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DIALOGUES AND DEBATES

        


Ansel Adams on Wilderness Experiences—A Dialogue



Picture of Elowah Falls Oregon

American photographer and conservationist, Ansel Adams, apparently had this to say about wilderness writing:

 I hesitate to define just what the qualities of a wilderness experience are. Like music and art, wilderness can be defined only on its own terms. The less talk, the better.

—as quoted in Backpacker, June 2000

To explore and analyze this issue, consider the following imaginary dialogue:

Jones: When you say, “the less talk,” I assume that you would reject this entire article. If so, why is this an either/or? Why not use both our intellect and our senses, both our reason and our intuition to raise our appreciation and understanding of wilderness to a higher level? For example, understanding the cultural background of the artist will often enhance the experience of great music and great art. Understanding the various themes and meanings intended by the artist can enhance the experience. Understanding the structures and compositional styles by the artist can often add new dimensions.

Adams: The best way to move our appreciation and understanding of wilderness to a higher level is by experiencing it more often and for longer periods of time, by getting further away from our “civilized” life. Intellectual understandings are part of the “civilization” many are trying to escape by going into the wilderness. The best way to develop our appreciation of wilderness is by walking and living in it, by sharing our visual experiences with others, as I do by my photography.

Jones: Again, why is this an either/or? Why will carefully written words and phrases (including some poetry) take away from our experiences? In fact, they might bring into focus what we only vaguely felt before. They will often cause us to reflect upon new and different perspectives we haven’t thought much about. They might just allow us to experience the wilderness in whole new ways. Words and pictures (including your photographs) have the potential of expanding our sense of wilderness. They also have great potential to motivate people to spend more time out in the wilderness and energy in protecting it. The famous American forester and conservationist Aldo Leopold holds a position seemingly opposite of yours when he said, “Wilderness is the raw material of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.”

Adams: Then again such “civilized” intellectualizing might cause us to doubt our own experiences, especially if they do not live up to some ideal of “true” wilderness experiences proposed by others. It might cause our analyzing to override our experiencing.

Jones: It seems as if part of your objections revolve around the mistaken notion that there are a fixed group of qualities that can never be put into words (“I hesitate to define just what the qualities of a wilderness experience are.”). Like the experience of art and music, there is no way to define wilderness experiences precisely in words. Like the experience of art and music, there are many, many qualities, some quite definable and others more esoteric and intangible. This is also true of wilderness.

Adams: I have met too many intellectuals and writers who seem to have little visceral and emotional connection with and appreciation of what they are writing about.

Jones: True, but I think it is time to let “the reader” make their own decisions on this issue.

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Where do you come down on this issue? Are true wilderness experiences ultimately beyond words? Is it useful to write and talk and think about them as we have done above? Or are such activities a major obstacles to really experiencing the wilderness?


Picture of Mountain Landscape