Wildness and Wilderness

| May 8, 2013

Rain came today, a harbinger of monsoon season. Lightning and thunder and gentle drops shining like precious gems on tree branches and the radiant green of new foliage. I went out for a drive, not so much for photography but to revel in the scents of wet earth, sagebrush and pine. I hiked to a favorite lookout spot on my beloved Aquarius Plateau to watch the storm moving through. The rich aromas mixed with a spectacular long view and blissful silence. Episodes of fleeting light mixed with bursts of rain and graupel. Two hours passed before I knew it, just sitting there witnessing the unfolding storm. In such times I always wonder if anyone, having experienced these places as I do, could ever give them up, for any reason.

These past few weeks I spent most of my time in Moab, leading four workshops in succession and presenting at the Moab Photo Symposium. There’s a rhythm to these events – running at full capacity for the duration, followed almost instantly by a sweet, euphoric and overwhelming fatigue when again left to my own devices. This was my second year at this symposium and both times the experience far exceeded what one might expect from a photo-centric event. Without exception, all presenters steered clear of gear and technique and spoke, instead, of applying photography in more noble contexts – from conservation to humanitarian causes; all telling stories rendered in poignant hard-hitting images and stories, as beautiful as they are troubling.

One workshop participant noticed the license plate on my car, surrounded by Henry David Thoreau’s words: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” He misread it as “wilderness,” and I had to correct him. Wilderness is a quality of land; wildness is a quality of people. Wilderness is manufactured definition for places that so far escaped the encroachment of humanity; wildness is what we are each endowed with from birth. Both are ours to lose, by action or inaction.

As the business of catching up after a prolonged leave demands my attention, I thought I’d share part of the narrative used in my Moab presentation that seems especially appropriate today:

There are times and places in this beautiful world that transcend anything we can ever hope to express in our limited capacities as human beings. Not in words, not in art, not in any other way. Nothing we can do or create can substitute for wildness. Those of you who experienced it know what I mean, and those of you who don’t will do well to seek it out. Your life will be forever changed and enriched by it.

And we should not lose sight of the fact that these places and experiences are becoming more scarce, sometimes even destroyed for the sake of short-term profit, sometimes packaged and sold as tourist attractions, tamed and scripted and controlled – a pale shadow of what it means to truly experience wild places; to exist on their terms, and not ours. To be a part of a natural community and not to proclaim ourselves its masters or managers or owners.

We are fortunate to still have true wilderness in this country. If we allow it to disappear, such experiences will never again be possible. It’s not some abstract planet we should be saving. We should be saving the things that make our lives more worthy and our very existence possible.

If we consider ourselves true humanitarians, in the sense of caring about the fates of our fellow human beings, present and future, we must be diligent in assuring that they, too, will have the privilege of experiencing what we have.

To be in the wild, is a feeling like no other. It strikes awe and humility in the most profound and powerful and inspiring way that we are capable of feeling. It overwhelms with a sense of gratitude to be alive and to witness such feats, immense and yet infinitely delicate, powerful yet fragile, filled with stories and lessons and mysteries.

There is a lot we can do in photography and in art, but nothing we do has the power to lift the spirit like wild places. For that we need the real thing.

Aquarius Spring Dawn

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (5)

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  1. Marylynne says:

    Well said, Guy. I’m working on a book of essays about wildness and its place in the future of Oregon. The distinction between wildness and wilderness under-analyzed, and the humanistic element is key.

  2. jdb says:


  3. Guy Tal says:

    Good catch, jdb. Thank you!

  4. Mark Bailey says:

    I’m thinking a Guy Tal book with this title and subject might be a good thing . . .

  5. More and more evidence adds up all the time for the sheer emotional health of spending time in the natural world. Peace and quiet are also important to mental health, which relates to this post, and to your post, “Creating In Isolation.” I am like you and Michael in that I create better on my own away from other people. That said, workshop participants in my father’s and Ansel Adam’s workshops have commented that the experience of observing these great photographers making photographs was the highlight of their workshop. Seems strange not to model what you’re teaching, in my opinion, though I have no doubt whatsoever that you are a great teacher and your workshops must certainly be an experience to remember based on my interactions with you and my reading of your superb e-books.