Although Thomas Jefferson argued that no one generation has the right to encroach upon another generation’s freedom, the future’s right to know the freedom of wilderness is going fast. It need not go at all. A tragic loss could be prevented if only there could be broader understanding of this: that the resources of the earth do not exist just to be spent for the comfort, pleasure, or convenience of the generation or two who first learn how to spend them; that one of these is wilderness, wherein the flow of life, in its myriad forms, has gone on since the beginning of life, essentially uninterrupted by man and his technology; that this, wilderness, is worth saving for what it can mean to itself as part of the conservation ethic; that the saving is imperative to civilization and all mankind, whether or not all men yet know it. . . .
This is the American Earth epitomizes what the Sierra Club, since its founding in 1892 by John Muir, has been seeking on behalf of the nation’s scenic resources and needs to pursue harder in the times to come. The book is by far the most important work the club has published and the debt is enormous to Ansel Adams for his inspiration of the book, his photographs, and his guidance, and to Nancy Newhall for the organization of the book and the power of its text. It is a stirring book.
It needs to be stirring, stirring of love for the earth, of a suspicion that what man is capable of doing to the earth is not always what he ought to do, of a renewed hope for the wide spacious freedom that can remain in the midst of the American earth.
Executive Director, Sierra Club
Lupine Meadows, the Tetons
August 23, 1959
The above is from the foreword of This Is the American Earth (The Sierra Club, 1960) by Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall. Well into the book, lush with Adams photographs and Newhall’s lyrical text, is my all-time favorite passage about the wilderness experience. It describes what we must preserve for ourselves and future generations because, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world”:
This Is the American Earth
by Nancy Newhall
To the primal wonders no road can ever lead;
they are not so won.
To know them you shall leave road and roof behind;
you shall go light and spare.
You shall win them yourself, in sweat, sun, laughter,
in dust and rain, with only a few companions.
You shall know the night — its space, its light, its music.
You shall see earth sink in darkness and the universe appear.
No roof shall shut you from the presence of the moon.
You shall see mountains rise in the transparent shadow before dawn.
You shall see — and feel! — first light, and hear a ripple in the stillness.
You shall enter the living shelter of the forest.
You shall walk where only the wind has walked before.
You shall know immensity,
and see continuing the primeval forces of the world.
You shall know not one small segment but the whole of life,
strange, miraculous, living, dying, changing.
You shall face immortal challenges; you shall dare, delighting,
to pit your skill, courage, and wisdom against colossal facts.
You shall live lifted up in light; you shall move among the clouds.
You shall see storms arise, and, drenched and deafened, shall exult in them.
You shall top a rise and behold creation.
And you shall need the tongues of angels to tell what you have seen.