Wild and Free – A Conservation Ethic

I nearly wet my pants.

Energy from lightning ripped through the ground and I could feel it, even hear a faint, eerie hum.  The air was electrified, the sky ablaze as the sun dropped behind the jagged peaks of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.   The sound of bull elk bugling in the early twilight crescendoed around me, seemingly from every direction.

I was a neophyte bow hunter and had found myself hurled into the major leagues.  Highly exposed on an 8900-foot peak that hosted only broken aspen groves and scattered ponderosa pines, I was miles away from shelter. The storm was imminent and the pregnant sky was about to give way.

It’s been said that “discretion is the better part of valor,” and growing up in an overly safety-conscious culture, I’ve lived that motto quite well.

But that evening as thunderclouds built overhead, wind swirled, and the sun painted fire in the sky, I found my heart responding to something deeper than conventional wisdom—some ancient beckoning. A sort of divine revelation, perhaps?

I hunkered down at the base of a ragged ponderosa pine and gave myself over to the unknown of what might unfold.

And what did was cause for awe. Three giant bull elk emerged from the aspens, bugled back and forth, then hurled themselves toward each other, the sound of their repeated jousts and clashing antlers rivaling the crack of thunder overhead. The lead elk cow hustled the herd of calves and cows through the aspen grove and along the sage brush hillsides, skirting the combatting bulls.  It was a rodeo of nature’s greatest proportions.

As Aldo Leopold observes,

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.

I have discovered that I am a man who cannot live without wild things;  it is true as well of the men I most love and respect. Wilderness is a spiritual longing and a necessity. Thoreau put it simply, wildness is “an oasis in the desert of civilization.”

 As John suggests in Wild at Heart,

The masculine heart needs a place where nothing is prefabricated, modular, nonfat, zip lock, franchised, online, microwavable. Where there are no deadlines, cell phones, or committee meetings. Where there is room for the soul. Where, finally, the geography around us corresponds to the geography of our heart.

That solo night on a lonely mountain peak in national forest, I finally discovered a geography that matched the internal landscape of my masculine soul.

John Muir, fellow partner to Teddy Roosevelt in our nation’s bold efforts to conserve wild places, said it this way:

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.

Yet these places of beauty, cheer, and healing are disappearing at an alarming rate. As Wendell Berry describes, “The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species…pollution of the atmosphere and of the water cycle…” The commodification of our earth’s resources drives a pillaging of wild places for short-sighted economic gain.

Yet all is not lost.  There is still hope in our land and our legacy.

Conservation can be understood as bringing the greatest good to the greatest number of species and their respective habitats. It is an extension of ethics and affection that includes not only our relationship to people but also to the land, its animals, and their habitat. A conservation ethic, as Aldo Leopold suggests, “changes the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to member and citizen of it.”

In many ways it is simply a restoration of God’s original intention for us, the bearers of His image, to lead and to love all of creation, exercising  fierce mastery and stewardship rooted in a relational and moral conscience.

The nation’s twenty-sixth president is remembered by some as the man who dug the Panama Canal, established the first horse-mounted soldiers, and survived a bullet to the chest in a presidential speech. However, Teddy Roosevelt is best known by many as the Father of Conservation. He led the political movement in the early twentieth century to protect and conserve some of the last parcels of wild spaces in the American West.  Both his passion for wilderness and his first-hand exposure to the devastation of America’s unrivaled buffalo herds galvanized him to establish the first national parks, national forests, and national monuments, setting aside 230,000,000 acres as a sacred public trust.

Roosevelt understood all too well that nothing restores the heart of a man like encountering the living God in wilderness. It was in the Badlands of North Dakota that, as a young man, he sought refuge and comfort in the wake of the sudden loss of the two deepest loves of his life: his mom and his wife.  He went west to heal and ultimately to become the man he was meant to be.

In his later years, Teddy reflected back on the impact of wilderness on his soul as a young man.

Do you know what chapter…I would choose to remember were the alternative forced upon me to recall one portion of it, and to have erased from my memory all other experiences? I would take the memory of my life on the ranch with its experiences close to nature and among the men who lived nearest her.

Regarding the national parks and forests he endeavored to protect, Roosevelt observed that “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

What if we contributed to a legacy of wild places where not only we but also our children and their children could heal, be strengthened, and become who we were meant to be?

We can make a difference.

We can become the difference.

With how we spend our days and where we spend our dollars, we can become the essential piece in conserving and restoring the greatest resources our planet has left—geographies and landscapes that save the souls of men—and make the world better.

We only protect what we love.  And to come to love anything, we must take the time to know it and experience it with all our senses. In the words of Wendell Berry, “it all turns on affection.”

The stormy sunset on that exposed peak sealed my passion for conservation.  I never released an arrow from my bow that night, never got remotely close enough to those regal bulls for a shot. But as I hiked back to camp in wind and rain, tears of wonder and gratitude streamed down my face.

I knew some day I’d have a son. And I committed to do whatever it takes to protect that piece of public land, that wild country, and others like it, so that even when I’m long gone, he too could discover the transcendence of wild places, perhaps respond with affection, and become the man he was meant to be.


Intrigued?  Want to explore deeper?

Read What Story Do You want?

Start here.  Invest in the film by Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.  It is spectacular.  Makes for a great family night.

Check out the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and their promotion of the North American Conservation Model.  RMEF’s Bugle Magazine will take you even further.

My two favorite biographies on Teddy Roosevelt are The River of Doubt and Theodore Roosevelt: The American Presidents Series.

Read the compelling lecture by author and poet Wendell Berry, “It All Turns on Affection.”  It’s available free on this link or published in a collection alongside other essays in one of his books.

It was A.W. Tozer who once said, “Curiosity is the sign of an alive soul.”

Jesus, how is it You would lead me, through curiosity, into a deeper knowing of who You are, what You are doing, and how You are doing it?  I long to become the kind of person to whom You can entrust more of Your Kingdom.  Show me the path of life.  I open myself to You for Your deeper wisdom and revelation.  Reveal who You are, set the world right in me and through me.

A version of this was originally featured in And Sons Magazine.  Check out AndSonsMagazine.com for great stories put together by John and his sons, Sam, Blaine, and Luke.