Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wild within

Today is my late brother Scot’s birthday, and as I usually do on this day I went for a long walk.

In past years I’ve taken these walks in remote wilderness areas. But unavoidable commitments made that impossible this year, so I went instead to the Biltmore Estate, which is closer and has several long trails that, if not through wild places, at least give the illusion.

As I drove onto the estate, I thought Scot would have rolled his eyes. He’d have thought a walk there overly tame. Scot sought out wild places in life, which is the reason I usually do for walks in his honor.

The schism between where I walked today and where I think Scot would have liked me to walk got me thinking about the divide, imaginary or otherwise, between wild and tame, outside and inside, natural and domestic.

It is more difficult to define these differences than I thought.

The Biltmore Estate was landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead, who laid out Central Park in New York City and other famous and highly cultivated places. He had a knack for making a managed parkland seem like a wilderness, at least after a hundred years of growth and grooming.

The long approach road made me feel like I was driving through a wilderness: huge trees, streams, waterfalls, stone outcroppings, ferns, bracken. The road twisted back and forth like a mountain trail.

I noticed however that the forest beside the road displayed not just itself, for I could see and enjoy it plainly, but was also trimmed and tended so that it revealed the forest twenty and more yards beyond.

The near forest was in fact a parkland, there not just for itself but also to suggest the forest beyond. It was open, cleared of understory. Beautiful itself, it nevertheless revealed the darker more natural forest beyond.

In this way the Olmstead forest was both itself and something else, a park and a forest, a collection of carefully placed trees and shrubs designed to suggest a virgin wildnerness, but also a window, a shaded framework there to show off the darker, gloomier, seemingly more dangerous and distant landscape.

Thus, at once, these woods revealed but also distanced.

I suppose the Olmstead forest is a buffer, a sort of liminal space, neither entirely domestic, for the trees and ferns do suggest wild nature, nor entirely wild, for they are so obviously cleared and managed.

The staged forest reminds me of a museum diorama, the elements of which are carefully positioned to suggest natural profusion without hiding anything.

In some ways, the juxtaposition between park and forest at the Biltmore replicates within the estate the relation between the estate - an elaborate artifice made to seem like nature - and the great Pisgah National Forest just beyond the estate’s boundaries.

Indeed, it is in Middle Prong and Shining Rock Wilderness areas within the Pisgah Forest where I have usually gone to walk on Scot’s birthday.

The relation between park and forest at Biltmore got me thinking on my walk about our family’s interest in wilderness in the first place. It began for us children on walks led by our parents through farm forests and meadows. These were Sunday afternoon affairs along dirt roads and well-beaten paths, across dairy fences and pasture brooks.

Thinking back, those walks were through an agrarian nature, hardly wild. And yet to us kids, they were wildness itself. I remember imagining us as Indians and Explorers trekking through remote territories, hunting bison and white-tailed deer, wary of ambush at every step.

So the farm fields of youth, like the manicured forests beside the Biltmore approach road, opened us up to wild places, planted an interest in remote nature even as it was more a wood lot beside the pasture the other side of a hill from the barn.

The farm forest was wilderness to two young boys, and wilderness itself became an idyll for the grown boys. And now that wilderness, for me, was replaced for a day by the Biltmore woods, for they reminded me of remoter places, at least for the little while as I walked and remembered my brother.

The domestic forest was transposed into the wild forest, then transposed today into a domestic forest. Today’s walk wasn’t so wild. Parts of it were within ear shot of the interstate. Parts were within sight of the Biltmore mansion, a castle of grace and overindulgence. Other parts, however, took me past trees three- and four-feet in diameter, tall and dark and carpeted below with thick moss and lush bracken.

Here and there I emerged into a meadow buzzing with the playing-card-in-the-spokes sound of grasshoppers and dragon flies.

The estate evoked the wild, at least for a couple of hours, much the way the farms of my youth evoked the American frontier. I thought at several moments along the way that they were not so neatly divided from one another: each participates in the other. Even Middle Prong Wilderness is a wilderness by definition, by some national decree, and in that way it too is domesticated.

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