From where I sit, the land spreads out in all directions. Writing from our family’s place in south-central Montana, the mountains of Yellowstone Park rise up across the front pasture, frosted with this morning’s spring snow. Out back, the valley winds its way into Wilderness Area. Yes, there is a highway between me and Yellowstone. Yes, there are a few jack rail fences between this cabin and the edge of Wilderness. But the land is more wild than not, inhabited by more bears and elk than humans.
I’ve just returned from almost three months in Scotland, living mostly in the rural northwest Highlands. The Highland landscape is open and feels immense, with rolling moors that spread from inland mountain ranges to the rough Atlantic coast, punctuated by great singular mountains left behind as the glaciers scoured the surrounding rock away. Rural communities are scattered throughout that land and the village of Stoer – where I lived in a small, stone cottage that was once a smithy – consists of a village hall and a few houses. Sparsely populated, the Highlands are sometimes called one of Europe’s last great wilderness areas.
Yet, people have manipulated and altered the Highland landscape since the glaciers of the Ice Age melted away. People killed off Scotland’s bears and wolves centuries ago, along with a range of other species such as beaver and lynx. People brought in sheep and the moors expanded. Trees disappeared even as red deer populations grew, fostered by the growing popularity of stalking on Victorian Age sporting estates.
I’ve walked the Highlands, noting that cottages, roads, or other human constructions are either visible or a short distance away – just over the next hillock. Deer fences, built to protect planted trees, stretch as barriers across even the more remote areas. It is a landscape created, maintained, and continuously shaped by humans. Still, there is the feel of the wild…. it lingers in the life of the land.
Every time I return to Montana from Scotland, I look out across my homelands, knowing that within those valleys and forests, spread along high ridges and tucked into hidden gullies, there is a non-human community – diverse, complex, and full of life. No, it is not wilderness in the sense of pristine. It is a land once used or inhabited by native people who were brutally removed. All of this land is touched by the workings of our land management system and the human hand. Still, the landscape that surrounds me is more wild than not. And it is vast in comparison to many wild lands of the world — the Scottish Highlands in particular.
On a planet where space for a greater community of life is shrinking constantly, I return to this corner of the world and know that here is a haven of habitat. It is home for many – and they are not Homo sapiens. This haven need carry forward into the future, most importantly for the non-human species that depend on it. But also for the reason Wallace Stegner put forth in his Wilderness Letter, 1960: we need wilderness to remember that we are “part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.”
The sun is now setting over the mountains of Yellowstone. I’m watching the land, knowing of the life therein. It is good to be home.