Filling One’s Life with the Map’s Blank Spots
Tee Clarkson’s outdoor column in the Richmond Times Dispatch, appeared September 2, 2018.
When I am feeling nostalgic, I’ll jump on my bike and ride backward through my life. It’s just a few miles to the house where my parents brought me home from St. Mary’s Hospital 45 years ago, my mother cradling me in her arms in the front seat. No car seats back then.
The street is largely unchanged, although the big oak in the front yard seems to have been gone for some time, and I don’t recognize the porch on the side of the house. That wasn’t there when I was a kid. The sidewalk where I learned to ride a bike has been redone with new bricks (would have saved me a few skinned knees back in the day, I am sure). Still I survived, even without a helmet.
At the bottom of the hill, the giant forsythia has been uprooted. My brothers and I built forts underneath and played for hours with guns fashioned from sticks, holding on as imaginary Cold War Russians advanced from beneath a nearby magnolia. Some things don’t change, I guess.
In the spring, I’ll stop by what used to be the vacant lot behind the house, where as a kid I learned the call of the bobwhite. I listen, hoping somehow they have made it, that I might hear them again, but it’s quiet. There was room for one more house, and that didn’t leave enough for a covey of quail hanging on in the city limits.
Each time I make the ride, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Aldo Leopold: “Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
Of course, it had been a long time before I was born that this neighborhood would have been considered wilderness by most. But by an 8-year-old’s standards, it was the western frontier where my brothers and I were first allowed out of earshot of our parents, told only to be home by dark.
We knew every inch of the neighborhood and beat paths through the woods to the canal where we fished and caught frogs and crayfish.
It wasn’t too much longer before I remember reading of Garvey Winegar’s adventures in the field in this same newspaper, sitting in the old, black chair in the living room. He built pictures of worlds I had never visited. I saw black ducks decoying in the marshes of eastern Virginia and brook trout slurping mayflies in the mountains. I dreamed of visiting those places. Fortunately, I would.
I never could have imagined I would have the opportunity to write about Virginia’s wild places as he did. During the five years I have had the pleasure of writing this column, I have gotten to know many more of the state’s wild places and the people who help protect them.
Times change. We don’t need anyone to tell us that, and we don’t need a Ph.D. in any field to know that our wild places are shrinking. Some things are inevitable, but rest assured there are still wild places to be young in, even if they may be fewer than in Leopold’s day.
Fortunately, it seems there are more and more organizations fashioned of dedicated and passionate people working to ensure that we will always have access to wilderness.
Still, it is each of our responsibilities to hold those in charge accountable for protecting what blank spots on the map remain, particularly the public ones. Even more so, it is each person’s responsibility to help the next generation find and appreciate them. If we do not, then I fear those wild spaces in which we might be perpetually young, shall someday be no more.
In Virginia, we are fortunate to have more than 2 million public acres where young and old can spend time outdoors, and that doesn’t even get into the public waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.
At the center of those tasked with their protection are Matt Strickler, the secretary of natural resources, and Bettina Ring, the secretary of agriculture and forestry. I sat down with both the other day.
“It is incumbent that we are getting kids outside,” Ring said. “We have a responsibility and obligation to make that connection.”
Ring and Strickler noted that one of the biggest challenges facing Virginians is climate change, and one of the Northam administration’s focuses will be conserving property, which will allow ecosystems to migrate and adapt with the climate.
“I would go crazy if I couldn’t go outside,” Strickler said. “Healthy lands and waters lead to healthy people, personal and emotional and societal health. Communities function better when they have access to the outdoors.”
While my rides through a previous life are useful, they inevitably lead me back home, back to the present. I ride past the ghosts of my youth, past the laughing brothers emerging from the woods dirty and tired, past a gawky teenager hunkered in the duck blind, waiting for light, past a young adult who chased dreams of trophy trout and a life outdoors in the Rockies, and I end up back here, back where I started, now the father teaching his children about the outdoors.
I can’t help but be drawn back to Leopold again as I pull my bike back up alongside the curb.
“The shallow-minded modern who has lost his rootage in the land assumes that he has already discovered what is important,” he wrote. “It is such who prate of empires, political or economic, that will last a thousand years. It is only the scholar who appreciates that all history consists of successive excursions from a single starting point, to which man returns again and again to organize yet another search for a durable scale of values. It is only the scholar who understands why raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human experience.”