[Essay originally written for ANTHR 2420, “Nature-Culture: Ethnographic Approaches to Human Environment Relations” at Cornell University, taught by Professor Paul Nadasdy, September 2019.]
Throughout history, the concept of “wilderness” has always been evolving. It has been something to fear: a looming presence that acts as a symbol for “the unknown,” for isolation, and perhaps even for danger and panic. It has been something to worship: a space that is all at once humanity’s purest symbol for the natural world and an emblematic reminder of things other-worldly. It has been something to respect: a destination to escape the pressures of the modern world, and a frequently-used figure within environmental activism. Further, just as wilderness itself has been understood in both positive and negative lights, the means through which the concept was established are equally questionable. For these reasons, some such as historian William Cronon have argued that the concept of wilderness is problematic, and some have even urged for its dismantlement. There are several reasons why dissolving the concept of wilderness would be beneficial, including its unsettling history and the way it encourages environmental contempt by preventing people from making meaningful, intimate, and consistent connections with nature. However, there are also multiple reasons why the concept of wilderness should be preserved. These include the importance of wilderness designation in protecting sensitive spaces from environmentally harmful usage, and its potential to act as a model in a larger system of healthy human-environment relations. Therefore, the concept of wilderness should not be completely done away with. Rather, it should be revised in order to be a force of good within modern-day environmental efforts.
William Cronon explains how the concept of wilderness is largely a man-made creation, born out of romantic thought and often making use of biblical references. He clarifies that this concept was not made by or for every man; rather, it was usually used by the urban privileged class. In other words, wilderness was not romanticized by those who “had to work the land to make a living”, but, rather, by the elite who used such land as a tourist destination (Cronon). Cronon also explains how the concept was partly shaped by the “myth of the vanishing frontier”, which wrought fear in those who believed that modern civilization was a force of evil and that wilderness should be preserved from its corruption (Cronon). He then points out the issues with even assuming the existence of a “frontier”, as it implies an uninhabited, untouched land. Of course, this blatantly disregards the presence of indigineous communities in these spaces long before European invasions. Further, he discusses how frontier ideology made use of toxically masculine language and symbols. He describes the familiar motif of the ruggedly masculine frontier individual, unaffected by the feminizing tendencies of civilization, looking out into the wilderness — a pristine or “virgin” landscape (Cronon). If society allows the concept of wilderness to remain unaltered, it is essentially equivalent to condoning these thought processes which allowed for its evolution. Contrarily, acting on the concept of wilderness might show that Western society is working to move past these problematic sentiments. Further, some might argue that this questionable growth of the notion of wilderness proves that the entire concept is obsolete; that is, that the foundation of wilderness is shaky enough that action against the concept as a whole is necessary.
Cronon progresses to explain that the idealization of wilderness, while helpful in protecting certain spaces, actually puts other spaces in harm’s way. He points out that certain outdoor areas such as the sprawling green forest are generally seen as worthy of protection, while others such as swamps or deserts are not so easily romanticized. He blames this on frontier ideology, which has “encouraged Americans to define ‘true’ wilderness as requiring very large tracts of roadless land”, or what Dave Foreman termed “The Big Outside” (Cronon). Due to this limited definition of wilderness, spaces that deserve environmentalist affection could instead be addressed with contempt or disregard, should they fail to live up to this ideal of the “pristine wilderness” (Cronon).
Additionally, along the line of thought which argues that the concept of wilderness encourages disregard towards humble or simple spaces, Cronon argues that it encourages people to generally lose their sense of responsibility towards nature, as well as towards its care and keeping. When the mysterious “wilderness” serves as the poster child for environmentalism, it can make urban populations, who feel far removed from such grand landscapes, feel similarly distant from environmentalist issues. In other words, the concept of wilderness further reinforces the nature/culture dichotomy, setting “humanity and nature at opposite poles,” making humanity feel less responsible for nature’s wellbeing (Cronon). Further, the concept of a “pristine,” uninhabited wilderness reinforces the ideology that humans have no place in nature, and that there is no such thing as an ethical or sustainable relationship between humans and the environment (Cronon 1986: 85). In this way, the wilderness concept guides humanity to believe there is no hope or reason in bettering its relationship with the environment. In reality, however, “most of our most serious environmental problems start at home,” and the danger of the wilderness concept lies in the fact that it virtually “denies us a middle ground in which responsible use and non-use might attain some kind of balanced, sustainable relationship” (Cronon).
These issues, however, are possible to solve without the complete dismantlement of the wilderness concept. As Cronon explains, “it is not the things we label as wilderness that are the problem — for nonhuman nature and large tracts of the natural world do deserve protection — but rather what we ourselves mean when we use that label” (Cronon). Indeed, if the wilderness concept encourages the preservation of these wild spaces, it cannot be completely useless. No matter how paradoxical or problematic the existence of these spaces under their present labels are, their preservation surely works in favor of environmentalist goals in the face of our current climate crisis. The bureaucracy of wilderness preservation allows specific labels to protect spaces from certain kinds of development which might be environmentally harmful — for example, “since the late 1970s, the Park Service has had rules in place to govern oil and gas development within national parks” (Mark). Without the formation of the wilderness concept, modern wilderness preservation practices might have never been formed, meaning these spaces would be vulnerable to these harmful forms of development.
In addition, if the wilderness concept adjusts itself to be less exclusive in its definition of “true wilderness,” it could easily serve as a model for positive environmental action on issues taking place outside of this present definition. Cronon urges us to “take the positive values we associate with wilderness and bring them closer to home” (Cronon). If environmentalism teaches humanity to value all spaces, not just far-removed “pristine” wilderness, then wilderness, rather than serving as an unattainable ideal, can serve as a single component within a larger system of environmental positivity and coexistence. In other words, the wilderness concept could be positively reworked, should it shift to exist not “(just) out there”, but “(also) in here,” in which case it can serve as a guide to teach humanity how “to live rightly in the world — not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both” (Cronon).
It is easily asserted that the concept of wilderness is problematic, both in its origins and its applications. However, upon further investigation of its positive usages and potential for beneficial adjustment in this era of environmental crisis, it is not as easy to argue for its complete dismantlement. If the concept of wilderness were adjusted to take a form that is more inclusive both of diverse populations and of diverse types of outdoor spaces, the benefits of the wilderness concept would outweigh the costs. We should, therefore, act on the concept of wilderness — however, these actions should be a revision of its problematic components rather than a complete dissolution of the sentiment as a whole.
Cronon, W. (1986). Uncommon ground: rethinking the human place in nature. New York: W.W. Norton.
Mark, J. (2017, September 19). Oil Drilling-Coming to a National Park or Monument Near You? Retrieved from https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/oil-drilling-coming-national-park-or-monument-near-you