Getting Back to the Wrong Nature

Why we need to end our love affair with the wilderness

| May-June 1996

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.