THE APOSTLE ISLANDS are not on the way to anywhere. I managed to grow up in southern Wisconsin, and even to fall in love with the wild beauty of Lake Superior, without ever journeying to the northernmost tip of the state. There, the Bayfield Peninsula juts out into the cold waters of the lake and an archipelago of 22 small wooded islands lies just offshore. Not until a few years ago did I find myself, almost by accident, gazing out at those islands and realizing I had found one of the places on this good earth where I feel most at home. I have been haunting them in all seasons ever since.
There is nothing especially dramatic about the Apostles. In some places, they meet the lake with narrow, pebble-covered beaches rising steeply to the forest behind. Elsewhere, they present low sandstone cliffs, brown-red in hue, that have been so sculpted by the action of wave and ice that one never tires of studying their beauty.
For nearly 35 years, these lands and waters have been protected by the federal government as Apostle Islands National Lakeshore — a legacy of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, father of Earth Day in 1970. Sometime later this year, the National Park Service will issue recommendations for future management of the park. Although the NPS study recommending wilderness designation for the Apostles (spearheaded by another Wisconsin senator, Democrat Russ Feingold) has not thus far attracted much attention, its implications reach far beyond the Apostle Islands. Anyone committed to rethinking human relationships with nature should pay attention to its findings.
Designating the Apostles as wilderness will constitute an important addition to our National Wilderness Preservation System in a region where far too little land has received such protection. Look at a map of legal wilderness in the United States, and for the most part you will see a vast blank expanse between the Appalachians and the Rockies. At a minimum, the Apostles can serve as a reminder that the Middle West also is a place of wildness, despite the common prejudice that nothing here deserves that label.
On the surface, there seems little reason to doubt that many of the Apostles meet the legal criteria specified by the 1964 Wilderness Act. Most visitors who wander these islands, whether by water or by land, experience them, in the words of that act, “as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Permanent improvements and human habitations are few, and those that do exist are often so subtle that many visitors fail to notice them.
And yet, the Apostle Islands have a deep human history that has profoundly altered the “untouched” nature that visitors find here. The archipelago has been inhabited by Ojibwe peoples for centuries and remains the spiritual homeland of the Red Cliff and Bad River Ojibwe bands whose reservations lie just across the water. Ojibwe people continue to gather wild foods here as they have done for centuries. The largest of the islands, Madeline (not part of the National Lakeshore), was the chief trading post on Lake Superior for French and native traders from the 17th century forward. Commercial fisheries have operated in these waters since the mid-19th century with small fishing stations processing the catch in all seasons. The islands saw a succession of economic activities ranging from logging to quarrying to farming. Most have been completely cut over at least once. The Apostles possess the largest surviving collection of 19th-century lighthouses anywhere in the United States. Finally, tourists have sought out the islands since the late 19th century, and they too have left marks ranging from lodges to cottages to docks to trails.
All of this would seem to challenge the common perception that the Apostles are “untouched” and might even raise doubts about whether the National Lakeshore should be legally designated as wilderness. But although most parts of these islands have been altered by past human activities, they have also gradually been undergoing a process that James Feldman, an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is writing a book about the islands, evocatively calls “rewilding.” The Apostles are thus a superb example of a wilderness in which natural and human histories are intimately intermingled. To acknowledge past human impacts upon these islands is not to call into question their wildness; it is rather to celebrate, along with the human past, nature’s robust ability to sustain itself when people give it the freedom it needs to flourish in their midst.
Should Apostle Islands National Lakeshore become part of the National Wilderness Preservation System? Emphatically yes. But to answer the question so simply is to evade some of the most challenging riddles that the Apostles Islands pose for our conventional ideas of wilderness. If visitors believe they are experiencing pristine nature, they will misunderstand not just the complex human history that has created the Apostle Islands of today; they will also fail to understand how much the local natural ecosystems have been shaped by that human history. We need to find a way to manage the Apostle Islands as a historical wilderness that doesn’t erase human marks on the land, but rather interprets them so that visitors can understand just how intricate and profound this process of rewilding truly is.
Among my favorite places for thinking about rewilding is Sand Island, at the extreme western end of the archipelago. Most visitors today disembark at a wooden pier on the eastern side of the island and then hike more than a mile to reach the lovely brownstone lighthouse at the island’s northern tip, constructed in 1881. Built of sandstone from another island, it is an artifact of an earlier phase of Apostles history that has now vanished except for the overgrown quarries one still finds in the woods. Gazing out at the lake from atop the tower, it is easy to imagine that this is a lone oasis of civilization in the midst of deep wilderness.
But the path to this lighthouse is in fact a former county road. If you look in the right place you can still find an ancient automobile rusting amid the weeds. Frank Shaw homesteaded the southeastern corner of Sand Island in the 1880s, and by 1910 more than70 people-most of them Norwegian immigrants-were living here year round. Sand Island had its own post office, general store, and one-room school. There was even telephone service to the mainland, though it soon failed and was abandoned.
How did Sand Islanders support themselves in this remote rural settlement? Fishing was of course a mainstay. Logging went on occasionally, and from the 1880s forward the summer months saw a regular stream of tourists. But for several decades islanders also farmed. Few who hike this “pristine wilderness” today will recognize that the lands are old farm fields, but they are. Indeed, look closely at the encroaching forest that was once Burt and Anna Mae Hill’s homestead and you’ll realize that the trees are not much more than half a century old. Indeed, some of the oldest are apple trees, offering mute evidence-like the lilacs and rose bushes that grow amid ruins of old foundations elsewhere on the island-of past human efforts to yield bounty and beauty from this soil.
The old orchards are in fact a perfect example of James Feldman’s concept of rewilding in action, since Burt Hill’s farm still shapes the local ecology. Nature alone cannot explain this landscape. You need history too.
The dilemma for the Park Service, then, is deciding how much of the Apostle Islands to designate as wilderness, and how to manage lands so labeled. More bluntly: Should Burt Hill’s orchard count as wilderness? And if it does, should park managers strive to erase all evidence of the Hills’ home so visitors can imagine this land to be “pristine”?
What makes these questions so difficult is that the 1964 Wilderness Act and current National Park Service management policies draw quite a stark-and artificial-boundary between nature and culture. The implication is that the two realms should be kept separate, and that wilderness in particular should be devoid of anything suggesting an ongoing human presence. Under the 1964 act, wilderness is defined as a place that “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” Strictly interpreted, this definition suggests that the more human history we can see in a landscape, the less wild it is. A curious feature of this definition is that visitors’ perceptions of “untrammeledness” take precedence over the land’s true history. It almost implies that wilderness designation should depend on whether we can remove, erase, or otherwise hide historical evidence that people have altered a landscape and made it their home.
Because this strict definition can exclude from the National Wilderness Preservation System too much land that might deserve protection, the less-well known 1975 Eastern Wilderness Act offers an important counterpoint that is especially relevant to the Apostle Islands. It declares that wilderness areas can be designated east of the 100th meridian even where land has been grazed, plowed, mined, or clear cut — land, in other words, that the 1964 act would emphatically regard as “trammeled.” Unfortunately, the implications of the 1975 act have still not been fully appreciated, so that federal managers continue to remove historic structures and artifacts in a misguided effort to fool visitors into believing they are experiencing a “pristine” landscape.
Why does this bother me so much? Because I can’t help seeing the straight lines along which willows and serviceberries are invading Burt Hill’s orchard. I can’t help caring about all the dreams and hard work with which he planted these apple trees so long ago. For me, Burt and Anna Mae’s story makes this wilderness all the more poignant, and I cannot understand why we think we need to annihilate the record of their lives so we can pretend to ourselves — pioneer-like — that no one before us has ever stood here.
How might we combine designated wilderness with a commitment to interpreting the shared past of humanity and nature? If we can answer this question for the Apostle Islands, I believe we can also answer it for many other landscapes whose histories also combine wildness with human dwelling.
I think we should be able to encounter an abandoned plow blade in the woods, or a rusting stretch of barbed-wire fence, without feeling that such things violate our virginal experience of wilderness. We would do better to recognize in this historical wilderness a more complicated tale than the one we like to tell ourselves about returning to the original garden.
What are the chances that this new approach might actually succeed in the Apostle Islands? Surprisingly good. The park’s superintendent, Bob Krumenaker, favors educating visitors so they will recognize that wilderness can have a human history and still offer a flourishing home for wild nature. If we adopt such a strategy in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the park can offer an invaluable laboratory, with implications far beyond its own boundaries, for rethinking what we want visitors to understand about a wilderness that is filled equally with human and natural histories.
Indeed, among the most precious experiences that Apostle Islands National Lakeshore can offer its visitors are precisely these stories-stories of both wild nature and human history. It is a storied wilderness. And it is in fact these stories that visitors will most remember and retell, even as they contribute their own experiences to the ongoing history of people and wild nature in the Apostle Islands.
William Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author, most recently, of Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (W.W. Norton, 1995). He is currently working on a history of Portage, Wisconsin.
Excerpted from the environmental journal Orion (May/June 2003). Subscriptions: $35/yr. (6 issues) from 187 Main St., Great Barrington, MA 01230.