The Wilderness Ideal

One evening whilst sitting on a deck overlooking a tranquil lake in the wilds of the UP’s northern hardwood forests, I began reading William Cronon’s contributions to the volume he edited himself; Uncommon Ground. The book has been around for a decade and more but it is only recently that I came across a copy in a secondhand book store. It seems apt that I considered what it had to say about the ‘social construction’ of nature in a setting of the type that has long intrigued me. Maybe the view of a landscape which confronted me is another of the reasons I am doing what I am right now. I have had pictures of these large wilderness landscapes on the walls of my mind, and elsewhere, for a while.

Cronon examines “the trouble with wilderness” with reference to the Edenic ideal that underlay it from the beginning. Wordsworth and Thoreau were in bewildered or lost awe of the sublime landscapes they travelled, but by the time John Muir came to the Sierra Nevada the landscape was an ecstasy. Whilst Adam and Eve may have been driven from the garden out into the wilderness, the myth was now ‘the mountain as cathedral’ and sacred wilderness was a place to worship God’s natural world. Furthermore, as the American frontier diminished with time and technology,

“wilderness came to embody the national frontier myth, standing for the wild freedom of America’s past and and seeming to represent a highly attractive natural alternative to the ugly artificiality of modern civilization. … Ever since the nineteenth century, celebrating wilderness has been an activity mainly for well-to-do city folks. Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal.” (p.78)

Cronon suggests that there is a paradox at the heart of the Wilderness ideal, this conception that true nature must also be wild and that humans must set aside areas of the world for it to remain pristine. As Cronon puts it, this paradox is that “The place where we are is the place where nature is not”. Taking this logic to its extreme results in the need for humans to kill themselves in order to preserve the natural world;

“The absurdity of this proposition flows from the underlying dualism it expresses. … The tautology gives us no way out: if wild nature is the only thing worth saving, and if our mere presence destroys it, then the sole solution to our own unnaturalness, the only way to protect sacred wilderness from profane humanity, would seem to be suicide. It is not a proposition that seems likely to produce very positive or practical results.” (p.83)

I’ll say. But Cronon is not saying that protected wilderness areas are themselves undesirable things, of course not. His point is about the idea of Wilderness. As a response he suggests that rather than thinking of nature as ‘out there’, we need to learn how to bring the wonder we feel when in the wilderness closer to home. We need to abandon the idea of the tree in the garden as artificial and the tree in the wilderness as natural. If we see both trees as natural, as wild, then we will be able to see nature and wildness everywhere; in the fields of the countryside, between the cracks in the city pavement, and even in our own cells.

“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 both” (p.90)

Sitting on that deck looking out over the lake it was clear that landscapes such as the one I was in aren’t the idealised, pristine, wilderness that they may be portrayed as in books, photographs and travel brochures. Just as in studying its nature I have come to understand a little better the uncertainties of the scientific method that is supposed to bring facts and truth, so I think have come to better understand the place of human needs within these ‘wild’ landscapes. As naive as it is to think that science might offer the absolute truth (it can’t, but it is still the best game in town to understand the world around us), thinking humans are inseparable from nature seems equally foolish.

In the introduction to a book on natural resource economics (which has mysteriously vanished from my bookshelf), an author describes a similar situation. As a young man he wanted to study the environment in order that he might save it from destructive hands of humans. But in time he came to realise this was unrealistic and that better would be to study the means by which humans use the ‘natural world’ to harvest and produce the resources we need to live. Economics is concerned with the means by which we allocate, and create value from, resources. Just as it is important to understand how ‘nature’ works, it is also important to understand how a world in which humans are a natural component works, and how it can continue to function indefinitely.

Landscape Ecology and Ecological Economics have grown out of this understanding. Whilst theories and models about the natural world independent of humans remain necessary, increasingly important are theories and models that consider the interaction between the social, economic and biophysical components of the natural world. These tools might help us get on with the task of living sustainably in the place which humans should naturally call home.

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