How The Wilderness Act Helps Me Write
Written by
Marybeth Holleman
August 2014

Fresh out of college, I visited my older sister, a ceramic artist teaching in West Virginia. She beckoned me to her yard to see her latest creation—a six-foot oblong curved shape, slightly hollow in the center. It was unlike anything I’d seen, and yet also strangely familiar. “It’s beautiful,” I said. She beamed, and walked over to another shelf, picking up a piece of wood, weathered and shined by time. “It was inspired by this,” she said, “that you gave me.” I didn’t remember this remnant tree limb, but she said I’d found it on a hike in the Smokies near Asheville, NC, where we grew up. That I’d given it to her, and it had inspired her art.


Harriman Fjord, Nellie Juan College Fjord Wilderness Study Area, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.


This was when I first realized that most, if not all, art has at its root inspiration the natural world. A few years later, becoming disillusioned with my work in renewable energy policy for the state of North Carolina, I began to try my hand at writing. I wanted to get at deeper truths, I wanted to reach people at a gut level. At root. The way Edward Abbey’s Monkeywrench Gang and Rachel Carson’sThe Edge of the Sea had reached me when I was navigating college.  


I’d also come to realize that powerful works of writing had inspired policy makers as well; I’d listened to historian Donald Worster explain how The Wilderness Act resulted in part from a national attitude towards nature and wildness that was defined and nurtured by the words of Thoreau, Emerson, Carson, Muir – all the great early American nature writers.


Growing up in the Appalachians, I figured out early on that the natural world was my bedrock. Over time I learned that this bedrock is the most solid, clear, and unyielding in wilderness—in those places that remain the most unmediated by human activity or development.


By mediation, I mean a kind of buffer, like when we’re in a car or behind the glass of a visitor’s center, looking out—any human construct that comes between us and the actual physical world.


When a place is unmediated, I have that sense of being there, fully immersed. This is not easy, it’s often not comfortable, but it is where I feel most alive. All my senses are heightened by being where bears live, by being where I can’t control the tides, where I am put in proper scale with the rest of the living, breathing world.


So it makes perfect sense that, when I came to Alaska for a summer job nearly 30 years ago to sell tickets on the train between Portage and Whittier, I never left. Alaska is replete with places where I can feel in proper scale.

 Tracy Arm Ford's Terror Wilderness, Tongass National Forest, Alaska.


The power of Alaska’s wild to invoke this in me has not diminished with time and familiarity. A few years ago, on an artist residency in the Tongass National Forest’s Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror Wilderness, I felt that sense of proper scale once again, sitting on a swirl of ancient rock recently released from ice, taking in the vast view: a tidewater glacier rumbling to the sea, a seal diving in the cerulean waters at the base of a waterfall, a massive iceberg floating by our camp, big as an island I could live on the rest of my life.


I am lucky. I grew up on family hikes to Devil’s Courtyard and Craggy Gardens and Wayah Bald, on wild rides down Sliding Rock—a 60' natural rock slide that ends in a deep pool—on rock climbing in one of the country’s first designated wilderness areas—the Shining Rock Wilderness. These places are as much a part of my childhood as my little brother laying down on the floor, poufing out his stomach, and yelling, “Hey, look, here’s Mount Mitchell!” Mount Mitchell being, well, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. And my brother, well, having a special talent. These places—Craggy Gardens, Devil’s Courtyard, Shining Rock—they are family.


And then I moved to  Alaska, where I’ve been surrounded by wilderness—some designated and thus protected to varying degrees of success, some not designated but de facto wilderness because of how few people live here. Alaskans have been lucky that way for a long, long time. But that’s changing, has been, my whole life, and more and more I see how tenuous even those places designated wilderness hang on to the essential characteristics that make them what I, as a human and as a writer, need.


Shining Rock Wilderness, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina.


As a writer, I owe it all to natural places, the birth of all my best ideas, images, stories. In the wild, I enter into a conversation that’s always going on but is usually drowned out by my busy, noisy, human-centered life. I enter that wild conversation and am ignited, and new insights and images appear, and everything makes sense.


Making sense – my senses, all alert and awake—in that I find what’s real. And there are rare moments when I feel, as Mary Austin wrote about her experiences in the desert southwest, a “flash of mutual awareness,” when there is some apparent reciprocity between me and an oystercatcher, a wind-sculpted hemlock, a rock outcropping.


When I do my job right, I’m able to capture some small part of that conversation, that reciprocity, in words. That’s why, in The Heart of the Sound, I wrote short prose pieces in between the main chapters. In one, I’m boating back in pouring rain and heavy seas, wanting only to get home, when a sea lion pops up in front of our Zodiak, tosses a salmon into the air, catches it in its pink mouth, gives me a look, then arcs beneath the seas, home. These are moments of insight, reciprocity, shared conversation—and they are my attempts to give voice to the more-than-human world.

                                               Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park Wilderness, Alaska.

You know what they say about visiting wilderness: Take only pictures, leave only footprints. But I always take with me so much more. Not just my scribbles in my write-in-the-rain pad, but a host of experiential knowledge that carries on in my work, a subterranean river of knowing, that conversation reverberating in every experience I have after.


Here’s something from the late, great, Peter Matthiessen, from The Snow Leopard, which speaks to that reciprocity:  “The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share.”


How does the natural world inspire your writing?

Have you experienced a sense of reciprocity between you and the “more-than-human” world?

How do you go about writing about these experiences in wilderness, in nature?

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  • Marybeth Holleman

    Cate, you're so right. It always surprises me how most people don't seem to care, or notice, these incursions on natural sounds. There's a book called "The Great Animal Orchestra" by a musician who chronicles the importance of natural sounds to human creativity - how music, for example, is rooted in and inspired by natural sounds like birdsong - and how those natural sounds are being lost. The dawn chorus of birds is one of those treasures, oh to be able to awaken to that!

    You're talking about the Tar Sands and shipping of the shale oil from that, right? That project alone is causing such a loss of wildlands and wildlife - I've heard it's really ruining habitat for migrating waterfowl - which affects populations throughout the Americas.

    Things for us to write about, friends!

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Barbara,yes, I agree. It would be so nice to hear the wind rattle leaves into dance (instead of the endless list of civilization's sounds).

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Marybeth, thanks for sharing the info about Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition. Helps me to feel like I'm not the only one struggling with the loss of natural sounds being replaced by manmade ones. A person expects it in the city, but not way out in nature.

  • Marybeth Holleman

    Thanks, Alonna. Yes, I know what you mean about the machines. It's a problem here, too. Lots of small planes, partly because that's the only way to get to most of Alaska. But some wilderness areas have regulations about that, too, thankfully. We have a group here, the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition, that holds a "Day of Listening." I've done it, and it's interesting to spend a day paying attention and recording all the sounds - natural and man-made - that you hear when out on a hike or in a natural area.

    Cate, thanks for posting in the literature group. Sounds like a group I should join! And I love how you talk about your own beloved places and wild beings...I think they mean more to us than we often realize. But that's one of the fantastic things about being a writer: we pay attention, so we notice where we draw meaning.

    Barbara, thanks, and what a lovely photograph. Where is it?


  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

    Another natural world inspired writer here....the core...Thank you Marybeth, and Cate for bringing this to our attention!

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Marybeth, nature is a large part of my personal foundation, too. I need to connect with it to recharge. How you put it "fully immersed"--yes! The frustrating thing I've noticed in recent years is the inability to get away from machines. We go to (sometimes) great lengths to get to remote locations only to have prop planes buzzing, buzzing, buzzing. California is the land of prop planes. In Alaska, perhaps you can listen to nature? There's nothing better than to listen to nature.

    Lovely photos!

  • Marybeth Holleman

    Thanks, Joanell!

  • Thanks. I too find my best inspiration after time away in the natural world. Hiking is part of my writing process. I love Alaska, so the pictures are a lovely bonus!

  • Marybeth Holleman

    Thanks, Patricia. That's a great observation you make: being in nature inspires any kind of writing we do.  

  • Patricia Robertson

    Love your pictures! Outstanding! I don't write about the natural world, but it renews my spirit and clears my mind. After time with nature, I do some of my best writing.