Today was another mild, gloriously sunny spring day in Keene: the kind of day when it’s difficult to stay indoors. During the free hour I have before my noon lit class, I took a walk on and around campus, crossing the railroad bridge over the Ashuelot River then following the local bike path a few blocks into town and back. On a sunny spring day, exercise easily passes for ecstasy.
The stretch of bike path that intersects campus could never be confused with wilderness. Both the paved and dirt portions are leftover from Keene’s industrial heyday when the railroad delivered raw materials and retrieved goods like chairs, ball-bearings, and bricks in exchange. The segment of bike path I walked today passes an auto body shop, several derelict garages, and a series of run-down industrial buildings that house the local aikido dojo, a large upholstery and fabric store, and other commercial endeavors that aren’t quite ready for the prime time of prime downtown real estate. Most New England towns offer a mix of the quaint and the quotidian, and today’s stroll took me past the backside of industries most casual tourists never take the time see.
On Earth Day more than any other, it strikes me that these well-worn sites of human industry are exactly the kind of places we overlook in our quest for the “virgin wild.” In today’s noon lit class, we began to discuss Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the very title of which alludes to the allure of the untamed and untrammeled. “If only I could escape civilization like Christopher McCandless did,” readers of Krakauer’s narrative might wish, “and encounter Nature where she is still untouched and untamed!” And yet “the Wild” is an elusive quarry. Venturing into the Alaskan “wild,” Chris McCandless ended up camping in an abandoned bus not far from Healy: not exactly an untouched wilderness. In McCandless’ mind, however, the mental distance he’d traveled from his suburban childhood in a privileged Virginia suburb to an alien Alaskan landscape transformed even an abandoned bus into a Wild place…as did his eventual demise there.
Perhaps an apt way of observing Earth Day would be to temporarily refrain from fossil-fueled travel in search of the Wild. Instead of jet-setting to popular eco-tourist spots or retracing the steps of Chris McCandless in search of Alaskan enlightenment, perhaps the most green thing we can do is to make a conscious effort to stay close to home, engaging in human-powered travel as we explore the streets and sidewalks of our own human habitats. “Walk more, idle less” proclaim dozens of crayoned signs in the shop windows of downtown Keene: local school children’s answer to global warming, high fuel prices, and expanding American waistlines. Thoreau famously claimed that he “traveled a great deal” in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, and maybe he was onto something. Rather than seeing “the Wild” as being far off and elusive, perhaps we should re-inhabit our own habitats, investigating wonders close to home while making an eco-friendly commitment to “Think Globally; Walk Locally.”