The Cult of Wilderness

Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, a history of wilderness centered mainly around the colonization of the New World and the subsequent westward march of the United States, takes the reader through the story of a concept that was at first feared, then respected and finally idolized.  The book wends its way from William Bradford and the Pilgrims’ arrival at Cape Cod through the national debates over Alaska in the 1970s and on into the now international fight for wilderness that has taken place, mainly in South Africa and East Africa, since the colonization of these lands first made them a “playground” for wealthy sport hunters and tourists.  What are some of the major takeaways from this account of wilderness and the cult that has developed around it?

1. Wilderness is a human concept.  Though Nash admits that wilderness has since become a human construct, the “self-restraint of civilization,” his thinking implies that there was such a thing as authentic wilderness prior to humans naming it as such.  This is something like the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture, that since some point in history — he suggests the dawn of agriculture — humans became fundamentally separated from the natural world.

Sure humans are “natural,” but somewhere along the evolutionary way from spears to spaceships they dropped off the biotic team…Maybe, as suggested at the start of this book, it was twelve thousand years ago when herding and agriculture replaced hunting and gathering…The reality is that as the twenty-first century begins, civilized humans are no longer thinking or acting like a part of nature.

There was a time before a human existed on planet earth.  Was this wilderness or was it just nature?  Whatever we want to call this pre-man state, this is the same state from which mankind emerged, developed and where we now currently live.  Nothing has fundamentally changed about the laws governing the natural world; what has changed is our perception of the natural world — the distinction from Nash’s book is between “civilization” and “wilderness” — and the distinction is manmade.  We can recognize and appreciate this distinction but should avoid assigning wilderness intrinsic value as such.  It’s being and value are given to it externally by human value systems.

The second and more pernicious view is that the frontier has historically been the dividing line between wilderness and civilization.  Wilderness, in this view, existed up until westward expansion and the settling of Alaska, and now still exists in parts of South America and Africa.  More pernicious because, as Nash points out, this view ignores the presence and rights of the “uncivilized” who dwell in this notion of “wilderness.”

From the natives’ perspective the whole concept of wilderness was a curious, white myth that ignored history.  Tony Vaska, an Eskimo from the Bering coast, phrased the issue succinctly: white people, he pointed out, “think there’s nothing out there.  They are only vaguely aware that our people are already there, using the land for hunting and fishing and trapping, as we have for 15,000 years…They think the native people and our lifestyle are part of the nothingness of the frontier…”

This particularly becomes a problem in the latter half of the 20th century with the debates over wilderness in East Africa.

2. The historical fear of wilderness is complex.  Even as Nash discusses the Scriptural passages casting wilderness in a positive light he puts a heavy emphasis on wilderness as signifying “the earthly realm of the powers of evil that the Church had to overcome,” leaving the reader with the conclusion that this is the legacy Jewish and Christian Scripture has handed on to the west.

However, his writing demonstrates the complex legacy of Scripture regarding wilderness, even against the conclusions he draws.  In the Scriptural worldview, wilderness was more than just a place to be feared, it was a testing ground, a sanctuary, and a place to grow in the virtues.

The Israelites’ experience during the forty-year wandering gave wilderness several meanings.  It was understood, in the first place, as a sanctuary from a sinful and persecuting society.  Secondly, wild country came to signify the environment in which to find and draw close to God.  It also acquired meaning as a testing ground where a chosen people were purged, humbled, and made ready for the land of promise.

This outlook is reflected not just in early and medieval Christianity through the desert fathers, the Christian missionaries to Ireland and north England and many in the monastic tradition, but it roughly corresponds to the contemporary view of wilderness with one caveat.  That caveat is that now wilderness is additionally viewed as a place of recreation, and, at least in the west, fear has been replaced with awe, love and great enthusiasm.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that now most visitors to wilderness have a host of synthetic materials to keep them warm, dry, and bugfree, have their cans of bear spray at the ready and are a cell phones call away from help.  Nash argues our changing attitudes towards the wilderness have to do with the disappearance of wilderness as well as intellectual development.  I would argue that more than any sort of intellectual development it is the comfort and ease with which we might visit and then escape the wilderness that has diminished our fear and increased our appreciation.

3. The wilderness cult is historically closely connected to American nationalism.

Americans [realized] that, after all, other countries had impressive birds, fruit, and flowers too…And, impressive scenery existed in the Old World to match the views Jefferson extolled.  Clearly “nature” was not enough; an attribute unique to nature in the New World had to be found.  The search led to the wilderness.  In the early nineteenth century American nationalists began to understand that it was in the wildness of its nature that their country was unmatched.  While other nations might have an occasional wild peak or patch of heath, there was no equivalent of a wild continent.  And if, as many suspected, wilderness was the medium through which God spoke most clearly, then America had a distinct moral advantage over Europe, where centuries of civilization had deposited a layer of artificiality over His works.  The same logic worked to convince Americans that because of the aesthetic and inspirational qualities of wilderness they were destined for artistic and literary excellence.

File this under the law of unintended consequences.  The idea that America was a “wild continent” was a convenient untruth to be appropriated by a nation with a doctrine of Manifest Destiny.  The words frequently associated with wilderness enthusiasts are “unexplored,” “uncharted,” and “unrealized.”  Even Thoreau, one of the saints of the wilderness cult, in his final essay “Walking” foreshadowed the connection between the conception of the west as “wild” and the unchecked migration of the young nation westward:

It is said to be the task of the American “to work the virgin soil,” and that “agriculture here already assumes proportions unknown everywhere else.”  I think that the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural…

The weapons with which we have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and the lance, but the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog hoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hard-fought field.  The very winds blew the Indian’s cornfield into the meadow, and pointed out the way which he had not the skill to follow.  He had no better implement with which to intrench himself in the land than a clamshell.  But the farmer is armed with plow and spade.

True, of all the saints and prophets of the wilderness cult, Thoreau was, if not the most, among the most ambivalent (towards both wilderness and the native “savages”).  Upon returning from the Maine woods he asked if it was possible “to secure all the advantage [of civilization] without suffering any of the disadvantage?”  In the budding years of the wilderness cult, it was the image of a vast wilderness that laid so fertile a ground for the young nation’s civilization to expand.

4. The wilderness cult has its own saints.  Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, among others.  Today the wilderness cult still finds saints and prophets and appeals to American exceptionalism: think Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man and Into the Wild.

5. “innumerable people cannot enjoy solitude together.”  Growing popularity and the ease of access has complicated the picture for the wilderness cult.  The victory is saturated with irony; in generating enough popular sentiment and enthusiasm to develop the idea and create wilderness areas the wilderness cult has expanded beyond its carrying capacity – wilderness has become too popular to still feel like wilderness.  Part of the idea of wilderness is as much being a part of nature as apart from other humans.  To handle this restrictions and waiting lists have been placed on the more popular wilderness areas and adventures, and the more hardcore and well funded of the wilderness cult are taking to South America and Africa to escape the masses of wilderness lovers.

6. There is a moral question in the contemporary wilderness movement.  Intimately related to the movement of wilderness lovers across borders is the movements of wilderness lovers money and political influence across borders.  Well documented in the book The Myth of Wild Africa (Adams & McShane), wilderness organizations have taken to encouraging national governments to set aside large swaths of land for conservation, that often coincides with the displacement of the land’s current (and more often than not, historic) occupants.  Common forms of encouragement have been threats of inferiority (“no civilized nation is without National Parks!”), selling national leaders on the idea that ecotourism is as economically viable as agriculture or industry, and the outright bribing of leaders and governments, especially by well-funded private individuals and organizations .  The economics of the ecotourism are disputable, as Nash notes, as most of the money of ecotourism goes to airline industries, cruise ships, hotel chains and travel agents.  “The modest sums spent on shore by the passengers for souvenirs and postcards do not constitute a strong argument for protecting nature.”  When more modest forms of coercion fail, a more extreme tactic has been discussed (emphasis mine).

The alternative, and the ultimate extension of nature importing is outright ownership, or at least control, of important natural environments.  Though it is unfair to think of international collaboration to this end as neocolonial, its purpose is much the same as that of the earlier European park promoters in South Africa, the Belgian Congo, and Kenya…Pressed to the logical conclusion, this line of reasoning would authorize the world community to intervene, forcibly if necessary, to halt the destructive activities of a country within its own borders.  Institutionalizing this idea was extremely difficult since it touched upon the uniquely sensitive issue of sovereignty.

The story of wilderness highlights a tendency within democracies and the global economy to shift burdens onto the politically and economically marginalized.  The legacy of Alaska, H.R. 39, and the wilderness battles of the 1970s highlights this well, as do the actions to protect wilderness in the latter half of the 20th century in Africa.

The agrarians, though historically viewed as comrades in arms with the champions of wilderness, should hold a skeptical view of the cult.  Wilderness is a good because it is part of a greater good – we may be content to say it is good that places exist where the only modifications humans make are to set the boundaries around them, but stop short of saying it is a moral obligation to draw these boundaries to prevent man from adulterating the last pure places on earth.

The agrarian model is a means to an end – be it stronger communities, a healthier relationship with the environment, better food, empowering the disempowered – and demands no particular creed.  The wilderness movement contains its end within itself, and there is no guarantee that that idol, however impotent it may seem compared to the idol of civilization, will not at times demand taking advantage of the disempowered or dislocating communities.

For all the good wilderness provides and all of the good things the wilderness cult has accomplished, there is work to be done among sympathetic environmentalists in convincing the members of this cult that wilderness must be at the service of a greater good and is not the pure and embattled idol we must stop at nothing to defend.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s