I am sitting in an old green cabin near the Haines Road summit reading a note from someone I do not know. Written back in August of 2003 it says, “You can’t beat fun for a good time.”
For some reason I take great comfort in these words. While the words themselves are uplifting, perhaps I am put at ease because they are anonymous words and I am left to fill in the “who and why.”
After a moment’s reflection, I realize my good feelings come more from the fact that what is written here reflects what I think of as the “greater commons.” They were written by some other passerby seeking shelter, feeling just as welcome and at home here as I do.
This cabin is common property placed on public land for anyone to use. In a world where everything seems to be owned by someone else, common property is becoming a rare treat.
Rain is coming down harder now and my dog crawls down under the bunk bed as her way of escaping the noise. She is timid and pulls her ears straight back.
In a minute, she is comfortable, curled up in a tight ball and breathing slowly.
Framed in the window above the table is a bald mountaintop. I don’t know its name.
On the map in front of me I see that it hides the Samuel glacier a few kilometres on to the North.
When the rain lets up, I hear, for the first time, the faint rattle of a fast-moving stream, equally nameless.
Reading a few more entries in the guest book I soon discover this cabin is owned and maintained by BC Parks.
Several of the guests who have taken the time to scribble a word or two have stayed here many times in the past. To some this small cabin is a destination, a sort of civilized tameness to be found in the middle of wild country.
There are not many places left in this busy world of ours where a cabin like this can be maintained for public use. It is a testament to individual kindness, appreciation, and it requires a great deal of honesty.
On the shelf above the counter running along the back wall of the cabin I find silverware, matches, candles, a can opener, a few old tattered mystery books, two hand towels and a washcloth.
Behind the small wood stove there are two sharp axes. I take one outside and split kindling from the woodpile stacked neatly against the side of the cabin.
In no time the stove has warmed the place and I settle in to drinking hot tea and making a few notes.
The Yukon is perhaps the last stand in a complex struggle that has been going on for centuries between wilderness preservation and civilization.
If we cannot find ways to preserve true wilderness here, it is doomed everywhere.
If we are going to preserve wild places like this it seems to me we have to find ways to bring back something we have lost: the commons.
Poet and essayist Gary Snyder once observed that we must find ways to take back those things and places that were once common to all of us.
He tells us, “If we do not recover the commons and regain the personal, local community, and people’s direct involvement in sharing the web of the wild world, that world will keep slipping away.”
Snyder reminds us in his book The Practice of the Wild that there are three possible fates for our remaining wilderness lands: privatization, administration by government authority, or — when possible — “they can become part of a true commons, of reasonable size, managed by local inhibitory people.”
Snyder does not believe the last option is any longer realistic in today’s industrial/capitalist world.
At one time, native people did recognize the true commons and it was, according to him, “a curious and elegant social institution, within which human beings lived free political lives while weaving through natural systems.”
It was a system in which “human society also fully included the nonhuman.”
Snyder tells us that it in order for us to restore the true commons, it will be first be necessary for people to once again live in one place for long periods of time.
He tells us of a Crow elder living in Bozeman, Montana, who once told him, “You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough — even white people — the spirits will begin to speak to them.
“It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”
One of the things the spirits will tell us, I think, is that wild land belongs to all of us. It is not something we can own.
Wilderness is like this cabin, common shelter from the difficulties we are sure to face.