Getting Back to the Wrong Nature

Why we need to end our love affair with the wilderness

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The time has come to rethink wilderness. This will seem a heretical claim to many environmentalists, since the idea of wilderness has for decades been a fundamental tenet—indeed, a passion—of the environmental movement, especially in the United States. For many Americans wilderness stands as the last remaining place where civilization, that all too human disease, has not fully infected the earth. It is an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness. Seen in this way, wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves, a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet. As Henry David Thoreau once famously declared, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

But is it? The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems. Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history. It is not a pristine sanctuary where we can encounter the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it is a product of that civilization, and it could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made. Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural. As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires. For this reason, we are mistaken when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem.

Go back 250 years in American and European history, and you do not find nearly so many people wandering around remote corners of the planet looking for what today we would call “the wilderness experience.” Wilderness in the 18th century bore biblical connotations: it was “deserted,” “savage,” “desolate,” “barren”—in short, a “waste,” the word’s nearest synonym. The emotion one was most likely to feel in its presence was “bewilderment”—or terror. Whatever value wilderness might have had arose solely from the possibility that it might be “reclaimed” and turned toward human ends—planted as a garden, say, or turned into a city on a hill. In its raw state, it had little or nothing to offer civilized men and women.

But by the end of the 19th century, the wastelands that had once seemed worthless had for some people come to seem almost beyond price. When John Muir arrived in the Sierra Nevada in 1869, he would declare, “No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine.” One by one, various corners of the American map came to be designated as sites whose wild beauty was so spectacular that a growing number of citizens had to visit and see them for themselves. Niagara Falls was the first to undergo this transformation, and it was soon followed by the Catskills, the Adirondacks, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. (Yosemite was deeded by the U.S. government to the state of California in 1864 as the nation’s first wildland park, and Yellowstone became the first true national park in 1872.) The sources of this rather astonishing transformation were many, but they can be gathered under two broad headings: the sublime and the frontier.

In the wilderness the boundaries between human and nonhuman, between natural and supernatural, have always seemed less certain than elsewhere. By the 18th century this sense of the wilderness as a landscape where the supernatural lay just beneath the surface was expressed in the doctrine of the sublime, a word whose modern usage has been so watered down by commercial hype and tourist advertising that it retains only a dim echo of its former power. Sublime landscapes were those rare places where one had a better chance than elsewhere on earth to glimpse the face of God. God was on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud, in the rainbow, in the sunset. One has only to think of the sites that Americans chose for their first national parks—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Zion—to realize that virtually all of them fit one or more of these categories. Not until the 1940s would the first swamp be honored, in Everglades National Park, and to this day there is no national park in the grasslands.

No less important than the sublime was the powerful romantic attraction of primitivism—the belief that the best antidote to the ills of an overly refined and civilized modern world was a return to simpler living—dating back at least to Rousseau. In the United States, this was embodied most strikingly in the national myth of the frontier. In the writing of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, for instance, wild country became a place not just of religious redemption but also of national renewal, the quintessential location for experiencing what it meant to be an American. It is no accident that the movement to set aside national parks and wilderness areas began to gain real momentum at precisely the time that laments about the vanishing frontier reached their peak. To protect wilderness was in a very real sense to protect the nation’s most sacred myth of origin.

The idea of the sublime and the frontier myth converged to remake wilderness in their own image, freighting it with moral values and cultural symbols that it still carries. In the decades following the Civil War, more and more of the nation’s wealthiest citizens sought out wilderness for themselves in enormous estates (disingenuously called “camps”) in the Adirondacks and elsewhere: cattle ranches for would-be rough riders on the Great Plains, guided big-game hunting trips in the Rockies, and luxurious resort hotels wherever railroads pushed their way into sublime landscapes. The irony, of course, is that wilderness came to reflect the very civilization its devotees sought to escape. There are other ironies as well: The movement to set aside national parks and wilderness areas followed hard on the heels of the final Indian wars; after the prior human inhabitants were rounded up and moved onto reservations, tourists could safely enjoy the illusion that they were seeing their nation in its pristine, original state. (Today, the Blackfeet continue to be accused of “poaching” on the lands of Glacier National Park that originally belonged to them.) The removal of Indians to create an “uninhabited wilderness”—uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is.

I hope it is clear that my criticism is not directed at wild nature per se, or even at efforts to set aside large tracts of wild land—for nonhuman nature and large tracts of the natural world do deserve protection—but rather at the specific habits of thinking that flow from this complex cultural construction called wilderness. If by definition wilderness leaves no place for human beings, save perhaps as contemplative sojourners enjoying their leisurely reverie in God’s natural cathedral, then also by definition it can offer no solution to the environmental and other problems that confront us.

Defenders of “biological diversity” (a seemingly more “scientific” concept than “wilderness” that is employed by organizations like the Nature Conservancy), for instance, often point to “untouched” ecosystems as the best and richest repositories of the undiscovered species we must certainly try to protect. There is a paradox here, of course. To the extent that biological diversity (indeed, even wilderness itself) is likely to survive in the future only by the most vigilant and self-conscious management of the ecosystems that sustain it, the ideology of wilderness is potentially in direct conflict with the very thing it encourages us to protect.

Another example of the problematic use of “wilderness” is in Earth First! founder Dave Foreman’s description of the ideal “Big Outside” in his promotion of the “wilderness experience,” which bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the frontier myth: wide open spaces and virgin land with no trails, no signs, no facilities, no maps, no guides, no rescues, no modern equipment, a land where hardy travelers can support themselves by hunting with “primitive weapons (bow and arrow, atlatl, knife, sharp rock).” When radical environmentalists express the popular notion that our environmental problems began with the invention of agriculture (as Foreman does in 1991’s Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, Crown), they push the human fall from natural grace so far back into the past that all of civilized history becomes a tale of ecological declension. From such a starting place, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the only way human beings can hope to live naturally on the earth is to follow the hunter-gatherers back into a wilderness Eden and abandon virtually everything that civilization has given us.

But if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves. It is not a proposition that seems likely to produce positive or practical results, yet radical environmentalists and deep ecologists all too frequently come close to accepting it as a first principle. It may indeed turn out that civilization will end in ecological collapse or nuclear disaster, whereupon one might expect to find any human survivors returning to a way of life closer to that celebrated by Foreman and his followers. For most of us, though, the debacle would be cause for regret, a sign that humanity had failed to fulfill its own promise and failed to honor its own highest values—including those of the deep ecologists. Viewing nature and ourselves in such stark, absolute terms leaves us little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.

In critiquing wilderness, I'm forced to confront my own deep ambivalence about its meaning for modern environmentalism. On the one hand, any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from nature—as wilderness tends to do—is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior. On the other hand, it is no less crucial for us to recognize and honor nonhuman nature as a world we did not create, a world with its own independent, nonhuman reasons for being as it is. Any way of looking at nature that helps us remember—as wilderness also tends to do—that the interests of people are not necessarily identical to those of every other creature or of the earth itself is likely to foster responsible behavior.

If the core problem of wilderness is that it distances us too much from the very things it teaches us to value, then the question we must ask is what it can tell us about home, the place where we actually live. To the extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness, we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead. We inhabit civilization while holding some part of ourselves—what we imagine to be the most precious part—aloof from its entanglements. We work our nine-to-five jobs in its institutions, we eat its food, we drive its cars (not least to reach the wilderness), we benefit from the intricate and all too invisible networks with which it shelters us, all the while pretending that these things are not an essential part of who we are. So how can we take the positive values we associate with wilderness and bring them closer to home?

Our challenge is to stop thinking of things according to a set of bipolar moral scales in which the human and the nonhuman, the unnatural and the natural, serve as our conceptual map for understanding and valuing the world. Instead, we need to embrace the full continuum of a natural landscape that is also cultural, in which the city, the suburb, the pastoral, and the wild each has its proper place, which we permit ourselves to celebrate without needlessly denigrating the others. We need to discover a common middle ground in which all of these things, from the city to the wilderness, can somehow be encompassed in the word home. Home, after all, is the place where finally we make our living. It is the place for which we take responsibility, the place we try to sustain so we can pass on what is best in it (and in ourselves) to our children. And calling a place home inevitably means that we will use the nature we find in it, for there can be no escape from manipulating and working and even killing some parts of nature to make our home.

Wilderness is more a state of mind than a fact of nature, and the state of mind that today most defines wilderness is wonder. When we visit a wilderness area, we find ourselves surrounded by plants and animals and physical landscapes whose otherness compels our attention. In forcing us to acknowledge that they are not of our making, that they have little or no need of our continued existence, they recall for us a creation far greater than our own. Wilderness gets us into trouble only if we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit. In the wilderness, we need no reminder that a tree has its own reasons for being, quite apart from us; the same is less true in the gardens we plant and tend ourselves: There it is far easier to forget the otherness of the tree.

The tree in the garden is in reality no less other, no less worthy of our wonder and respect, than the tree in an ancient forest that has never known an ax or a saw—even though the tree in the forest reflects a more intricate web of ecological relationships. The tree in the garden could easily have sprung from the same seed as the tree in the forest, and we can claim only its location and perhaps its form as our own. Both trees stand apart from us; both share our common world. The special power of the tree in the wilderness is to remind us of this fact. It can teach us to recognize the wildness we did not see in the tree we planted in our own backyard. By seeing the otherness in what is most unfamiliar, we can learn to see it too in what at first seemed merely ordinary. If wilderness can do this—if it can help us perceive and respect a nature we had forgotten to recognize as natural—then it will become a part of the solution to our environmental dilemmas rather than part of the problem.

We can thus still join Thoreau in declaring that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” for wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies. As Gary Snyder wisely said, “A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness. The planet is a wild place and always will be.”

Learning to honor the wild—learning to remember and acknowledge the autonomy of the other—means striving for critical self-consciousness in all of our actions. It means that deep reflection and respect must accompany each act of use, and means too that we must always consider the possibility of non-use. It means looking at the part of nature we intend to turn toward our own ends and asking whether we can use it again and again and again—sustainably—without its being diminished in the process. Most of all, it means practicing remembrance and gratitude, for thanksgiving is the simplest and most basic of ways for us to recollect the nature, the culture, and the history that have come together to make the world as we know it.

If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.

An adaption of the essay “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” by William Cronon from Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, edited by William Cronon.