must begin to question which comes first; population growth and the subsequent need for additional housing and commerce; or the random construction of industrial and residential communities, followed by a call for new businesses and citizens to occupy them. As long as we allow outside developers to dictate what we need, we will allow them to exploit our picturesque environment for their own personal profit.
If, for succeeding generations, we are to preserve the intangible, yet indisputable, worth of our pristine woodlands, crystalline rivers and pure mountain air, we must find ways to curb population growth and slow the demand for unfettered development. If our children, and their children, are to know the value of a moonlit walk in an old-growth forest, or the glory of a blaze-orange sunset resonating from the snowy slopes of a high alpine summit, we have to imagine life with less, rather than always seeking more. Only by finding ways of conserving what remains, can we assure our requirements for the future.