Our wilderness heritage must provoke strong feelings in a writer if he is to write well about it, and over the past dozen years this magazine's emotional involvement with the subject has often been on display. Nature writing—good, descriptive nature writing, sharply defined yet free of purple prose—is less a journalistic exercise than an expression of what is in the viewer's eyes and heart. We have been fortunate to have an ever enthusiastic, always fascinating flow of such impressions.
Sometimes the descriptions were part of a hunting or fishing story, in the way John McDonald evoked the upper Yellowstone in Volume 1, No. 1. Sometimes they were elements in a nature study, as when the naturalist Sigurd Olson reported on an ice-bound lake in the winter woods. John Hay in A Walk on the Great Beach (SI, Sept. 11, 1961) gave one good reason for the undercurrent of emotion: "A major part of the American heritage...might be defined in terms of wildness, space, undefined reaches still ahead."
Barbara La Fontaine's Babes in the Woods, which begins on page 60 of this issue, is an extraordinary venture into nature writing on a number of counts. This is a city girl's report on how it feels to spend 16 days in the wilderness, three of them alone and without food (hungry? catch a frog!). Barbara was "lost" as part of a deliberate program, but the realities of the wilderness are the same whether one meets them voluntarily or involuntarily, a part of mankind's timeless experience with cold, hunger, fear, loneliness and bewilderment in the immense solitude of the forest.
The specific forest where Barbara tried to learn how to survive is in the 3,000-square-mile expanse of trees, rocks, lakes and rivers on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border known as the Quetico-Superior wilderness. Jack Olsen described it in The Land of Silence (SI, July 25, 1960), an account of an adventure more comfortable than Barbara's. He evoked the setting—wind blowing against a tent, waves slapping lightly against rocks, loons crying on the lake—and commented: "Man still reacts instinctively to certain phenomena of wilderness and freights these phenomena with more than normal meaning. How else explain the shivers which come with a full moon on a clear night in the wilds? Or the instant release of adrenalin in the system when a wolf cries nearby?"
July 10, 1966
Usually our writers have tried to concentrate on a single scene to typify the enormous expanse of the forest. So Roderick Haig-Brown summoned up the Quinault River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, where he watched raccoons playing on a sandy beach beneath moss-hung spruces. Bil Gilbert described in detail a specific rapids on the Smokehole River of West Virginia (SI, April 27, 1964): "Twice having made good runs in heavy rapids, we beached, took our canoe back upstream and ran the stretch again.... We were having the kind of day boys do, winter past, the world full of sunshine, a reawakening of life's mysteries and hopes."
There has been an abundance of such magically evoked moments: Robert Cantwell's description of the Cascade Trail, Duncan Barnes's account of the awesome emptiness of the Mackenzie River country of Canada, Martin Kane's report on the Madison River before and after the earthquake, Coles Phinizy's report of wildlife in the vast-ness of Alaska. It is an axiom of writers that no setting is so difficult as a scene in the wilderness. There is nothing to identify the place—just a nameless river bend or lakeshore. Conversely, however, when a writer succeeds in making such a place real to the reader it remains unforgettable. I venture to believe that Barbara La Fontaine's painfully fabricated shelter in the woods, with the late sun shining through the roof, belongs in that category.