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April 2016 Issue
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What’s the use of wilderness?

Mt Ngauruhoe. Photo: Claire Garnier

Tramping may not be the the most fashionable pursuit, but the wilderness is the beating heart of this world, writes David Hill

Here’s a dangerous question to ask in this magazine. What’s the use of wilderness?

Settle down. I’m on your side. I used to tramp the backblocks before I grew a dodgy back, a wonky knee, a tricky hip and a dicky ticker. But suppose someone asks you that question – probably someone for whom wilderness is that stretch between front door and car door. How would you answer?

I only ask because recently, at a rather snooty dinner party, I mentioned I liked tramping. One terribly fashionable person exclaimed, “But what’s the point of it?” Another added “Aren’t you bored?”

Otago writer and fisherman/tramper Brian Turner probably has the best response. Wilderness is useful because it’s not useful. It reminds us that measuring everything by the profit or utility it represents is a pretty threadbare way of looking at the world. The best things in life aren’t useful; they’re precious. Turner puts it brilliantly: “I doubt that being obsessed with Futures and All Ords does much for the human spirit.” Wilderness, by contrast, is about “the joys and satisfactions in life…what’s meant by heart and soul”.

Another reason why wilderness is useful is that it’s Earth’s lungs and kidneys. As climate change starts to grip, it’s one of the best defences we have. There are other, less tangible reasons, too. So here are my answers to anyone else who ever questions my enthusiasm for tramping. I just wish I’d had them all ready at the dinner party.

It’s public. In an age of increasing, grasping privatisation, our wilderness reminds us we’re custodians of the land, not owners. Our bush, mountains, waterways are among the best things we can pass on to future New Zealanders.

It’s long-term. The wilderness makes you realise how ephemeral so many human concerns are. Business deals, traffic problems, the Aussies beating the All Blacks: four days in the Ruahines and they hardly matter. You come out with a fresh perspective on what really does.

It surprises you. I’ve met people who reckon the backblocks are dull. (No, they weren’t all from Auckland.) What rubbish. An hour almost anywhere in the wilderness brings moments that make you exclaim with delight. The Tasman folding in beside the Heaphy Track; twilight through tawa on the Matemateaonga Track: the backcountry lets you say “Beautiful!” out loud without feeling embarrassed.

It’s democratic and egalitarian. Less so than it used to be, with private choppers whisking the affluent in and out. But our wilderness remains a place where brain surgeon and truckie are equal. They both get wet and lost, rewarded and exhilarated.

It lets you talk to yourself. Under-25s especially spend so much time wired up to cellphones and headphones that they seldom get to hold those vague, swirling, priceless conversations with themselves where you review your life. Wilderness gives you the chance to sort out private priorities and problems; reassure or rebuke yourself; know yourself better.

It measures you. Trudging up a ridge on a sweltering afternoon; fording a flooded river with the boulders knocking; sloshing along a track that’s turned into a shin-deep drain, in a country where life is increasingly comfortable and cosy lets you find what you’re capable of. What you’re worth.

It cuts you down to size. In the wilderness, you walk through kilometres of animal and plant life, and (unless you tread on it) none of it gives a damn about you.

It builds you up to size. Yet in spite of that previous sentence, you’re also part of something vast, mysterious, transcendental. We’ve all had moments in the wilderness when we feel larger than life.

It gives you stories. The wilderness provides great narrative material – cresting a ridge to where a falcon floats on thermals below; being halfway up Mt Taranaki as a crescent moon crawls over the horizon; coming into a grassy clearing on the Routeburn and hearing your mate exclaim “Be a great place to make love in!”, then watching him trip and accidentally assume the position. They all turn into great stories. Stories make you alive and meaningful. The bush provides them in abundance.

It pares you down. Top New Zealand playwright Roger Hall says that at the end of your days, you’ll judge your life not by how many SUVs you’ve owned, but by how much you’ve seen and done. Is there anything as good as the wilderness for reminding you how many consumer goods and material distractions you can do without?

And it makes civilisation seem so good. I had to put this one in. We all know that no pie or pint tastes as brilliant as the one you scoff after five days of eating out of foil and packets.

– David Hill is a full-time writer and unfit tramper living in New Plymouth.

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