The Case for Wild Places
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” — Edward Abbey
Oregon lost a true, original, environmental hero this weekend. I honestly didn’t know Tim Lillebo that well, but his death struck me a stark reminder that wild places are our keystone to life. I’m really shaken by him leaving this earthly life for a few reasons.
We just don’t make people like that anymore. He was a modern day John Muir, with unbridled passion for wild places, rivers, animals and wild thinking. But he was as eloquent lobbying in Congress for reformed timber laws or talking to ranchers. He could talk to anyone and his passion for the forests of Eastern Oregon lit up a room when he entered.
I knew Tim for about four years, when I worked in The Environmental Center building. His Oregon Wild office, which consisted of a complete firetrap of piles of paper and maps, was downstairs. I’d often find him in the parking area out back, hunched over a large Forest Service fire map on the hood of his truck, cigar poking out of his mouth.
I have a sneaky feeling he knew more about Eastern Oregon than anyone currently on this planet. He was THAT GUY. The guy you wanted to have on your hunting trip because he knew what those weird plants were. The guy that knew every twist and turn of a river. The guy that had some crazy story about a place, whether myth or legend or truth.
When I left my job and told him I was traveling to Indonesia, he pulled me away from my desk, grabbed a 30 year old dog-eared world atlas and we went outside to the hood of his truck. He then proceeded to name off tiny unknown Indonesian islands that were said to house some of the most wild and bio diverse forests on the planet. Somehow, this bearded, cigar smoking, Eastern Oregon ex-logger knew all about them. When I finally reached my dream of Indonesia, I was floored by the complete lack of solitude. Even when we took our motorbike far off the main road onto narrow single track paths to deserted beaches—someone was always there with a “Hello Mister! Where you go?”
It hit me hard—the ability to leave the civilized world for one of wildness is a treasure to be saved.
His passing reminds me: That we must work hard to save the bits and pieces of land and forests and rivers in which we can find solitude and grace from our everyday lives. And we must seek and get to know those wild places on this planet, for it really is our salvation. We need to make ourselves go far, far away at times to lose ourselves and feel vulnerable again in the world. It’s time to feel small again and wild places can do that.
When I moved to Central Oregon in 1997, I wanted to be surrounded by a community of people who loved the outdoors. We hiked, climbed, explored and did silly things in the woods like sleep in snow caves and swing from rope swings in the trees. Getting lost in the woods was an adventurous playtime. It’s hard to believe based on the current state of affairs, but it wasn’t about the craft beer after the fact or the “yoga for (insert sporting activity here)” classes. It was about being “out there”.
Have we lost that joy of exploring and getting lost, spending nights wet and cold and maybe even a little scared? (Sorry, Mom.) Where did it go? Now we wear computers, buy gear fit for astronauts, enroll our kids on race teams and calibrate our heart rate monitors when we go outside. We seem to have lost that special feeling of adventure and immersion into the wildness that can often be found steps from our back yard.
I challenge you to get out there and find a wild place. Go nowhere, on no trail, no map, and keep it quiet. Don’t post it to Twitter. Turn off your GPS. No one gives a shit about Strava. No one cares, especially not the soil under your feet or the trees that tower over you. Swim in the ocean by yourself. Float a stretch of river that no one knows. Climb that rock pile that you’ve always looked at from the safety of the trail. Hide yourself in the tall grass of a meadow at dawn.
Drink in the empty spaces and look up to see how the earth and sky is sewn together by a thin golden thread. Blur the lines on the map and squint your eyes until you can’t see the signs on the road. It’s good for you. You’ll survive—and everything will be better in the end. As Tim would say with a groovy grin, “All right, man. All right.”