UR Here: Valuing the Faraway


I like to think of this time of year as “in deep.” As I write in late January, no snow is on the ground, and we have had our share of warmth this year. Yet, even though the winter of 2013 has so far been relatively mild, spring and summer still seem far away. I love this time of year for its beauties and challenges. But I also love it for that sense of how far away warmth, light and green really are. For me, the beauty of midwinter is enhanced by its remoteness from everything vernal.

I feel the same way about the sense of home and place. From mid-January to mid-February, I feel grounded in the deep reality of a northern winter. Likewise, being far away from places much different from my home—in climate, culture or landscape—raises my sense of belonging to my place here in Iowa, and it enhances my affection for where I live. I hear about the tragic conflicts in equatorial Congo or the arid Syria on the radio. I listen to my friend tell about her trip to Mediterranean Italy. I immerse myself in the mythical landscapes of the Shire and the Lonely Mountain Erebor in a darkened theater watching The Hobbit. As I do all these things, the brown flat fields, the plaintive flights of Canada geese in the purpling dusk and the dormant gardens in our backyard spark in me a wintry affection, aesthetic appreciation and personal centeredness.

I do enjoy visiting other places. Travel certainly can open up minds and senses, as well as enrich our knowledge and experience. But there’s also something to be said for keeping a lot of places remote, for valuing the faraway in our lives. While we undeniably gain something from visiting a faraway place, I don’t think a lot of people appreciate that we also lose something. As writers like Scott Russell Sanders and others have often said, even an entire human lifetime is inadequate for learning everything about a place. By going to the faraway, we lose a chunk of time and experience with home, as well as the opportunity to become even more grounded in our sense of place.

By travelling to the faraway, we can also lose the comfort of its mysterious and intangible nature. Perhaps the most important document in American wilderness history is Wallace Stegner’s famous 1960 “Wilderness Letter” to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, which ultimately was used to introduce the Wilderness Act that established the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964. The letter’s most famous lines include, “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed. . . . We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds—because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.” It goes on to say my favorite line that speaks to the inherent nature of the faraway: “The reminder and the reassurance that [the wilderness] is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.”

Stegner’s idea strikes home with me particularly on our annual visits to the Minnesota North Woods near Ely and the one-million-plus-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. For people who know me or may have read some of my writing on the Minnesota North Woods, it may be a shock to learn that I have never canoed in the actual Boundary Waters. We vacation literally on the BWCAW’s very edge, and I know much about the area’s history—political, cultural and natural. Yet I’ve never taken a Boundary Waters canoe trip. In recent years, I’ve been thinking that maybe I never will. It’s not that I think my experience on Sundew Pond, where we stay, would simply pale by comparison. But I think it would be diminished by some loss in the sense of mystery and wonder over what lies just beyond. Stegner does not advocate never setting foot in the wilderness, but I resonate with his idea that wilderness enhances our lives just by its very existence.

I’m not advocating for a kind of voluntary agoraphobia. Obviously, never leaving your house or your town can stunt your life. What I am advocating for is some reflection and balance. Is globetrotting for a week or two here and there, collecting pins on a map, really helping you know and understand those places and people in a deep, meaningful way? Certainly visiting other places can help us appreciate home by comparison, but perhaps we need to be honest about what we’re really gaining by often-superficial experiences, as well as recognize what we’re losing, including the value of the faraway.

We’re hearing a lot today about how we should “unplug” more, not necessarily abandoning our Internet connections and smartphones completely but scaling back on our use of them because they lead to a loss of connection with family, community and nature. Similarly, perhaps it’s time to think more about demobilizing or unexploring. The faraway can simultaneously enrich our imagination and our connection to home. Sometimes leaving something in the faraway may give us the greatest benefit of all—helping us to be “in deep” right where we are.

Thomas Dean has not been on an airplane since 2004, and he likes it.