I grew up in a place where one could walk three miles east and leave the world we have built and re-enter the world that has always been. I still live there. Since history is directional and our minds are steeped in history, moving into undeveloped nature is like moving into the past, into the world as it used to be. A little bit of the world I usually inhabit is developed, somewhat. Town consists of small collection of buildings and fewer than a thousand people. There’s probably a three-story building somewhere in town, but at the moment I can’t think of one. Walk a mile in any direction and you will have left the town behind.
Probably more people live in the country now than in town proper. So the countryside outside town has lots of houses—on most roads you can rarely travel more than a quarter mile without passing one. There are more newer houses, mostly fancier than those in town, than older ones. Everyone wants to live in the country, at their own Walden Pond, though with satellite connections to the Internet and television—to those media dense with signs that refer to themselves, where meaning and value have been lost.
The fact that in less than hour’s walk I can leave all that re-establishes its somewhat ephemeral quality. Very quickly, I can be in a place that seems untouched by history, though in many places stumps and old skid trails are subtle traces of logging. Visiting the high country is a form of time travel. The walk often leads through dense cedar groves along the creek, where at ground level all is in deep shade and nothing grows, up through opens stands of Ponderosa Pine and a thick understory, home to nuthatches and catbirds and waxwings. The mountains is forested in a rich mosaic of conifers, including varieties of pine, fir, larch and spruce. At higher elevations, the vegetation thins.
Awakening at a lake above tree line in the crisp thin air (treeline varies depending on exposure to wind or sun, but in Montana it tends to be around 9,000 feet), you are in a climate that moves from winter through a brief spring then back into winter. At the end of July small streams from melting glaciers water the spring wildflowers and grass. The alpine world is very young, with plants struggling to establish and maintain themselves.
In such moments, one sees again the first day of Creation.