Maybe it was the frigid temperatures of the polar vortex. Or perhaps it was that crazy cocktail the bartenders at Busboys and Poets crafted specially for the DC Science Café. But as Paul Woods of SkyTruth spelled out the blunt future of environmental remote sensing – that soon nothing will be hidden from view – I thought about wilderness.
In truth, I didn’t try the cocktail (choosing a modest pinot noir instead). And I had just finished an article for Pacific Standard on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, so the topic was front of mind. In fact, in retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that I didn’t make the connection sooner. I hear about emerging applications of environmental remote sensing pretty much every night at the dinner table from my husband John Amos, founder of SkyTruth, and I lived and breathed wilderness for weeks as I wrote my article. Yet as John and Paul traced the inevitable trajectory — ever-higher resolution, greater accessibility and lower price — of technology once available only to the national security crowd, I suddenly longed for solitude.
Solitude is one of the defining features of wilderness. The lofty language of the 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness largely by what it doesn’t have; namely, people.
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. “
What it does have, according to the Act, is “outstanding opportunities for solitude, or an unconfined type of recreation.” For at least a century before the Act, iconic conservationists waxed poetic about the spiritual renewal they felt in wild areas away from society, dependent on no one. I’ve felt it myself. So I imagined John Muir in the Sierras or Edward Abbey in the canyonlands replacing their sense of utter escape with the knowledge that, no matter how far they trekked, they could never really be free of society’s grasp; that someone somewhere was watching. Every day I cheer our gains in catching the bad guys – the illegal fishers, the careless frackers, the greedy gold miners– with remote sensing. Now I mourn our loss as well.