Monumental Maine: Remembrances of the silent Northwoods and thoughts on the value of wilderness

More than a hundred years ago Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States, had a great idea. In addition to National Parks and areas protected by state laws he created the possibility to designate protected lands only by the order of the president. The Antiquities Act was originally intended to protect singular sites of historical importance, especially in connection with the Native American heritage, but Roosevelt immediately started to use the new right to designate large chunks of wilderness as National Monuments and thereby protect them from commercial use. He started a tradition that has never been more vital than today, as Barack Obama designated sixteen new monuments during his presidency. The last one was “Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument” in northern Maine, an area I visited in fall 2014. The few days in the silent north showed me that Roosevelt’s legacy in conservation has lost nothing of its importance.

The gate to the treasures of Maine’s wild north appears to be a big euphemism: The “Golden Road” that connects the small town of Millinocket and the Baxter State Park, the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway puts the wheels and axes of our motorhome to a hard test. The road is a rough mixture of gravel, loose tarmac, dried puddles and washed out ripples. Driving in walking speed we tried to figure out how much further we might be able to do it with the vehicle. But the further away we tiptoed from Millinocket the more we came to realize that “Golden Road” might not be that wrong a name. As we got used to the noise of the shaking motorhome we directed our attention to the landscape surrounding us. Vast forests in yellow foliage interrupted by extensive marshlands, scenic lakes and rivers, granite saddles and cliffs shaped by glaciers; and a feeling of wilderness that is normally associated with the American West.

We reached our destination two hours later. The campground at the banks of the Penobscot River was clearly out of season and our vehicle was the only one enjoying the luxuriously large sites right by the water. The scent of wet leaves, the sound of the rushing water, the simplicity of the view across the river and the vague shadows of eagles in the sky were a warmer welcome than the company of dozens, or even hundreds, of fellow campers. We set up camp, had a small snack including delicious pecan tarts and started exploring the vicinity of the campground. The Penobscot River is wild and scenic in the best way. Rushing cascades take turns with quieter sections where the river forms shallow bays. It is full of small, rounded stones that are ideal for flipping them over the water surface. It is full of herring, trout and salmon. It is full of this incredible feeling of mental relaxation and pure bliss that we only encounter in wild places. Here in Maine’s wild north I get another glimpse at why protecting wilderness is a monumental idea.

The next day we decided to leave the realm of the Golden Road and to hike into the wilderness. With the large Baxter State Park and the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area the region is quite well protected and experiencing untouched nature is easily available. We followed a path into the forest towards the pristine Rainbow Lake. In the next few hours we did not meet a single human, but felt as alive as possible. The leaves were falling on the mossy forest floor, old trees fell and provided space and light for new life and the clear water of the Rainbow Lake rather resembled a perfect diamond than a rainbow.

A few miles away there are probably more hikers to be found as the Rainbow Lake is one of the first spectacular sights along the Appalachian Trail that starts in Baxter State Park. Mount Katahdin, the highest point in Maine, marks the northern end of the famous route. The weather was shifting from golden to grey as we stood on the bridge over the Penobscot River on the last day of our stay in the area. We were headed towards Acadia, a much more famous and visited sight. While equally beautiful, Acadia made less impact on me than the silence of the Northwoods in Maine. They made me think of the value of wild places and the absence of humans.

Why do we need wilderness? This is a simple question with a rather complicated answer. For me personally, the value of places like the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is obvious, as I very much enjoy visiting these places. They provide a cathartic service for body and mind, a welcome contrast to the business of city life. While this is a good reason for conserving beautiful places, it does not satisfy as an answer to the aforementioned questions. It is an egocentric view, as simple assumption that the value of a place is equal to its supply of recreation for humans. I felt I needed to think deeper. Two years later, as I think back to the days in Maine, I feel like I found a train of thought that satisfies me.

The answer to the question of the value of wilderness seems to axiomatic, so clear and obvious for someone who shares my sentiments while spending times there, yet it is almost impossible to explain it to someone who does not. I found that the key to this dilemma is an error in the question: Why do we need wilderness? The “we” is a precondition that puts us humans in the centre of any possible answer. I believe that the real answer lies in overcoming this perspective. I believe that the value of wild places is exactly about the absence of humans, about processes and systems that do not develop under our direct influence. But what is problematic about this influence?

The earth is a rich and complex system, an ecology of hundreds of thousands of species that developed over millions of years. There is an abundance of interdependences between these species and billions of symbiotic relations. Life forms circles that allow wild ecosystems to adapt to changes and to recover from events of stress, like droughts or volcanic eruptions. This is the definition of resilience, a system to interwoven, redundant, complex and adaptable that nothing could shake it foundations. Almost nothing, it is us humans that is the first real threat to the very base of the system earth. Here is why.

Over the course of the last 500 years mankind has step by step isolated itself from the complex cycles of the natural world. It began with the intensification of agriculture, which brought a massive shift of the use of lands towards cultivating single species on a large scale. Giant areas covers with monocultures are the exact opposite of the complexity of natural ecosystems, that the resilience of this land use is inferior is obvious. We need pesticides to save crops from predators; we strive to improve the performance by genetic engineering. Another story is the exploitation of fossil fuels like coal and oil. It releases amounts of greenhouses gases into the atmosphere that surpass anything that the system is able to compensate in its cycles. Climate change is the consequence, dramatic loss of biodiversity is another. What is the common denominator is that for the sake of our needs we replace complex cycles of life with short and simple linear chains. Exploit coal, burn it, use the energy and period. Create giant monocultures, attack threats with pesticides, infuse bees with antibiotics and period. With one hand we completely transform interrelations of the natural world and with the other hand we try to handle the dramatic consequences. In a reference system that puts the humans in the centre, this might work quite okay. In a reference system that is our planet, we do an awful job as ecosystem managers.

I do not want to sound too negative. I do not want to imply that our planet is better off without us. I just want to point out, that it is not “our” planet. The earth is so much more than our home and we need to realize that our action has to be thought as a part of a system that is much bigger than us. We need to adopt a humble and honest perspective of not working against the very foundations of our existence but rather in support of it.

Designating a Wilderness Area, a National Park or a National Monument might seem to be a small and negligible thing to do in the context of these thoughts. With population on earth growing rapidly, climatic change that effects the entire earth, protected or not, and an economic approach to all human activities the important starting point for the needed change of perspective might not be the Northwoods in Maine. But changing the direction in such a fundamental way needs small steps to start with. If protected lands remind us of where the path is, if they safe a fraction of the enormous complexity and diversity, it is a good thing to do. Many good things might be a big step in the right direction.