From Prose to Purpose
I found Wilderness Wanderers several years ago and bought it to join scores of old books I own that touch on the themes of my work in conservation history. One of my current writing projects centers on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. So I pulled the Chapmans off the shelf to dig in.
I hoped for intellectual insights or beautiful prose. Occasionally, the Chapman’s delivered on the latter. This passage about solitude strikes a pleasing tone:
To be alone in a mountain glen in daylight gives one an exultant feeling of solitude and a desire to have that experience prolonged. To be there in darkness intensifies that solitude until loneliness creeps over one. But if to darkness is added a breathless snowstorm, one feels the oppressive weight of utter isolation and his spirit then takes on the jaded droop of the forest’s snow-weighted limbs.
And a passage like this one from the Upper Yellowstone River portrays their life in the mountains nicely:
Two nights we remained in this hushed solitude, lulled to sleep by croaking frogs and singing tree tops, awakened in early mornings by the sweet incessant songs of robins somewhere among the tree tops in a sunny bird worlds between land and sky.
Yet I found less of interest than I’d hoped. This is a risk in choosing a book you know little about. I’m willing to keep taking the risk, because kernels of interest do exist among the chaff.
The Chapmans bookended the text with their purpose. They wanted to inspire readers. Genuinely drawn to wildlife and wild places, the Chapmans hoped others would grow to a similar appreciation, perhaps from their amusing stories of animals or the feats of their skiing or climbing adventures.
In the shadow of their hopeful rhetoric, though, lurked fear. Hurry, they seemed to say, you must come before so-called civilization advances to these places. Only in the final pages do the Chapmans connect to any broader public purpose. Before then, it was only their adventure. On that final page, though, they write:
Now we felt the call of a new purpose in our leisure. Greater than our desire for personal freedom came a desire to help save a few wilderness areas and creatures of the continent… . Already such ideals were stirring national consciousness and in this changing public attitude we placed our faith.
And so maybe there, at long last, after three hundred pages, of odd stories amid beautiful places and creatures, is a message reaching out across the decades: seeking personal freedom, divorced from a larger public purpose, falls short.