Whither Wilderness?

by Bill Chameides | November 11th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 3 comments

Speaking at Duke this week, historian Roderick Nash used this John Gast painting from 1872 to note the antiquated perception of America’s “satanic wilderness.”

Wilderness is a state of mind, argues environmental historian Roderick Nash.

Yesterday the Duke community was treated to a visit by one of the giants of the environmental movement.

A founder of one of the nation’s first environmental studies programs at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Roderick Nash is also the author of eight books. These include two classics: Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, 1967), which tracks the role of wilderness in the American psyche through history, and The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), which argues for widening the notion of ethics to include animals, ecosystems, and even inanimate objects like mountains.

What’s in a Name?

Nash, visiting Duke on a Distinguished Lectureship sponsored by the Forest History Society, opened his talk with a fascinating riff on the word wilderness and its meanings. Many consider “wild” to be the root of the word, but Nash argues that the kernel of wilderness can be found in “wil” and its close association with “will” and by extension to “free will” and “freedom.” (The Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges “uncertainty as to its primary meaning.”) Wilderness can thus be understood as “self-willed land.” So, destroying wilderness by domesticating land is to break its will, much like one might break a horse.

To care or protect wilderness requires a guardian as opposed to a gardener. Gardeners prune, weed and harvest. Guardians “let go” and allow the land to follow its own path. For this reason, Nash appears distrustful of practices that remove so-called exotic or invasive species from wilderness lands. To retain true wilderness, he argues, we must allow the Darwinian progression to play out without interference.

Winding Road of Progress

As I mentioned in my opening, for Nash, wilderness is not a specific thing but a concept. We can all agree what a tree or a mountain looks like, but whether either one is part of a wilderness is a subjective judgment.

Nash argues that some 10,000 years ago through the birth of agriculture and animal husbandry humankind created the notion of wilderness. By cordoning off and domesticating tracts of land for our own use, we set boundaries beyond which, we perceived, lay a different sort of land, the wilderness. It’s a fascinating idea: without domesticated land, there is no wilderness.

To illustrate Americans’ concept of wilderness before the 20th century, Nash showed American Progress, a John Gast painting from 1872 that depicts the westward march of civilization across the United States (on the right) into the dark edges of the wilderness peopled by Native Americans, aka Indians. Leading the journey is a personified America, flying overhead carrying a school book and stringing the telegraph wires that would connect the two coasts. In Nash’s words, it was a march of “godly development” into “satanic wilderness.”

The turning point in America’s view of wilderness occurred, according to Nash, at the end of the 19th century. Before the 1890s, the commonly held perception was that wilderness was something to be feared and tamed — much like the dark lands in American Progress. But by 1890, with the West Coast civilized and the places in between too small to be considered wilderness, the job of taming the American wilderness was largely completed; in that year the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the American frontier, the boundary between civilization and wilderness, was no more.

It was then, Nash maintains, that Americans began to recognize what they’d lost and to view the wilderness as something to be treasured and protected. Thus was born the conservation movement, championed by Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, Sierra Club founder and a driving force behind designating Yosemite a national park.

Less obvious signs of America’s growing nostalgia for the wildness of wilderness came in the names of the country’s first football teams, such as the Giants, Redskins, and 49ers; the success of books like Call of the Wild from 1903 and Tarzan of the Apes first published in 1912; and the incorporation of the Boy Scouts of America in 1910.

Which of Three Futures

Nash closed with a vision of three possible scenarios for humanity and the planet at the start of the fourth millennium 1,000 years hence.

  1. The Wasteland, in which humanity has essentially used up the planet, leaving nothing behind but desolation. Remaining survivors either exist in spaceships searching for new habitats or toil under conditions more primitive than those of the earliest hunter-gatherers.
  2. The Garden Earth, in which humanity continues to thrive but has totally domesticated the planet. The sole survivors are either humans or organisms grown for human use. There are no wild places.
  3. The Island Civilization, in which humanity has learned to live in harmony with nature and, more importantly, wilderness. All the people, numbering about 1.5 billion, live in islands of civilization. The rest of the planet is wilderness — no roads, no strip malls, no nothing except the wild. Instead of today’s world where wilderness is cordoned off from civilization in ever smaller pockets, civilization in this scenario is barricaded from wilderness, kind of like those early patches of domesticated land 10,000 years ago. People wanting to live in the wilderness can, but they’d be creatures of the wilderness without the benefits of civilization. No calls for help on a cell phone if trouble arises.

Not surprisingly, Nash’s choice is the Island Civilization. As attractive as it is, I see some problems in making that third scenario a reality and keeping it alive. The downfall of Aldous Huxley’s utopian community in Island readily comes to mind. Nevertheless, utopias are worth thinking about and envisioning, so I will close with this quote from Nash:

“The beauty of Island Civilization is that it permits humans to fulfill their evolutionary potential without compromising or eliminating the opportunity of other species doing the same.”

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  1. Paul Starrs
    Dec 24, 2009

    It’s always pleasant to run into Rod Nash and his work; a bit cliché now, but we’ve all survived the several decades of kudos he’s received. A quick note, however. I’m reminded, in this nice post, of just how utterly U.S.-centered Nash’s ideas ultimately are — not the least trace of awareness how different the European (Continental) notions of “wilderness” ultimately are. Or rather, are not. After nearly thirty years of research in Spain, Portugal, and France, much of it with European colleagues, I can safely say that they think “wilderness” is lunacy. As Dave Brower once put it, “wilderness as the place where the hand of man has not set foot” isn’t common currency among our friends on the other side of the pond, and I am compelled to add, in their view, our stewardship of the Earth would be infinitely more enlightened were we not starting with a solipsistic quite and culturally egocentric view of “our” place in the world. … and Rod’s work to the contrary notwithstanding, what if they’re right, and our first concern isn’t “is that wilderness or not,” but instead, “what kind of world could we, and should we, aspire to have?” Just a thought, for a holiday eve; best to all.

    • Mark Fisher
      Jan 9, 2010

      I can’t let Paul get away with such a blanket statement about European attitudes to wilderness. Purely on a protected area basis, many countries across continental Europe have IUCN Category 1b wilderness areas; PAN Parks certify wilderness areas in line with IUCN 1b (including Portugal); The EU parliament passed a resolution on wilderness and large natural areas last Feb; and there is a Wild Europe Initiative that is identifying the constraints to wilderness, including the lack of country specific legislation.

  2. sally schauman
    Nov 12, 2009

    To further probe human behavior as to wilderness, one might also consider past human excerpt:encodeds of and behavior toward the American frontier. Annette Kolodny’s 1975 seminal book “The Lay of the Land–Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters” (UNC Press) traces the language Americans have used since the founding of our country to describe the landscape. For me it is still a relevant partial explanation for the mindset of a segment of the American population.

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