I'm researching a trip into the wilderness for some R&R soon, and I came across a headline on a National Park website about staying safe from bears and marijuana. Intrigued and slightly bemused, I clicked on the marijuana warning. I figured I'd find a 'Reefer Madness' sort of imagined terror. Instead, the warning raised a very real concern. Apparently vast expanses (count them, 1.5 million acres in the Chequamegon-Nicolet Forests in Wisconsin) of untended wilderness encourage secret large-scale farming of marijuana. An unsuspecting hiker happening upon such a farm could encounter serious trouble, since people engaged in felonious activity don't usually welcome discovery ...
Fast forward a few hours later and I read about the Chicago City Council's decision to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession. I greet this news with gratitude and relief. Call me controversial, but this law and others like it around the country are a step in the right direction. Decriminalizing a drug as common as this one offers a host of benefits including safer hiking and the preservation of wilderness. All of us need both these things, whether or not we ever set foot in the woods ourselves.
"How often we speak of the great silences of the wilderness and of the importance of preserving them and the wonder and peace to be found there. When I think of them, I see the lakes and rivers of the North, the muskegs and expenses of tundra, the barren lands beyond all roads. I see the mountain ranges of the West and the high, rolling ridges of the Appalachians. I picture the deserts of the Southwest and their brilliant panoramas of color, the impenetrable swamp lands of the South. They will always be there and their beauty may not change, but should their silences be broken, they will never be the same." Listening Point, 1958
In his eloquent Wilderness Letter, the great Wallace Stegner wrote:
"We need wilderness preserved -- as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds -- because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in 10 years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there -- important, that is, simply as an idea." Wilderness Letter, written to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, 1960, and also in The Sound of Mountain Water, 1969
The thinking of these writers, at once collective and individual, is grounded in a uniquely American sense of place; the notion of the frontier, an idea that was first presented at the 1892 Worlds' Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It's pretty safe to say none of these guys would be happy about marijuana farms in wilderness areas. While both cannabis and wilderness is a form of retreat, the one is short-lived and individual, the other much larger, shared and rich.