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Wildness Ought To Make Us All The Wiser

We crave and need contact with nature but, as Joseph Scalia writes in this essay, technology and human numbers are shrinking back the feel of wild places. That's why, he says, we need to protect more

"Feeling the Heat," a painting by Julie T. Chapman. Imagine how different Greater Yellowstone and other parts of the Northern Rockies would "feel" without grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions and the many other non-human inhabitants. How would they feel—like 99 percent of the rest of tamed America. To see more of Chapman's amazing fine art, go to
"Feeling the Heat," a painting by Julie T. Chapman. Imagine how different Greater Yellowstone and other parts of the Northern Rockies would "feel" without grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions and the many other non-human inhabitants. How would they feel—like 99 percent of the rest of tamed America. To see more of Chapman's amazing fine art, go to

No sword blade sent him to his death,
my bare hands stilled his heartbeats
and wrecked the bone-house.

by Joseph Scalia III

In Beowulf, there is a line: "No sword blade sent him to his death, my bare hands stilled his heartbeats and wrecked the bone-house."

Full of such spine-chilling language my then fifteen-year-old son and I read the epic poem aloud, deep in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, not 200 yards from an enormous grizzly bear track we’d spotted on our way into camp.  We both knew in our bones, and in the immediacy of consciousness, how our own “bone-cages” could so easily be crushed by the Beowulfian figures of nightmares, and the simultaneous spectre of awe, grandeur and terror, that we call the grizzly bear.  

We knew how unthinkably vulnerable we were to this esteemed emblem of the wild.  And we knew how alive we were.  It was the kind of experience that makes a person recall quotes like psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s, “Oh God!  May I be alive when I die.”

Henry David Thoreau once observed, “Eastward I go only by force; but Westward I go free.”  My wife and I “went West free” quite by choice. By choice we’ve resided in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, within close view of mountains that hold grizzlies and other places where there is an allure more felt than explained.

For the first two years of our son’s life, she and I worked professionally one and two days a week respectively, spending the rest of our time living close to the land in a rustic log cabin without running water or electricity, three miles from the nearest plowed road, such that winters nestled the three of us snuggly in its embrace.  Thoreauans before we knew Thoreau. 

For a full month, the sun never shone directly on our house, hunkered down as it was in a narrow creek bottom between very steep forested slopes, two thousand feet tall on one side, three thousand on the other.  

We experienced so much that money could never buy.  Glissading with our son when he was barely walking, holding each of his hands in mine to grant him balance, and his screaming in joy, in glee - his precursor skiing self.  Winter camping with him and Lynne when he was but two or so months old.  When he could yet hardly talk, and was playing in our creek, his hands and feet in the icy cold water with ambient temperatures themselves pretty cool, his responding to the question of a friend who did not fully grasp his youthful love of the wild, in fact his own wildness, “Joe, aren’t you cold?" “Yes!  I like to be cold!” 

Losing our dog to a cougar who lived nearby.  Being 15 feet face to face with a black bear when I opened my door for an outside midnight pee, and deciding to finish the job, not anyway, but precisely because the bear was there.  Standing before a great mountain, a great cliff, 15 miles from the trailhead in Halfmoon Park, and knowing my status as a speck, and that one could be simply blotted out in a moment should the mountain fall, as it did in a temblor at Quake Lake decades ago, killing a score or so of campers as they slept.  

Laying outside— far from any light pollution—in the snow in 20-below zero Fahrenheit and the Milky Way so bright, the air so crisp, I knew I could never put it all to words: is this what people call God?  Faith?  To know the importance of this without being able to demonstrate it.  So very many stories like these. 

It was a beautiful place, our Oregon Creek, although surrounded by too small an amount of unmolested forest. Here I once hid along a remote ridgetop trail as two mature bull elk sauntered by, so close I could have reached out and touched them —which I thought about but didn’t do.  Where I once bugled in a bull elk whose eye looked directly into mine from a mere three feet away, without seeing me —and just before he scented me—as I camouflaged myself in the boughs of a spruce tree.  

Where more than once I scared up mountain lions—cougars, one time watching the lion climb a tree in fear of me as she knocked off large branches as if they were not there.  Where my visiting sister’s undauntable little poodle, Jeanette, ran a bobcat from the brush, a bobcat I’d have never otherwise seen.  Where we heated only with wood and with only a single set of logs forming the inside and outside walls, no more insulation than that. My mother-in-law worried from 2000 miles away that such “harsh” conditions would be unhealthy for her new grandson.   Until she got there: “Oh my!  It’s beautiful!”  She never worried about it again and now knew something more of who her grandson was.  The little boy who at one and a half could eat a pound of pureed venison in a single and lustful sitting.

There was only the road up the creek bottom. Until one day I came upon loggers clear-cutting the forest, in a small way acres-wise, but it disturbed me greatly nonetheless.  That night I dreamt they were clear-cutting the whole drainage. I woke up to hear their chainsaws close by, and ran out to discover them only a few hundred yards away, mowing down trees in the beautiful and previously (apparently) pristine forest from which I had recently hunted our winter’s venison. The nightmare was awake. 

Things which cannot be verbally expressed and which cannot be registered empirically, cannot be measured, have occupied humans’ attention from time immemorial.  Religions have always tried to grapple with such matters.  Socrates spoke of Ideal Forms.  Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called it the real.  Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion would not even give it a name, calling it simply “O.”  Philosopher Immanuel Kant called it things-in-themselves, and noumena, distinguishing it from phenomena, objects which could be apprehended with the senses.

When I am many miles into the wilderness, far from trailheads, roads, machines and technology which could rescue me should I become endangered, far from sounds of civilization; when I walk upon two large black bear wrestling in the Crazy Mountains, as I did a few weeks ago, and reach for my camera without even a thought of reaching for bear spray; when I am there, I am alive and I am human.  

When I have undertaken Muirian journeys through wild places, I know even though I cannot scientifically demonstrate it, that I am alive and human in a way that would be impossible without such places and things.  

If there were only nuclear winter, or only wilderness trails with snowmobiles or other  mechanized vehicles of human transport, if I could no longer find wild places, if they existed no more, I cannot tell you how I know, but I believe that we would no longer be homo sapiens, no longer “wise human.”  We would be something else.

EDITOR'S NOTE: We are living in times of profound transformation—with Covid-19 bringing levels of development on private land in Greater Yellowstone and visitation to our public lands happening now but that were not expected for many years. If you have stories of how your favorite "wild" places are changing or being impacted, we want to hear from you. If you have brief reflections you'd like to share (no more than two paragraphs), send them along by clicking here. If you have a photo to accompany your words, all the better. Thanks.


Many years ago, I passed a blond grizzly on my horse, riding up a creek.The huge grizzly, sitting on a little island in the creek, possibly fishing, was bad tempered and charged through the water. I remember the sight so well, the bear looked like a speedboat at full power, blond hair flying. My horse did the right thing and ran full speed uphill. The grizzly following for a short stretch, than gave up ... and me—I just held on for dear life. What wonderful country, the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

—Werner Weissenhofer, Austria

Joseph Scalia III
About Joseph Scalia III

Joseph Scalia III, Psya.D. is President of Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, and is a former President of Montana Wilderness Association. By profession, he is a psychoanalyst in private practice and a self-described social critic in Livingston, Montana. His writings have appeared here in Mountain Journal, also in Outside Bozeman, in Counterpunch, and in numerous Montana newspapers. He has been widely interviewed in the last couple of years on Wilderness PodcastRendering UnconsciousGreen Root Podcast, and KGVM radio.

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