What is Freedom?
I recently heard a national park ranger argue that our North American search for “freedom” is really a search for natural wilderness. He traced the European settlers to the new world as those seeking freedoms that could not be enjoyed back in the “old world”. These were religious non-conformists, communal-living people, farmers, craftspeople, artists.
What they identified as freedom was the continent’s wilderness. In the unregulated, un-policed, and un-manicured environments of Quebec, Ontario, New England and Virginia, they saw “freedom”. Turtle Island’s massive wilderness of forests and great plains seemed under-populated--free.
However, the ranger continued, these settlers cleared the wilderness for farms and towns so they could pursue a “free” life, away from the restrictions of class-society Europe. I reflected that this same attraction drew the back-to-the-landers who fled the US and our own cities during the Vietnam War.
As they cleared the wilderness, they came to feel they were losing those very “freedoms” that had brought them here. The settlers moved westward, clearing forests, taming the great plains, subduing rivers and crossing mountain chains – only to find they were removing the very freedom that drove them on. The free people living there were forced into reservations.
Now, said the forester, Canadians and Americans complain of lost freedoms and liberties. But without make their equation with lost wilderness.
We seek to be affluent and comfortable, forgetting that freedom itself is often not wealth-generating and is often very uncomfortable – as so many of yesterday’s back-to-the-landers also came to find. Escaping to a freedom where they would not be drafted to fight did not also give them jobs, nor good schools for their kids. Like the earlier settlers, many soon abandoned their original plans and ideals. They filtered back to the cities, to corporations and institutions – and complained bitterly about modern life’s loss of “freedoms”. They began to vote, a few, for populists who also claimed freedom as their banner, but only by blaming certain minorities. They’d be free if there weren’t so many immigrants, so many racial minorities, so many of this and so many of that. Those populists are opening national parks – Banff to Alaska—to drilling and mining.
The forester asked that we see again it is wilderness which offers freedom, and that all efforts to tame wilderness, or to extract wealth from it, lead to a loss of freedom. History is certainly on the forester’s side.
The forester had a final plea, and one that touched my heart as a parent and a grand-father: that wilderness needs protection and it is under great threat, but it will not be protected by appealing to our parliamentarians and congress-people – they come and go, he said, every few years. This must be in common with the original peoples’ drive for freedom.
Our grandchildren must learn to value wilderness as the genuine source of freedom. They can protect it. But it is us who must teach them this lesson, you and me.