A Necessary Quiet
My first foray to monitor a Wilderness Trust-protected property took me to Hersey Mountain in Central New Hampshire this autumn. Hersey is owned by our longtime partner New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) and protected by a Northeast Wilderness Trust forever-wild conservation easement.
I was tagging along with Shelby Perry, Stewardship Director for the Wilderness Trust. With the help of NWT’s Joe Falconeiri and a dedicated crew of volunteer monitors, she ensures that every wildland we protect is visited at least annually. Hersey Mountain was one of the remaining properties to check off the list before the close of the 2019 season.
We arrived at the pull-off down a logging road as a wet September dusk began to seep across the sky. Our agenda: Trek through the darkening forest to the summit of the Preserve and camp at a small shelter maintained by NEFF and a crew of volunteers. The following morning we’d explore a far corner of this forever-wild landscape. As we picked our way over the boulders of a logging road, past a clear cut, and up a narrow trail beneath a dripping canopy, Shelby told me of her last visit to Hersey the year prior. She swam in a pond on the far edge of the property, surrounded by a quiet wooded shoreline. On her way back out to the logging road, the rumblings of some immense creature sounded off in the brush. The animal was approaching rapidly, and then burst out of the woods. The female moose stopped to take notice of the startled human in front of her, and continued on her way.
As we emerged at the summit, my imagination danced with the possibilities of what creatures we might encounter. We set up camp and I wandered off to the ledge for a moment of solitude. The rocky outcrop gave way to views of the low-lying valleys and lakes beneath the stars of the clearing sky. In the quiet that was not fully silence, the wind that was hurrying along the clouds shook the water from the leaves, and the leaves from the trees. I sat for a moment, to listen, watch, and breathe.
From that dark rise of land, I considered the twinkling lights of the homes and stores and roads below. I imagined what that landscape might be like if those glittering lights took up the whole of it, if there were no dark spaces, no refuges of quietude. It would not be a landscape I would want to call home. And more importantly, it would not be a landscape many creatures could call home. The owls and bats who make their homes in standing dead trees (snags). The fungi and microorganisms who need deep, undisturbed soil and leaf litter to do their important work of decomposition. The mammals who must roam miles to find food, meet a mate, and raise a family. The sensitive aquatic organisms whose waters become inhospitable when inundated with chemicals and sediment. The moths who find their way by moonlight.
A quote by Wallace Stenger came to mind as I thought about the folks down in that valley who might, at that very moment, be contemplating the dark shapes of the mountains or the bright smattering of stars.
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”
We people who have grown so accustomed to our pavement and refrigerators and screens—we too depend on wild places, even when we do not set foot in them. I could list the ‘ecosystem services’ that wilderness provides; they are plentiful, and essential to life on Earth. I could list the economic benefits of letting forests grow old and waters run their natural courses; they are seldom counted in the way we value ‘resources.’ But at that moment, I was thinking of something different. I was experiencing the peace of knowing that, even when I’m back in town, there are places like this where forests, waters, and wild beings can thrive without human manipulation. I felt grateful to know that I could still see the splash of the Milky Way in much of the Northeast, thanks to dark places like this. I remembered the shiver down my spine whenever I have been in a place so still that I could hear the serenades of coyotes or loons, miles and miles away.
I’m not sure this feeling has a name, and I’m not sure it needs one. But if you have felt it, this mad love of the wild, then you know that nameless force well. It is that which drives each of us here at Northeast Wilderness Trust, and those who support us, to the edge of the conservation frontier. It is what compels us to fight for the freedom of all beings, especially those who do not speak human tongues or play by civilization’s rules. It is what unites us wilderness champions, and fuels our work to create a wilder tomorrow.