A Field Guide to Navigating Non-Wilderness
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For weeks, I passed this meadow time and again and paid it little notice. It took the intrusion of an unexpected individual into my personal space to draw my eyes to this little patch of land for the first time. One day, as I walked by, a long black snake slithered out from beneath the railing, and jumping back to avoid stepping on it, I was caught in that present moment. Suspended in time and space by instinct. Startled, my eyes locked on the weaving snake as it slowly ventured back to the edge of the sidewalk and slipped itself right over the side and into the meadow. At the bottom of the ten-foot drop, the long snake glided over green grass. Its scales glistened like Brook trout in the orange setting sun. I felt drawn into the meadow as I watched the snake wriggle into a pile of old leaves and pine needles. The snake was wild, imposing itself on my unwild walk. Imposing itself on what we tend to perceive as an unwild campus. Suddenly my attention to the wild within built landscapes was awakened.
The word attention is defined as “notice taken of someone or something,” as well as “the regarding of someone or something as interesting or important; the action of dealing with or taking special care of someone or something.” The former is the definition often associated with paying attention to our surroundings. The latter is the kind of attention we ought to be paying to the banal spaces that we ignore on a daily basis. We need not just notice but regard them as interesting and important. We need not just see but also care about and for the cracks in developed landscapes that allow for unpaved parcels of land and undomesticated creatures to rear their heads. How do we attend to troublesome histories and anthropocentric alterations without devaluing what a place has become and has to offer?
In the 1880s Red Butte Creek was diverted out of this area above Salt Lake City, Utah, that is now Chapel Glen. The glen used to be a slow flowing stream bed. In 1862 Camp Douglas was established as a small military camp, designed to protect the mail route and telegraph lines along the Central Overland Route, and in 1878 Camp Douglas became Fort Douglas as need for a supply center grew. Indigenous cultures were dominated by the military presence and by volunteers who had come “to keep an eye on the Mormons.” Transportation needs led the Douglas volunteers to convert the area into the roadbed for the Streetcar that connected their Fort to the downtown area. In this natural drainage basin, the land is prone to frequent flooding and over-saturation, so the roadway needed constant maintenance. Eventually, the road was removed, and the glen regrew into the seemingly undeveloped land of today. Fort Douglas gained stature as a National Historic Landmark in 1970 and is owned by the University of Utah. Now it seems that even foot traffic is wary of the glen in wetter weather, and the usefulness of the land has been diminished—or perhaps just hidden.
When I show people this little meadow, their initial response is to comment on its naturalness. A place of nature within the unnatural place that is campus. “Natural” seems to get conflated with “undeveloped,” and “unnatural” with “built.” I wonder as I look toward the walked desire lines where the boundary lies. Is this place that is planted with non-native grass more natural than the grass that lines the side of a road? Are the trees that now line this meadow that once lined the street car roadbed more natural than those that still line paved roads? Is a fish-stocked lake in Big Cottonwood more natural than the concrete enclosed streams that flow through residential areas in Salt Lake City? Perhaps it’s the naming and claiming of these lands that alters their value. Maybe Silver Lake is nature because it’s in a National Forest. Perhaps this meadow is nature because it has a sign above the stairs leading you into it, telling you what it is.
Marcelo Moscheto claims that “the act of collecting stones and transporting them to another site is perhaps one of the first signs that a civilization is no longer nomadic and has started to think about private/individual spaces in contrast to communal/public spheres.” Land ownership and residency shape the land in new ways and at new speeds, as dreams of conquest and manipulation spread like sage brush through open landscapes. Land ownership is a valued cultural practice among white settlers in the American West, where claiming land has historically been a meaningful way to both make a home and stake a claim in politics. Fort Douglas is a historic example of territory claiming and land allocation that had drastic implications for places, people, and more-than-humans. The creation of these kinds of labeled spaces is perhaps the most unnoticed form of conquest in the United States.
The naming and framing of these culturally valued places dictate their use and the attention that they are paid. It also directs the use of and attention to unnamed places. Terry Tempest Williams writes, “I belong here, and I do not. This is the great paradox of the wilderness.” I wonder how the feeling of not-belonging alters our understanding of our place in nature and nature’s place in our lives. Would the snake’s return transform this place into something more valuable than it seems right now? Or is it the presence of metal and concrete that changes my perception of place?
And what about the water? Water has been trained to drain through pipes and gullies both into and out of Chapel Glen. As part of the natural path of Red Butte Creek, the glen can over-saturate or channel runoff, diverting it away from human-dominated space. Here water, like people, passes through on its constructed journey forward and makes Chapel Glen a transition area, a place to leave rather than to build up.
~ Laura George (Spring 2018)
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For further reading:
“Attention.” Merriam-Webster. meriam-webster.com.
Browning, Eric. “Historic Fort Douglas at the University of Utah: A Brief History and Walking Tour” and “A Brief History of Fort Douglas.” Historic Fort Douglas at the University of Utah. Explore here.
Kamiya, Gary. “Wilderness Is Closer Than You Think.” Sierra Club. April 14, 2017. sierraclub.org.
Moscheta, Marcelo. “Parallel 45 N: Travel Journal and Other Curiosities.” Rocks Stones and Dust. December 6, 2017. rocksstonesdust.com.
Salgado, and Terry Tempest Williams. “America’s National Parks Versus Its Natural Resources.” Condé Nast Traveler. August 12, 2014. cntraveler.com.