“I am glad that I shall never be young
without wild country to be young in.”
Aldo Leopold, quoted in In Service to the Wild by Stephanie Mills
2002 – There’s a place where I walk often that I think of as feral land. At one time it was on the edge of a research facility, where various types of experiments were conducted on mining-related projects. The facility closed about ten or fifteen years ago, and the only thing that goes on up there anymore is some occasional cleanout of leftover equipment or materials, and a periodic lookover by security people. In addition, I walk my dogs there and a few runners or bikers follow the old road and trail through the area.
Outside of the part with the old building and fenced yard, the area is a tangle of trees and second or third growth underbrush. Piles of waste rock, broken concrete and debris are mostly or partially grown over with Old Man’s Beard, grasses, wild holly or Rabbitbrush. The dirt track into the area is fenced off from unofficial access, and the connecting trail is somewhat convoluted. Slowly nature is taking back what was once Man’s domain.
As you walk down the track, you gradually become aware of the bird noises all around you. Chirps, whistles and the jungle-style cries of the Flickers haunt the air. In the underbrush you sense more than see movement. Occasionally you get a good view of a house finch, flicker, magpie, raven or even, at times, a Rufus-sided Towhee or goldfinch. But mostly, it’s LGBs (Little Gray Birds), the name given by a biologist friend to those small blurs that you see but could never identify.
In the late spring you notice the flowering trees and shrubs. Some, like the plum, are wild, native plants in their perennial struggle to exist. Others, like the large, beat up apple, are relics of an earlier day when some nameless person tended the grounds and planted dreams for the future.
Back off the dirt track and up against the hillside, you can find rock walls built into the hill. The round river stones provide a texture that is unmistakably man-made. Covered in places with vines and brush and slumping from the weight of the hillside, these walls imply an older use of the property, before the research center occupied its piece of the land.
Maybe whoever built the walls also planted the apple tree. Its shade would fall across the threshold of the imagined hillside rooms. It was then a pretty spot, out on the edge of town, close enough to the stream to hear the gurgle and splash of the water. The riparian trees would have made a copse, not unlike what’s there now, protected from the wind and the sun. The same bird noises would have littered the front of the rooms like leaves falling to the ground. But one day, these people, too, moved on. And nature with her inexorable, timeless process began to reclaim this feeble inroad of Man.
It’s a small slice of nature, slowly being surrounded by people and their appurtenances. A highway there, new buildings here, maybe a new soccer field over there. Most days you can find fresh deer tracks near the stream, but their makers are invisible by sunrise. There’s a fox that is seen often enough to indicate a nearby den. I imagine her eating the windfall apples and wild plums, along with the occasional rabbit or squirrel. Once, I discovered two young elk bedded down in the middle of the dirt trail. I tried, nearly successfully, to leave before I disturbed them, but I’ve not seen them since. Raccoons leave tiny hand prints in the mud on the road, but are too wary to be seen in the woods. Occasionally, there’s an unwashed traveler, wandered down from the nearby highway seeking shelter or an undisturbed place to rest. They’re almost as elusive as the raccoons, but have a fox-like quality for picking a path that avoids yours.
I’ve seen these feral lands in other places. Sometimes it’s a clump of lilacs in a windbreak out on the plains. Once I saw a cluster of iris blooming against a hillside where there was no other evidence of occupation. In a tangle of brush and cactus, I discovered a hand dug well and storm or root cellar that had a very snaky feel to it. The desolation of that place spoke of a desperation to make a new start that I hope I never know. Anyone who’s ever visited the great Indian ruins can attest to the perseverance of nature to revert to the wild.
Everywhere I go now, I look for the wasted lands. Once domesticated for Man’s use, they are now released back to nature. They may never be truly natural again, but they evolve to the wild from a new starting point into a different natural area. These lands aren’t wilderness, and they’re seldom worthy of park or monument status. They’re just backwaters in Man’s use of the land; pockets once disturbed, but now abandoned to their own devices.
When I find these feral lands, it gives me a sense of peace. It raises hope that maybe something can survive us. And just maybe, we can figure out how to survive us, too.