Could Drones Mean the End of Wilderness?

05/29/2013 05:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Last Tuesday, as I do almost every day, I went for a walk in the woods with Missy, my yellow lab. We were deep in a thicket near the North Carolina coast when I heard the sound of metallic wings growing close. A police helicopter came down low, blowing the tops of the trees sideways, passing over three times. My walk changed instantly -- suddenly becoming a lot less Walden, a lot more Goodfellas.

This had never occurred before on one of my walks. But as coincidence would have it, I had just been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be alone, and what it means to be watched. My guess is that this helicopter was, in its distinctly ominous way, signaling a major reality-shift: my walk into the woods on this particular day could and should, to some extent, be seen as a walk into the future. And in this future, rushing toward us faster than anyone wants to believe, we will be watched on our walks from above -- not by manned helicopters, most likely, but by unmanned surveillance drones.

It's not science fiction. At this moment we are living at the dawn of the Drone Age: an era marked by a startling rise in the domestic use of small, unmanned, flying surveillance cameras. As I type, the increasingly powerful drone lobby (I know it sounds ridiculous, but yes, there is such a thing) is pushing for increased government and corporate adoption of this sophisticated surveillance technology, and the FAA has set a September 2015 deadline to open the nation's airspace to drone use. Meanwhile, in the wake of the horrific Boston Marathon bombings, some polls indicate that there is more public support than ever before for increased surveillance. Apparently, we are now poised to train the same free-floating, all-seeing eyes we once reserved for spying on insurgent-riddled Afghan villages on our own villages.

As I think back to my interrupted walk with Missy, what bothered me so much about it wasn't simply that I was aware we were being observed. It was the noise from the blades: it cracked open the quiet of the woods. I have read accounts from Afghan villagers who note the toll taken on their psyches by all the military surveillance drones that are constantly flying overhead. The noise they give off speaks, effectively saying: "You're not alone. We're always here." And it's that same noise, I fear, that we're now inviting into our own skies.

A story in the Los Angeles Times reveals that "companies have marketed drones disguised as sea gulls;" another, in the Huffington Post, relays the news that some newly designed drones are "tiny as a hummingbird." Whenever I head into the woods on my daily walks, I'm attempting to do what people have always done: get away from the clutter and busyness of the human world, and get closer to something else. In more recent times this has necessarily meant getting as far away as I can from the world of electronics and gadgets. I don't know about you, but I don't welcome the news that these gadgets -- in the form of drones that not just governments, but also corporations and even individual hobbyists will be allowed to send through our airspace -- might soon be following me.

Like many, I was first drawn to nature as a world apart: a refuge, a place of solitude -- and freedom. The sense of freedom that I've always gotten whenever I'm exploring wild spaces is what drives me to want to protect them; my desire to save the wolves has its origins in wanting to save the wolf in me. "The life that men praise and call successful is but one kind," wrote Henry David Thoreau. One gift that the world apart from man provides is the model for thinking truly independently, for living a kind of counter-life. I believed that as a young man and I believe it still. And it goes without saying that the first time I walked into that world, I walked into it alone, and unwatched.

The truth is that we act, and even think, differently when we know we're not alone. And something deep is going to be lost if we can never again feel like we're able to put some distance between our selves and our technology. In a world whose entire population seems to have happily laid itself bare on Facebook and Twitter, don't we both need and deserve a place where we can go to escape all the static and chatter? Or are we really willing to keep stumbling in the same direction, gradually becoming habituated to the erosion of privacy that our forefathers held up as a sacred tenet, until we eventually come to accept what the cultural critic Glenn Greenwald, writing in the Guardian, has referred to as the "ubiquitous surveillance state"?

There are certainly legitimate uses for drones: search and rescue missions, fire fighting, law enforcement, even wildlife conservation. But the best argument against letting drones invade every last corner of American airspace, to my mind, is one that successfully connects the freedom from feeling like we're all under constant surveillance with the freedom to go to the natural world as a refuge -- as a place apart. This isn't the jingoistic "freedom" that politicians can often be heard prattling on about, but rather something much closer to the real, productive, pioneering freedom that -- in this country, at least -- has always been tied to our most fundamental ideals: independent thought, nonconformity, and the exploration of new frontiers.

We all tend to live so virtually now that we have forgotten how our private and public exploration of these wild places helped forge our national character, just as surely as the shot heard round the world. We still sense it, but only vaguely, like something half-remembered from a collective dream. We can't quite get back to it, and as we go about our busy, gadget-dependent, globally interconnected lives, it just gets further and further away from us -- until our nature myths of mountain men are eventually replaced with spooky stories about paranoid Unabombers, until we have convinced ourselves that those who desire solitude and want to be apart must be up to no good. Before long, we'll all wonder how and why wilderness was ever so important to us.

This spring I have been spending a good deal of time in the company of two men who never forgot why it was so important. At the moment, I happen to be working on a book that intertwines the biographies of the writers (and naturalists) Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. In his famous "Wilderness Letter," Stegner wrote of how wild places helped form our national character and history, and how wilderness remains vital "even if we never do more than drive to its edge to look in." Abbey concurred. "We need wilderness because we are wild animals," he wrote, and also because "love flowers best in openness and freedom."

But Abbey took things a step further than Stegner. Along with the poetic reasons he gave for the need to keep wilderness wild, he gave one that is both more practical and more extreme. Wilderness, Abbey intimated, was among other things a place where free men could retreat if and when the tyrants ever took over. As one reads his sentiments these days, they have a distinctly Unabomber-ish whiff to them. But at their core, they get at something that we all instinctively know is true: wilderness means freedom. And it is in wilderness -- or what is left of it -- that we can think free thoughts, unwatched and unfettered.

At heart, Ed Abbey was a contrarian, and his relationship with modern technology can be summed up by the fact that he once famously blasted out his TV screen with a shotgun. It doesn't take much imagination to picture how he would react to a drone. There he is, walking alone in the wilderness: alone, that is, except for the flying surveillance camera that hovers persistently over his shoulder. I imagine that next he would yell "Pull!" before raising his gun and blowing the thing to smithereens.

In my mind, at least, this seemingly destructive act would be completely justified: not destructive, actually, but rather a creative blow for freedom, for independence, for the right to unwatched solitude. I'd like to believe there are still people left in this country -- healthy-minded, non-conspiratorial individuals -- who would see it the same way.

This story was originally published by OnEarth.