American Wilderness: Back to the Future in Vallejo

September 10, 2014

Talk about wilderness for more than a few minutes and the conversation usually if not inevitably gets round to language, to narrative and then eventually to nitty-gritty policy. From the earliest days of the New World, wilderness has been about words and about storytelling. For four days in September those topics echoed loudly, locally. Dozens of environmental groups gathered in downtown Vallejo to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, to ponder the meaning of the word and to filter the concept through the lenses of California’s diverse communities.

If any one single narrative emerged from the four days of films, speakers, panels, and outings into the nearby wilds it’s this: Wilderness is at a crossroads with people lined up on all sides of those roads, some of them running parallel to one another, some headed in opposite directions.

An American Indian perspective on wilderness was represented by a contingent of older women from the Winnemen Wintu Tribe near Lake Shasta.  These women, led by Chief Caleen Sisk, have a beef with the concept of the wilderness and with the word wilderness itself. Sisk boasts an international reputation among organizations that represent indigenous peoples from Central California to Central Asia, and she’s as feisty as any young environmental activist. “We’ve never had a word for wilderness and we never will,” Sisk told a crowd of one hundred or so gathered at the restored Empress Theater, which had survived the recent earthquake that shook Northern California quite nicely.

Indians weren’t the only participants at the conference for whom wilderness is an alien concept. “The Vietnamese language has no real equivalent for the English word wilderness, though it has several words for the kinds of forests that are rapidly vanishing,” explained Hao Tran, a Vietnamese American environmentalist who works for the U.S. Forest Service. “There’s not much forest left in Vietnam. Illegal logging decimated forests for decades; during the war defoliation devastated thousands of acres. Now, we have national forests that are supposed to be protected by the government, but it’s protection in name only.” Tran is an expert in the field of land management and in his own words a “champion for sustainability.” Born in Vietnam in 1955, he left home in 1973. After studying forestry on a scholarship in Australia, he came to the United States and in the mid-1980s, landed a job with the U.S. Forest Service, much of the time as a research scientist as well as a manager with a desk job. “I didn’t have the right kind of name for a top position,” he says. “I didn’t go to the right schools, either, so I opted to work on technical problems like making ethanol from wood.”

Outside of work, Tran devotes his energy to the Richmond Greenway, a pet project that’s close to his home in Berkeley, and to the creation of protected environments in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam for endangered Sarus cranes. “Whether in Vietnam or in America, there’s a lot of work to be done before it’s too late,” Tran says. “In Richmond we planted thousands of trees in an area that was a wasteland and that’s now green space that the community cares about. We made a difference.”

He adds, “my agency, the U.S. Forest Service, which I love, has to change more quickly than it is. It has to serve people who live in urban rather than in rural areas, because the vast majority of Americans live in urban areas. We have to bring nature to the city and we have to educate city people about nature, which for me is a far bigger concept than wilderness.”

The four-day conference that organizers dubbed “Visions of the Wild” focused on three major themes: “History and Politics”; “Culture & Values,” and “Spirit & Journey.” The conference organizers, including Steve Dunsky, a filmmaker with the U.S. Forest who lives in Vallejo, and Mike Painter, the coordinator of Californians for Western Wilderness, endeavored to reach beyond the traditionally white environmental movement and to attract young people with blue-collar jobs from underserved communities. Many of the speakers and panelists were young and from those communities.

UC Berkeley Professor Carolyn Finney, the author of Black Faces, White Spaces, talked passionately about the whiteness of the environmental movement and about the need to bring black faces into narratives about the great outdoors. Like Chief Sisk, she didn’t use the “w” word. Elegantly attired with a bright smile and dreadlocks, Finney looked back at the 1960s with a kind of dismay.

“The Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act were both signed into law by President Johnson in 1964 and they were both a part of his vision of the Great Society, but wilderness advocates and civil rights activists rarely talked to one another,” she said. “They’re still not talking to one another. Black people are still not recognized for their contributions to the environmental movement that has been dominated since the days of John Muir by smart, privileged white men who often expressed racist ideas and didn’t recognize their own racism. One of the privileges of privilege is that it doesn’t see itself.”

North Dakota State Professor Mark Harvey speaks while displaying a photo of Howard Zahniser, the first executive secretary of the Wilderness Society. (Photo by Dave Reider)
North Dakota State Professor Mark Harvey speaks while displaying a slide of Howard Zahniser, the first executive secretary of the Wilderness Society. (Photo by Dave Reider)

North Dakota State Professor Mark Harvey led the audience through the concept of wilderness as outlined in the Wilderness Act and looked at the life of Howard Zahniser, the first executive secretary of the Wilderness Society, and the author of the Wilderness Act, whom he described as a PR person who exhibited “faith in the system, democracy and the people.” Harvey has a keen sense of American spaces. “Our wilderness advocates have all been anchored to particular places,” he explained. “For Zahniser it was the Allegheny River.” And indeed, nearly everyone at this Visions of Wild Festival, which was meant to connect “Nature, Culture and Community,” felt a connection to a particular geographical landscape.

Carolyn Finney traced her roots to the Tishman estate on Long Island where her parents worked indoors and outdoors and where she was raised. Tran’s roots run deep in Berkeley and in the Mekong Delta. Chief Sisk seems inseparable from the “Sacred Land,” as she called it, where her ancestors lived, hunted, and practiced rites and ceremonies.

That powerful sense of a spiritual, rather than a utilitarian, connection to the land was palpable on the next to the last day when Chief Sisk condemned the “way of life in which everything is owned, and where ownership of the land has taken the place of relationship with the land.” Her own tribe the Winnemen Wintu, she observed, are still unrecognized by the federal government. Moreover she explained that she would not go before any federal agency to ask for recognition. “We were already a tribe before the U.S. existed,” she said. “We’ve had sacred spaces for thousands of years, though now they’ve been taken over by the government. The Bureau of Land Management has control over our ancient cemetery on Mt. Shasta. Every time we go there to bury one of our own we’re breaking the law.”

Toby McLeod, the project director of Earth Island Institute’s Sacred Land Film Project and the producer/director of a documentary about Caleen Sisk and her tribe, brought the conversation back to the Wilderness Act which he faulted for its failure to include the “the spiritual dimension” of American spaces. He called Sisk an icon for the movement for sacred spaces.

Vicky Hoover of the Sierra Club, one of the main organizers of the 50th anniversary wilderness celebrations, read from President Barack Obama’s August 29, 2014 declaration of September 2014 as “National Wilderness Month.” At the Empress Theatre in Vallejo the president and his proclamation almost seemed irrelevant even though it appeared that Obama had been listening to the debate about the anniversary, and knew that feelings ran high about the word wilderness itself.

Fifty years earlier, in 1964, Obama’s statement explained, “a forward-thinking Nation came together, a President put pen to paper, and a great society secured an enduring gift for future generations.” He sounded as though he envied LBJ. Perhaps he did. And while he wasn’t nostalgic for the Sixties he seemed to look back to the future on “Spaceship Earth,” as Buckminster Fuller called it in his 1968 book Operating Manual for Space Ship Earth. “During National Wilderness Month,” Obama said, “we draw on the audacity and vision of previous generations of environmental stewards and resolve to do our part to preserve our planet for our children and for their children.”

About the Author

Jonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California.