The Ones Who Walk In

(a parable, with apologies and respects to Ursula K. LeGuin)

Imagine a wilderness, a paradise of nature. Let’s call it Or-gone. There, green woods grow out of good ground, and deer and wolf and bear and weasel prowl among the trees, eagle and raven and buzzard soar in the clean skies, and chickadees and wrens sing at the edges of meadows green with grass, rainbow-painted with wildflowers. This wilderness region is the size of a small country, with a few hundred miles of rocky, wave-battered shoreline where seals and otters swim. They feast on salmon that swarm at the mouths of rivers which wind their way down from a border of high mountains marking the limits of Or-gone, cutting it off from the rest of the world. The human world. Civilization.

Humans are allowed visit this wilderness. Those few who dare are called “the ones who walk in.” But the rules are strict. They must enter the wild country completely naked— bare-handed and bare-headed and bare-foot. And they must go alone. They are allowed to walk or run or swim wherever they can, and eat whatever they catch or gather, and sleep wherever they find shelter from rain and wind and animals. They are allowed to explore and live and even die— which many of the visitors do— however they wish. Free and wild. But they must make no tools, no machines of any kind. They must use no fire. And they must return from the wild zone, if they do, the same way they entered, naked and alone, bringing nothing with them but their lives.

There can be no exception to these rules. If any machine or industry or act of human civilization enters that small region, even one, then the world will be thrown out of balance forever, and human life on earth will end.

Imagine. If this sacred place is harmed in any way, if one tree is cut or one spade pierces the soil, then all of civilization will disappear.

Cities and suburbs and shopping malls have grown up around Or-gone. Freeways circle its borders, their tall walls blocking any view of the wild except a rare glimpse of the snow-covered peaks of the mountains. Everywhere else, fields are plowed and planted in rows of cabbage and corn, forests are cut down, and ores are torn out of the ground. Cities and housing developments and parking lots and industrial parks are built and torn down and built again. Theaters and cathedrals rise in beauty and fall in fire, ghettos are gentrified, walls are built and torn down. People laugh and love, children are born. Wars pound the earth with bombs and soak it with blood and tears. Salt is sown in the soil. People love again. Civilization, in other words, goes about its usual business everywhere except that single, wild, natural place.

This small bit of wilderness must be preserved— unused, unmolested, completely wild— and humanity can keep every other inch of the planet for itself.

Imagine Or-gone. Gold glittering in its stream beds. Its hillsides filled with silver, its wide plains swollen from below with oil and uranium. Its forests of trees thick and tall and straight-grained.

What if the soil of Or-gone was dark and rich and fertile for corn and wheat? What if its herds of rare animals were valuable, and its gemstones precious and abundant? How hard would it be to keep someone from stealing its riches for themselves? How hard, to keep the hungry from eating its fruits, the poor from poaching its animals to feed their children, industry from digging its ores, the rich from demanding its gemstones for their fingers?

How hard would we all work to protect that last necessary sanctuary of the wild world?

And how many of us would choose to be among the ones who walk in to Or-gone?

Ken Zimmerman 2018

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