Interstate 5 is about a quarter-mile from my house. Even in the wee hours, the whirring noise of tires on concrete is omnipresent. I try to pretend it's the flowing sound of a mighty river, but my brain is not fooled. Dude, it's a freeway.
The din produced by our mechanical contrivances produces a soundscape quite unlike what humanity has experienced for almost the entire duration of our existence. My personal hypothesis is that a root cause of our modern age's neuroses is that, dammit, there's too much noise.
That's one good reason for protecting wide open wildlands and keeping them free of roads, buildings, and conveniences that draw crowds bearing noisy gadgets. Let people find those blank spots on the map and experience the deep natural quiet that our ancestors knew. We might learn something.
The House did a favor for natural quiet the other day through a big, bipartisan majority vote to pass legislation giving legal permanence to the National Landscape Conservation System, or NLCS.
Never heard of the NLCS? No worries, not many people have. The conservation system includes 26 million acres of national monuments, wilderness and conservation areas, wild rivers, and historic trails on Western lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Unlike the national parks, there is no statutory basis for the conservation system's existence. It's an administrative creation that could be done away with at the stroke of a pen by a future administration. The bill passed by the House would fix that. Once passed by the Senate, the legislation will go to President Bush, whose Interior Department will strongly recommend that he sign it.
The NLCS sounds like a parallel system of national parks, but it's not. There is an important difference. Lands in the NLCS are wide open and undeveloped. Paved roads and developed campgrounds are few and far between. To truly experience isolation and thoroughly escape 21st century sounds, the NLCS lands are a good destination.
The idea behind the system, established in 2000, is to protect unspoiled scenery and historical treasures within the broader landscapes that shape, influence, and provide context.
Healthy ecosystems, which thrive on hidden connections among plants, animals, and native habitats, can best function within larger landscapes that allow room for those connections to flourish.
Likewise, archaeological sites can best be appreciated if the surrounding geography that influenced ancient cultures is largely left alone.
It's one thing to learn about the first American societies in urban museums. It's quite another to learn about them by walking lonely trails through the arid mountains where these people lived. You can feel the withering heat bouncing off the very stones they stepped around. You may see descendants of the wild creatures that the old ones may have hunted.
And you can hear, if such is the right word, the immense quiet of their times. Perhaps, immersed in the silence that can only be found in unspoiled remoteness, your mind may amble down forgotten byways where hidden nuggets of wisdom await rediscovery.
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