"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." This famous definition of wilderness became official in August 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed United States Public Law 88-577, creating a National Wilderness Preservation System charged with permanently maintaining the "primeval character and influence" of a portion of federally controlled land so that it "appears to have been primarily affected by the forces of nature." The Wilderness Act was the culmination of multiple congressional hearings, innumerable legislative drafts, thousands of pages of public testimony, and seven years of intensive lobbying both by established timber, pulp, oil, mining, and grazing interests as well as by the newly powerful preservation movement spearheaded by the Wilderness Society's Howard Zahniser and the Sierra Club's David Brower. On the longer view, it also represented the crystallization of a centuries-long American trend toward the appreciation and protection of uninhabited and scenic public lands into a tangible and comprehensive national policy. As of 2005, the 9 million acres originally set aside by the act had grown to more than 100 million acres spread over 667 areas in 44 states, with Alaskan preserves accounting for about half of the total—meaning that, in all, slightly less than 5 percent of the land within the borders of the United States was officially protected as wilderness.
As might be expected in a country completely resettled by waves of immigrants over more than four hundred years, the idea of wilderness—along with related notions of nature and the frontier—plays a large part in the traditional telling of American history. And although wilderness protection is not unique to American culture—the Soviet Union and its successor states, to take a notable example, extended much stricter protections for much different reasons to similarly large tracts of wilderness (zapovedniki) beginning in 1916—Americans played a relatively large role until the late twentieth century in the definition and deployment of the idea of wilderness worldwide. This mutually defining relationship between American culture and the idea of wilderness has long been the subject of intense debate among historians, philosophers, literary critics, scientists, and land managers. Among the major questions they continue to ask are: Does true wilderness really exist? Where do the values associated with wilderness come from? Whose values are they? What interests does the protection of wilderness serve? And what effects does it have on other modes of environmental concern? The answers to these questions are complex and unsettled, but their dimensions can be illuminated by the specific history of the idea of wilderness in North America.
Of more than semantic concern is the question of whether wilderness, defined as large tracts of land in a state unaltered by mankind, could be said to exist in North America at the time of its discovery by Europeans. Various groups of natives had, after all, started crossing the Bering land bridge into the Americas more than twenty thousand years before and were well established from the Arctic Sea to Tierra del Fuego long before Columbus sighted land. Though it is impossible to generalize about so enormous a temporal and geographic slice of human history, such a long tenure implies that native peoples had likely altered their environments in ways that favored their survival. Indeed, archaeological work suggests that even nonagricultural tribes used the means available to them—most notably fire—to shape the landscape in significant ways. The mass extinction of large mammals like the wooly mammoth at the end of the Pleistocene has been speculatively linked to increased pressure by native Amerindian hunters, and highly wasteful practices have been documented among the bison-hunting tribes of the Great Plains. Environmental devastation, however, depends on a combination of shortsightedness and technological power, and though the natives were far from the ecological saints that western myth has made of them, their long-term experience with their environments coupled with the absence of extensive agriculture and mechanized industry meant that the ecosystems the first Europeans encountered, though hardly empty of human inhabitants, were more stable than they would be in subsequent years.
While some of those first European explorers and settlers on the North American coast made passing reference to the relative wildness of the territory they encountered, "wilderness" as a touchstone concept first entered the American lexicon with the Puritans who settled around the Massachusetts Bay starting in the 1620s. This fact has large significance for the current connotations of wilderness in American culture, where it has always retained a religious ring even as it moved far beyond recognizably Christian dogma. For the Puritans, whose foremost frame of reference was the Christian scriptures, "wilderness" initially had more to do with the spiritual state in which they found themselves than with the physical environments they confronted. Frequently identifying themselves with the Israelites in the book of Exodus, the chosen people who were tested and formed through their wanderings in the desert, the Puritans came to understand wilderness as a name for their condition as Christian saints sojourning in the fallen world. Wilderness in this sense was another name for the totality of the adversities that beset them as a Christian community and as such could include even the highly urbanized European milieu from which they came. The Puritan leader John Winthrop (1588–1649), quite counterintuitively to modern understandings, described the Protestant emigration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a movement out of the wilderness.
Against such an abstract conception, the concrete wilderness that confronted the Puritans in North America quickly came to have a double-edged significance. As an alternative to the materially overabundant but spiritually deadening urban "wilderness" in which reformed Calvinists had wandered in Europe, the North American environment represented an austere and uncorrupted landscape where a saintlier community might flower. To be sure, the immigrants' new home presented substantial material challenges to the establishment of that community. William Bradford (1590–1657), the leader and historian of the Plymouth Plantation, seemed to be drawing on the Old English roots of the word "wilderness"—from wild(d)éornes, a compound of wild- (undomesticated), -deor- (animal), and -ness (place), meaning "a place of wild animals"—when he described the appearance of the forests that surrounded his starving settlement as "a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men" (p. 62). Marking their untamed surroundings as the antithesis of the tight-knit "city upon a hill" they were laboring so mightily to establish (as urged by Winthrop in his sermon "A Modell of Christian Charity," p. 199), the Puritans quickly set about an ambitious plan to reform or simply clear away the material wilderness to bring God's plans for the "New-English Israel" to fruition. This antipathy for wilderness and the need for environmental remaking is an important strain of Puritan thought, advocated most vociferously by Edward Johnson (c. 1594–1672) in Wonder-Working Providence of Sion's Saviour in New England (1654). But the Puritan attitude was more complex than Johnson's text suggests, and Bradford goes on to recast his pessimistic assessment of the New England environment in redemptive language drawn from the book of Isaiah: "Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity" (p. 63). In this subtler conception of New England as a temperate version of the Sinai of the Israelites, the wilderness condition is a sign of both God's displeasure with his chosen people and his particular concern with their eventual fate. Unable either to surrender to wilderness completely or to disregard its chastening message, the earliest religious immigrants to New England were caught in a double bind. In recognition of this, Bradford and others came to take on the unsettled land surrounding Plymouth, in which wilderness was a negative presence not because it threatened to extinguish settlers' worldly hopes or because it symbolized the fallenness of the world but because paradoxically it offered to gratify them with an agricultural wealth that might fracture the sense of community enforced by deprivation and fear. All three of these partial definitions of wilderness—as a place of renewal, of testing, and of dissolution—continue in modern debates about the value of the wild.
THE CONTENTS OF THE WILD
At this early stage the question of wilderness was related in complex ways to scriptural precedents and community dynamics, but the actual content of wilderness (the geological formations, flora, fauna, and so on) was infrequently considered. And when these specificities were considered in the pragmatic agricultural writings of the colonial period, they were usually discussed in a context other than "wilderness" as we know it today. To non-Puritan settlers in New England, especially those who enjoyed good relations with local natives, understanding the populated and abundant region as wilderness, with its connotations of barrenness and solitude, was irrational. As Thomas Morton (1575–1646) saw it, in the midst of his cheeky New English Canaan (1637), the American environment was "Natures Masterpeece; Her chiefest Magazine of all, where lives her store" (p. 180). Elsewhere in the colonies the mood was seldom so sunny, but there was a shared assumption that the primary question about the land was not whether it was to be the site of a religious drama but whether and how it could be made to yield its riches to human labor. As a result, most of the accounts that do survive from the southern colonies, such as Robert Beverley's History of Virginia (1705), William Byrd's twin histories of a surveying expedition along the border between Virginia and North Carolina (1709, 1729), James Grainger's The Sugar-Cane (1764), and George Ogilvie's Carolina; or, The Planter (1776, 1791), downplay the issue of wilderness, focusing rather on the more concrete and specific questions of settling the territory.
Two aspects of this settlement process deserve special consideration. The first is the widespread presence, beginning in the seventeenth century and growing by fits and starts into the nineteenth century, of slavery. Most of the experience of contact with wilderness—the diking of rice paddies in Carolina, the carving out of tobacco plantations in Virginia, and the draining of swamps in Georgia—was performed by slave or indentured laborers. Very few of these were literate, and as a result a large body of wilderness witness by those who had direct contact with it has been mostly lost to history. The second aspect of settlement that interferes with a continuous history of wilderness is the relationship between settlement patterns and native tribes. In the eighteenth century the American landscape was in a sense both too full and too empty to support the notion of wilderness. Too empty in the sense that English settlers were confined to a narrow strip of land along the Atlantic seaboard (the French and Spanish had penetrated the continent more deeply), engaged mostly in seaborne trade with other colonies and European nations and thus imaginatively disconnected from the interior. Too full in the sense that, when white settlers like Daniel Boone did press into "wild" regions like the Appalachian frontier during the middle portion of the century, the native tribes were still a strong, well-organized presence. As a result, the wilderness concept's requirement of emptiness was not met by the conditions of the contact zone between European settlers and native tribes. For a significant portion of American history and through a large swath of American geography, the idea of wilderness did not exist.
The disconnect between the abstract religious notion of the wilderness and the chaotic facticity of the American frontier began to lose some of its starkness as the eighteenth century wore on. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), a New England evangelical theologian and philosopher, laid the intellectual foundation for this synthesis in his writings of the middle third of the century. Possessed with a keen interest in and knowledge of natural science, Edwards came to regard the natural world as a second site, after the scriptures, of the revelation of divine truth. For him it was thus a matter of fundamental importance to pay close attention to the specific workings of the unmodified natural world, be it the web weaving of a common spider, the course of an undammed river, or the dietary habits of the raven, as these provided windows onto the goodness and beauty of God that could instruct humans in their devotion. As a result, he approached such phenomena with a sense of wonder related to religious awe. Such thoughts never led Edwards to propose preservation of wild areas, he never went deliberately far from human settlement to experience wilderness, and the direct cultural impact of Edwards's thoughts on spiritual uses of wilderness were for all practical purposes nonexistent in his own time. The notion that the natural world reflects the divinity of its creator and that the wilderness is therefore a spiritual sanctuary is one that would, however, be resurrected a century later by another New England theologian-philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The same delay in recognition did not befall William Bartram (1739–1823), a bona fide natural historian and ethnographer whose record of exploration in the southeastern tropics had a direct and powerful impact on at least two major figures in British Romanticism. His descriptions of the subtropical forests of the American Southwest, recorded in Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws (1791) matched minutely detailed description with a mysterious mood and reverent tone that influenced the writing of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Christabel," "Frost at Midnight," and "Kubla Khan" as well as William Wordsworth's "Ruth," The Prelude, and "The Excursion." Despite its appropriation in Romantic meditations on the irrational, the immediate context of Bartram's work was as part of a much larger scientific enterprise sweeping the present and former colonies of Europe. Botanists, ornithologists, fossil hunters, ethnographers, and natural historians of all persuasions combed the continental interiors for specimens that could be sent back to European academic centers to be described and systematized according to one or another system of classification. The rationale for wilderness as a biodiversity preserve derives in large part from the detailed work of these early natural historians.
If this scientifically inflected exploration of the wilderness began as a colonial venture, it quickly became an object of national pride in the years following the American Revolution. Foremost among the powerful supporters of natural history was Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), whose Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) tabulates a great deal of the scientific knowledge produced by these early forays into the wilderness in the course of refuting an argument about the degeneracy of American fauna promulgated by the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon. At about the same time that Bartram and Jefferson were consolidating the geopolitical and scientific significance of the American wilderness, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813), a French-born settler in Revolutionary America, was proposing a national identity based upon the experience of wilderness. His Letters from an American Farmer (1782), which mix vignettes about the wondrous qualities of American nature with others evincing a deep terror at the threat true wilderness posed to civilized white identity, tell of the birth of a new kind of man created at the frontier between civilization and wilderness. St. John de Crèvecoeur's understanding of American distinctiveness as arising from the unique conditions of the frontier bound American identity to the wilderness for more than a century to come; after his writings, to be American meant to have a privileged knowledge of and relation to the wild.
As scientific knowledge and the frontier mythos developed, political events gave Americans an increasing share of the lightly settled lands in the interior of North America. As president, Jefferson was also responsible for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, which doubled the size of the United States and led to the most famous of the many American exploratory expeditions of the nineteenth century, the voyage of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark up the Missouri and down the Snake and Columbia to the Pacific. The political and imaginative connection between wilderness and the American identity was furthered by the reception of these two explorers into national myth and by a series of nationalistic displays of American wilderness wealth in the form of comprehensive catalogs of animals and plants. The most famous of these are John James Audubon's (1785–1851) massive Birds of America (1827–1838) and the equally ambitious study of mammals, Viviparous Quadrupeds (1845–1854), left unfinished at his death.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century, writers such as William Cullen Bryant, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Gilmore Simms produced, respectively, poems, short stories, and novels that explored and developed this notion of the wilderness American in the context of the United States's growing dominion over western lands. Establishing that dominion often involved doubledealing and violence against the native tribes whose claims to lands in the South, Midwest, and Far West interfered with the plans of land speculators and white politicians. In the literary works of the time, natives are depicted as irredeemably premodern; they are a people that progress will inevitably pass by, leaving behind a vacuum to be filled by white settlers. Even the most sympathetic chroniclers of native life, such as the painter and exhibitor George Catlin (1796–1872), often represented native peoples as a vanishing breed. Such sentiments obscure the fact that the emptiness that has become so definitive of wilderness is less a natural characteristic of the land than the by-product of specific historical conflicts between native inhabitants of the land and white settlers. The problematic masculinization of wilderness can also be traced to this period, as romances like Cooper's five Leatherstocking Tales (1823–1841) tended to draw a strong and influential contrast between the domestic sphere, overseen by women, and the masculine space of violence and adventure in the wilderness, itself often depicted as a female object of male brutality. Though these distinctions can be seen in an unbroken chain throughout subsequent American cultural history, they did not go uncontested in their own time. Writers like Catharine Maria Sedgwick (Hope Leslie, 1827) and Lydia Maria Child (Hobomok, 1824) countered the emphasis on wildness and racial animosity with narratives of inter-cultural cooperation on the borderlands, and Caroline Kirkland (A New Home—Who'll Follow? 1839) contributed a romance-withering assessment of domestic settlement on the Michigan frontier. Susan Fenimore Cooper, the romancer's daughter, wrote one of the best records of naturalistically aware settlement in the form of Rural Hours (1850). By mid-century, the conventions of the wilderness romance had become the target of burlesques like Thomas Bangs Thorpe's story "The Big Bear of Arkansas" (1841).
The three strands of wilderness explored above—the rapprochement between religion and nature, the intensive and well-publicized scientific investigation of the continental hinterlands, and the imaginative connection between Americanness and wildness—receive their most articulate and influential synthesis beginning in the middle third of the nineteenth century with Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803–1882) Nature (1836). Emerson urged his readers to turn away from the old ideas of Europe and to rejuvenate their minds through contact with and consideration of the natural world they possessed in abundance. Emerson, a lapsed Unitarian minister, moved beyond Jonathan Edwards's intimation of the natural world as a secondary revelation to claim that nature was the primary source of spiritual truths. Gesturing toward the burgeoning field of natural history and the steadily enlarging continental reach of American empire, Emerson and, later, Walt Whitman identified the American future with an imaginative appropriation of its wilderness materials.
Though Emerson's vision of nature owed more to natural history museums like the Jardin des Plantes in Paris than to the American backwoods, his essay provided the framework for subsequent writers and thinkers who delved much more deeply into the problems of wilderness. The most notable of Emerson's followers in this regard is Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who took Emerson's injunction to look for wisdom in nature to an extreme. Interested in natural science throughout his life (from an early essay, "Natural History of Massachusetts," through later ruminations, including "Autumnal Tints," "Wild Apples," "The Succession of Forest Trees," and "Huckleberries"), Thoreau addressed the paradoxes of living in contact with wild nature most forcefully in Walden (1854). Although Thoreau stands as one of the deepest thinkers on the question of environmental ethics that form so large a part of our contemporary concern about wilderness, it is worth noting that Thoreau's forays into wilder territory than his Concord home (trips to Minnesota, Canada, and Maine) did not inspire him as did his life on the margins of the settled lands. A trip to Mount Katahdin, documented in The Maine Woods (1864), famously left him in terror of "vast, Titanic, inhuman nature" (p. 640).
Alongside this explosion of literary treatments, the mid-nineteenth century witnessed the development of a visual language of wilderness. The Hudson River School, a name given to a loose assemblage of more than one hundred landscape painters in the latter two-thirds of the century, created and popularized paintings of large-scale landscapes bathed in luminous light in upstate New York, the Ohio frontier, the Far West, and South America. The dean of this group, Thomas Cole (1801–1848), is renowned for his panoramic depictions of atmospheric disturbance over landscapes along the Hudson and Ohio Rivers. Asher Durand (1796–1886) focused on somewhat more intimate, vertical pastoral landscapes. Frederick Church (1826–1900), perhaps the most accomplished American landscapist of the nineteenth century, focused like Cole on sublime landscapes from Niagara Falls to the Andes. Together their work provides a grandiose and ravishing vision of American wilderness as a unique aesthetic resource, and the familiar emphasis of modern-day wilderness preservation campaigns on the scenic properties of wilderness draws heavily on the tradition inaugurated by the Hudson River School. Two of the later artists in the tradition started by Cole became closely associated with the first two national park preserves. Thomas Moran (1837–1926) made his name with spectacular paintings of Yellowstone, set aside as the first official national park in 1872. Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), a German immigrant, became famous with his portraits of California's Sierra Nevada, called by John Muir in appreciation of its aesthetic distinctiveness "The Range of Light," with a particular focus on Yosemite, which was designated a national park in 1890 though it had enjoyed state protection since 1864.
THE BEGINNINGS OF PRESERVATION
These early preserves were termed parks because their major function was to serve as recreation for human visitors, most of them wealthy industrialists. The plans for the building of trails, bridges, and camps in Yosemite were first drawn up by the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), better known as the designer of New York's Central Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace. Often these parks brought a wave of development (roads, accommodations, sewers, and so on) that threatened to destroy the wilderness values they made accessible, a major paradox of national parks to this day.
Despite these class-bound and environmentally destructive effects, the emerging park system was symptomatic of a sea change in attitudes toward the wilderness. If an earlier embrace of wilderness understood its natural beauty and sublimity as a symbol of present and future national greatness, by mid-century the optimistic conjunction of progress and wilderness had begun to break down. The industrialization of the eastern cities, with its correspondent increase in pollution, poverty, crowding, and disease, coupled with the disruptive extension of the railways into every corner of the nation, produced a backlash of preservation sentiment that would extend far into the twentieth century. Although when Thoreau famously wrote that "in Wildness is the preservation of the world" ("Walking," p. 665) he was speaking of a state of mind rather than a concrete place, he had recognized early on that actual wilderness was something under threat from the forces of industrialization. At several points in his life Thoreau mused about the value of maintaining woodlots as a philosophical resort for town dwellers ("Walking"), of managing human affairs for the value of nonhuman life ("The Bean-Field"), and even of setting aside virgin forest as a permanent preserve. Even before Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper had displayed a sensitivity to the problem of wilderness destruction in his major novel of settlement, The Pioneers (1823). These early stirrings aside, the Vermont polymath George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882) was the first to consider systematically the sensitivity of natural systems to "disturbing agents." His Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864) drew out the disastrous consequences of the ongoing exploitation of the wilderness as a resource and placed it in historical context stretching back to ancient Rome. The broad-based justifications for wilderness preservation that would enter into the wilderness management philosophies of the twentieth-century land manager and environmentalist Aldo Leopold are anticipated in Marsh's work.
Henry David Thoreau's "Walking" was published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862.
The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plough and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. Our ancestors were savages. The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every State which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the Northern forests who were.
I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows. We require an infusion of hemlock-spruce or arbor-vitae in our tea. There is a difference between eating and drinking for strength and from mere gluttony. The Hottentots eagerly devour the marrow of the koodoo and other antelopes raw, as a matter of course. Some of our Northern Indians eat raw the marrow of the Arctic reindeer, as well as various other parts, including the summits of the antlers, as long as they are soft. And herein, perchance, they have stolen a march on the cooks of Paris. They get what usually goes to feed the fire. This is probably better than stall-fed beef and slaughter-house pork to make a man of. Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure,—as if we lived on the marrow of koodoos devoured raw.
Thoreau, "Walking," p. 665.
It was only at the very end of this period that the change in attitude began to have definitive effects in the way of policy. Scientists with varying levels of preservationist spirit began to flock to the Sierra Nevada in the 1860s and 1870s: John Muir came to Yosemite in 1868; Clarence King wrote his account of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada in 1871; Joseph Le Conte performed geological surveys of the mountains in the 1870s. In the desert southwest, John Wesley Powell was blazing the trail into the Colorado drainage in 1869, and Charles Dutton drew attention to the Grand Canyon from the 1870s. In the East, the movement for the preservation of New York's water-shed in the Adirondacks began to gain steam under the direction of the surveyor Verplanck Colvin during the 1870s. The great era of preservation beginning with John Muir and extending through the Wilderness Act, with all that it owed to the foregoing cultural and material history of America, was yet to come.
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Michael G. Ziser
Few currents in literature, the arts, and religion run deeper than the cultural fascination with wildness, and its locational concomitant, wilderness—places where primordial reality dominates and the artificialities of humans, including their sciences and technologies, are not apparent. Marks of the depth of the idea are its universality and flexibility. Appeals to wilderness can be found in cultures as diverse as China and North America. In its many intellectual guises and emotional overlays it has proven adaptable and meaningful across great historical divides. Although here the emphasis will be on its Euro-American manifestations, it is important to recognize that wilderness is not an idea exclusive to that culture.
In the Euro-American context the idea of wilderness is associated with the view that humans by nature separate themselves from nature, which then provides the backdrop for most considerations of ethics. Yet throughout western history, ethical principles have been formulated to apply only on the human side of the human-wildness divide. This separation of humans from wildness is especially important normatively, because it shapes the context in which new technologies are evaluated, including technologies that radically alter nature and irreversibly destroy wildness in the process of development and progress. Against the backdrop of wilderness, science has sometimes been judged both tame and distorting. Appeals to wilderness are often the basis for criticizing technologies, especially technologies that radically alter nature or irreversibly destroy wildness in the process of development and progress.
Max Oelschlaeger (1991) hypothesizes that Mediterranean cultures, especially at the eastern end where agriculture was taking hold, began developing in their mythology a separation of human culture from nature as early as 10,000 b.c.e. in the Yahwist tradition. In later Hebrew history, sojourns in the wilderness became symbols for the spiritual purification of prophets; at the same time, wild lands were treated as wastelands awaiting transformation into productive farmland. Oelschlager attributes this ambivalence to residual tensions between settled agriculturalists and nomadic, wilder tribes of herders and gatherers. These two themes—wildness and civilization through cultivation—are entwined throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. Christ's sojourn in the wilderness, in keeping with the Hebrew tradition of seeking purification by retreating from society into wilderness, is portrayed as a time of spiritual strengthening in preparation for a future ministry.
The idea of wilderness as an obstacle to the human will, which grew out of the earlier tendency of agriculturalists to distinguish their works—the domain of their physical control—from wild nature lying beyond civilization, took on a renewed meaning with the discovery of the New World. In this context, the fascination with wilderness was expressed as a struggle between the Enlightenment view of human perfectibility through science and technology, and romanticism as expressed in the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of the noble savage. According to this view, pre-civilized humans, not yet corrupted by the affectations of society, have a purity not found in contemporary society. This fascination with wildness was inspired by the discovery of primitive cultures, and reinforced the romantic critique of the overly rational and mechanical world of the Enlightenment.
Once imported into the New World, the wilderness versus civilization theme took on new vitality as colonists came in direct contact with wilderness and with wild tribes they saw as savages. Jonathan Edwards—despite his reputation as a brimstone orator—preached benevolence toward the whole of God's nature (Miller 1967, p. 283). More concretely, the battle between civilization and wilderness was fought again each day at the advancing edge of colonial development of lands formerly inhabited by Native American tribes. In a classic analysis of U.S. history, Frederick Jackson Turner (1920) emphasized the importance of the frontier in the identity of the United States, predicting that a huge transformation in consciousness would ensue as the frontier closed. Turner saw the existence of an open frontier, and the idea of manifest destiny associated with it, as definitive of the American experience. Accordingly the closing of the frontier was thought to usher in a new era in American life.
Two Views of Wilderness
It is useful to separate two aspects of the wilderness idea as it has developed in American thought. First there was the indicated experience of wildness as a countervailing force resisting the daily transformation of wild lands into farmland and cities in the path of westward expansion. This process of civilizing lands that had before been the habitat of nomadic tribes of hunters and gatherers represents a replay of the growth of agricultural societies across the Middle East and Europe in the original expansion of agriculture in the Old World. In this conflict, wilderness was cast as one pole in a dialectic between human culture and wild nature.
The reality of these day-to-day struggles to transform wilderness into productive land may be contrasted with a second, emergent idea of wilderness, an idea—one might say an idealization—of wildness and wilderness that has evolved within academic and intellectual circles, especially in North America and in Australia. The works of Perry Miller (1967), Leo Marx (1967), Roderick Nash (1982) and the philosophers Mark Sagoff (1974) and Max Oelschlager have all articulated and emphasized the importance of the idea of wilderness in the American identity and self-perception. These authors, whose careers correspond to a growing academic interest in environmental studies all brought new dimensions to a vital strain in American intellectual life, as exemplified, for example, in the writings of Ernest Hemingway, Wallace Stegner, Annie Dillard, and many others. These authors reprise a longstanding theme—as exemplified in the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper and his hero, Natty Bumppo, of associating life at the edge of wilderness as symbolic of freedom, self-reliance, and character.
The emphasis in the United States on the idea of wilderness led to a re-shaping of the related concept, "nature," which came to mean "primordial nature," whereas in Europe—where most land had been altered by humans long ago—people enjoyed the "countryside," with farms, homes, and businesses distributed across the landscape, as "natural." The assimilation of the idea of nature to that of primordial nature, and referring only to lands where humans have no presence, has contributed to the polarization of thought about nature in the United States. Whereas Europeans enjoy mixed landscapes, Americans distinguish wilderness from "the working landscape," and there are bitter disagreements about what activities are appropriate in wilderness areas. Advocates of wilderness thus try to eliminate activities, such as motorized recreation, from wilderness areas, considering such uses inappropriate and damaging to the primordial quality of wilderness.
The complex, often conflicting theme of nature versus culture has been important in environmental thought and action. Henry David Thoreau, the transcendentalist, said "in Wildness is the preservation of the World" (Thoreau 1998 , p. 37), and his ideas are echoed in the work of John Muir (founding president of the Sierra Club) and many other wilderness advocates. Muir's reverence for forests and wild nature clashed with the ideas of Gifford Pinchot, the first Forester of the National Forest Reserves, who argued that all resources should be developed to improve the material lot of humans. So reverence—and passion—for wildness exists in sharp contrast to another, opposing theme: the need to control and civilize nature for human use. This tension in the environmental movement, it could be argued, reflects the broader ambivalence of Euro-American culture toward wildness and civilization.
Muir's respect for wilderness also motivated Aldo Leopold, the philosophical forester who worked tirelessly to protect wild areas from development, from within and, later, outside the U.S. Forest Service. Leopold convinced the Forest Service to set aside the Gila Wilderness in 1922, and he co-founded the Wilderness Society—an activist group that advocates for wilderness protection—in 1935. Leopold advocated for preservation of the wilderness on several bases; he countered the utilitarians and materialists by noting that wilderness backpacking and hiking are uses, too, and that some land has more utility for back-country recreation than for development. He also argued that humans need wild, natural systems as models of healthy systems if they are ever to become intelligent managers of the modified systems that are their immediate habitats. Leopold, however, at his most passionate, argued for wildness and wilderness as a cultural necessity, and as a matter of intellectual humility. "The shallow-minded modern" must, he thought, learn to appreciate wilderness as a symbol of our "untamable past," and "giving definition and meaning to the human enterprise" (Leopold 1949, p. 200–201, 96).
In 1964 the U.S. Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which gave wilderness areas considerable protections. This act, which provides for the designation and protection of wilderness areas, defined wilderness "in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man is a visitor who does not remain." Far from resolving the conflict between wilderness advocates and advocates of economic development, however, the passage of the act has resulted in a series of political struggles regarding which, and how much, U.S. government land would be designated as wilderness, and what kinds of activities would be allowed on designated land.
A New Wilderness Debate
In the 1990s, a new wilderness debate broke out, as philosophers, historians and scientists all called into question the truth and efficacy of the wilderness myth. An early salvo in this new war came from the philosopher J. Baird Callicott, who criticized the entrenched idea/myth of wilderness because it supports an inaccurate view of humans as separate from nature; and because the myth has colonialist overtones, treating members of the cultures who lived there as less than human, whereas these peoples managed the land, albeit less intensively than the European colonists. Callicott also thinks the myth confuses policy by emphasizing exclusion of all humans from wilderness. If the emphasis were shifted to protecting wildness, protection would only forbid the intrusion of modern, industrial uses, Callicott argues, and one might encourage people to live with nature in unobtrusive ways in order to cohabit with wildlife.
Subsequently this debate was rekindled in two contexts. First the historian William Cronon, who had implicitly raised some of Callicott's issues in his 1983 book, Changes in the Land, published a book in which he and his co-authors emphasized that the idealized, mythical idea of wilderness is very much an American construction, a culturally relative idea that should be recognized as very particular to the United States, and prone to hide rather than illuminate the reality of European settlement and colonial land transformations (Cronon 1995).
The wilderness debate also shaped a subsequent debate in conservation biology, as conservation biologists suggested that, whatever the original rationale for wilderness, the wilderness areas in the early twenty-first century are indispensable reserves to protect biological diversity. This idea has since been criticized by Callicott, who argues against the assumption that wilderness areas must be depopulated in order to protect wild species, arguing that conservation biologists requiring wilderness simply perpetuates the old dichotomy between humans and nature. Further the philosopher of biology, Sahotra Sarkar, has argued persuasively that the goals of biodiversity protection and wilderness preservation often conflict; this debate shows signs of continuing well into the twenty-first century. (Sarkar 1999).
The idea of wilderness has been, and remains, both seminal and controversial in ongoing discussions of the American character. Further this idea provides an attitudinal backdrop for explorations in environmental ethics and environmental thought, and also for debates about environmental policy. Given this central role in European and North American—especially U.S.—thought and action, it is not surprising that the idea deeply affects the ways humans understand—and evaluate—new and emerging technologies.
BRYAN G. NORTON
Callicott, J. Baird, and Michael P. Nelson. (1998). The Great New Wilderness Debate. Athens: The University of fGeorgia Press.
Cronon, William, ed. (1995). Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. New York: Norton.
Leopold, Aldo. (1949). A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press.
Marx, Leo. (1967). The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. London: Oxford University Press.
Miller, Perry. (1967). Nature's Nation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sagoff, Mark. (1974). "On Preserving the Natural Environment." Yale Law Journal 81: 205–267.
Sarkar, Sahotra. (1999). "Wilderness Preservation and Biodiversity Conservation—Keeping Divergent Goals Distinct." Bioscience 49: 405–412.
Thoreau, Henry David. 1998 (1862). "Walking." In The Great New Wilderness Debate, ed. J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Wilderness is land that humans neither inhabit nor cultivate. Through the ages of western culture, as the human relation to land has changed, the meaning and perception of wilderness also has changed. At first, wilderness was to be either conquered or shunned. At times, it was the place for contrition or banishment, as in the biblical account of the Israelites condemned to wander 40 years in the wilderness. To European settlers of North America, wilderness was the untamed land entered only by the adventurous or perhaps the foolhardy. But the wilderness also held riches, making it new land to be exploited, tamed, and ultimately managed. Few saw wilderness as having value in its own right.
The idea of wilderness as land deserving of protection and preservation for its own sake is largely a product of late nineteenth and twentieth century North American thought. Rapidly expanding cultivation and industry not only created wealth, but it also increased the nonconsumptive, intrinsic values of wilderness. Gradually, people began to perceive the wilderness as a land of enjoyment and welcome solitude through intimacy with nature . For some, it became an important link to their cultural past, providing assurance that some part of the earth would be left in its primeval condition for future generations , and to many their image of the wilderness is as important as its physical reality.
This relatively new attitude toward wild lands has been fostered by scientific considerations. Such lands can hold a tremendous store of unadulterated native genetic material that may be important in maintaining diversity within and among species . Wilderness also can support nondestructive, unobtrusive research projects, which serve as references from which to gauge ecological effects in other areas.
The value of wilderness was promoted from roughly the mid-nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century by many influential people, including George Catlin, Henry David Thoreau , John Muir , and most notably Aldo Leopold and Robert Marshall . Their ideas were ultimately incorporated into the platforms of two major organizations: the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club . With the creation of these groups, a formal movement had begun to convince the public and lawmakers that wilderness should be preserved and protected. A significant event in this movement occurred in 1951 at the Sierra Club's second Wilderness Conference when Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society proposed the idea of a federal wilderness protection bill. Zahniser's work came to fruition 13 years later, four months after his death.
In 1964, the United States Congress passed the Wilderness Act , establishing the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). The act grew out of a concern that an expanding population, with its accompanying settlement and mechanization, would leave no lands in the United States or its possessions in their natural condition. Congress intended to preserve areas of federal lands "to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." The act defines wilderness as follows: "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Further, wilderness is to "be protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions," unimpaired for future use and enjoyment.
The National Wilderness Preservation System began with 54 wilderness areas totaling a little over 9 million acres (3.6 million ha), which were administered by the Forest Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture . In the first three decades after passage of the Wilderness Act, the system has grown to nearly 500 units covering almost 95 million acres (38.5 million ha), about the size of Montana. These units are administered by the Forest Service, and by the National Park Service , Fish and Wildlife Service , and Bureau of Land Management , in the U.S. Department of the Interior . The NWPS increased to about 100 million acres (40.5 million ha), roughly the size of California, following the passage of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.
The years of greatest growth for the wilderness system were from 1978 to 1984. In 1980, 83 units comprising more than 61 million acres (24.7 million ha) were added to this system; most of this land (56 million acres [22.7 million ha] in 35 units) was added in Alaska with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act. All but six states, in the northeast and midwest, have wilderness areas. The western United States, with about 20% of the nation's population (11% in California) has almost 95% of NWPS lands. However, the largest tracts of wilderness are in Alaska, which contains nearly two-thirds of the wilderness system acreage.
Although the Wilderness Act generally defines the minimum size for wilderness as 5,000 acres (2,025 ha), it permits land "of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition." Consequently, wilderness areas range in size from the nearly 9-million-acre (3.6-million-ha) Wrangell–Saint Elias Wilderness in Alaska to the 6-acre (2.4-ha) Pelican Island Wilderness in Florida.
In addition to designated wilderness areas in the NWPS, Congress has established the National Scenic Trails System and the Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Also, several states have designated their own form of wilderness areas, the most notable of which is the Adirondack Forest Preserve in northern New York. These state systems, which are of various types and purity, help broaden the diversity of protected ecosystems and their allowable uses.
Despite the wilderness movement, not everyone agrees that wilderness preservation is a good idea. Opponents object to the restrictions imposed by the Wilderness Act, arguing that they "lock up" huge tracts of land, greatly limiting their use and value to society. The act prohibits roads, use of motorized vehicles or equipment, mechanical means of transport, structures, and commercial enterprises, including timber harvesting. Some low-impact uses, such as hiking, hunting , and fishing are allowed, as are limited livestock grazing and mining.
Before passage of the Wilderness Act, the debate over wilderness concerned whether or not it should be preserved. However, after 1964 the debate shifted to two major questions: How much is enough, and how should wilderness be managed? The first question was nearly settled, at least in law, with passage of the California Desert Protection Act. This was probably the last sizable addition to the wilderness areas in the United States. The second question may seem oxymoronic, but it presents a substantial challenge to the federal agencies charged with overseeing the health and welfare of these areas. As population pressures increase, decisions become more difficult. For example, wilderness and resource experts must determine an acceptable level of grazing; they must also decide what role fire should play; and, perhaps most importantly, the amount of recreational activity to be allowed.
These management issues are dynamic, and the concept of wilderness likely will change in the future as society's values change. Moreover, decisions regarding management of adjacent lands will influence the management of wilderness areas. Finally, ecosystems themselves change—that which is preserved today will not be what exists tomorrow, as fires, storms, volcanic eruptions, and ecological succession reshape the landscape.
Concerns, challenges, and emotional debate over preservation of native ecosystems have arisen in other parts of the world, including Europe and the Amazon Basin . Although international concepts of wilderness are different from that in the United States, other countries are studying the American model for possible adaptation to their own situations. Apart from certain differences, concepts of wildernesses around the globe have some strong commonalities: Wilderness is the antithesis of industry; it exists in the body of the earth and in the mind of humanity; and in wilderness lies the ballast of civilization.
See also Adirondack Mountains; Biodiversity; Frontier economy; National park; National forest; National wildlife refuge; Old-growth forest; Overgrazing; Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; Wild river; Wilderness Study Area; Wildfire; Wildlife; Wildlife management
[Ronald D. Taskey ]
Hendee, J. C., G. H. Stankey, and R. C. Lucas. Wilderness Management. Golden, CO: North American Press, 1990.
Journal of Forestry 91 (February 1993).
U.S. Forest Service. The Principal Laws Relation to Forest Service Activities. Agriculture Handbook No. 453. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978.
WILDERNESS or desert; (Heb. צִיָּה ,יְשִׁימוֹן ,מִדְבָּר). In most biblical passages midbar refers principally to an uninhabited, uncultivated land (e.g., Jer. 2:2; 22:6; Ps. 107:4, 33–36) but sometimes also denotes complete desolation (e.g., Num. 20:4–5; Deut. 8:15). In defining desolation there is, in effect, no difference between midbar and the corresponding nouns, yeshimon and ẓiyyah, which are partially identical with it. However, midbar is the more comprehensive concept since it includes also marginal land on the borders of the yeshimon, "the pastures of the wilderness," and even settlements on its fringes (cf. Isa. 42:11, "the wilderness and the cities thereof"). At times midbar signifies a pasturage for flocks (Ex. 3:1; Ps. 78:52), the word being derived, it is suggested, from the Aramaic dbr, which denotes leading sheep to pasture.
In the Bible various tracts of wilderness are called after adjacent territories or settlements, such as the wilderness of Edom (ii Kings 3:8), Moab (Deut. 2:8), Damascus (i Kings 19:15), Judah (Judg. 1:16), En-Gedi (i Sam. 24:2), Beer-Sheba (Gen. 21:14), Maon (i Sam. 23:24, 25), Shur (Ex. 15:22), Kadesh (Ps. 29:8), Gibeon (ii Sam. 2:24), Jeruel (ii Chron. 20:16), and Tekoa (20:20).
Palestine was a frontier country which was sometimes raided by marauders from the wilderness who spread havoc and destruction. During the second millennium b.c.e., a period of decline, which continued for centuries, overtook Transjordan as a result of the incursion of nomads of the wilderness. In the Israelite period (first millennium b.c.e.) too, marauders made inroads into the country and pillaged the permanent settlements, leaving devastation in their wake. The rural culture and urban settlement in Palestine and in countries of the East generally were based on a constant state of vigilance against the tribes of the wilderness.
The Bible mentions perils of the wilderness which endanger man's life – hunger, thirst, wild animals. The wilderness is an "evil place" (Num. 20:4–5), and its wide expanses constitute a threat to human beings (Deut. 1:19; 8:15; Isa. 21:1). It is described as a land of the shadow of death, or of thick darkness (Jer. 2:6, 31).
While not ignoring the hardships of the wilderness, the distress of the Israelites, who had come out of Egypt, in Sinai and in the Negev, their hunger and thirst, their complaints and rebelliousness against the terrors of the yeshimon, the Bible sometimes regards the wilderness as the cradle of Israel's sins. The sins in the wilderness – whether the making of the golden calf (Ex. 32–33), the rebellion of Koraḥ and his company (Num. 16–17), or the episode of Baal Peor (Num. 25) – became a symbol for all succeeding generations. Thus several Psalms refer to the Israelites' grave sins in the wilderness which determined their fate (Ps. 78:14–41; 106:14–33). Ezekiel makes particularly strong references to the sins of the generation of the wilderness, both fathers and children, and sees in these sins an original sin, as it were, which persisted from the time the Hebrews lived in Egypt, and the punishment for which is visited upon all generations (Ezek. 20:7–26).
In contrast to the negative view of the wilderness period as an age of sin, several prophets refer to it as a time of the nation's purification at the dawn of its history. Thus Hosea and Jeremiah compare Israel to the youthful wife of God whom he found "in the land of great drought," and who followed and cleaved to Him "in a land that was not sown" (Jer. 2:2–4:6; Hos. 2:16–17; 9:10; 13:5). Engraved in the people's memory was the tradition of God's revelation at Sinai and in the wilderness of Seir and the Negeb (Ex. 19:20; Judg. 5:4–5; Hab. 3:3–7). At Sinai, according to this tradition, the Israelite religion crystallized, the Ten Commandments, the laws, and the statutes were given, and the covenant between Israel and its God was made. There, too, Israel enjoyed the special providence of God and was chosen as His people, a theme emphasized particularly in Deuteronomy.
However, the view of the wilderness as the scene of the purification from sin does not mean that the prophets idealized either the essential character of the wilderness or nomadic existence as a way of life (see *Nomadism). This theory, whose main protagonists have been Budde, Stade, Meyer, Flight, and others, is without foundation. The prophets never set the wilderness in opposition to an agricultural civilization, frequently used by them to symbolize a life of abundance and tranquility. Even the *Rechabites did not advocate a return to the wilderness, and there is no proof that they in fact had their home there (cf. the interpretations of Hos. 2:16–17; 12:10 in the Book of *Hosea, and the articles referred to in connection with those interpretations). What can be said on the positive side is that as early as in biblical times the wilderness served as a refuge for anguished, embittered men, whether rebels against society or recluses in search of seclusion (i Sam. 24:1–2; 26:1–4; Job 30:3–8). It is against this background, and not on the basis of idealization, that Jeremiah's yearning, "Oh for a lodging place for wayfarers in the wilderness, that I might leave my people" (Jer. 9:1) is understood. Seclusion in the wilderness, as a historical phenomenon, is known from Second Temple times.
In the Aggadah
The two ways of evaluating the generation of the wilderness, alluded to in the Bible, persisted in the aggadah, though in a new idiom, and formed the subject of conflicting views between R. Eliezer and R. Akiva. Whereas the latter held that the generation of the wilderness has no share in the world to come and will not stand at the last judgment, R. Eliezer applied to them the verse (Ps. 50:5); "Gather My saints together unto Me; those that have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice" (Sanh. 10:3). The entire subsequent midrashic tradition follows his line of approach. The Israelites of the wilderness generation are called Darda (Heb. דר = דרדע, "generation," and דע, "knowledge"; cf. i Kings 5:11), "because they were extremely knowledgeable [בני דעה]" (Mid. Prov. to 1:1). The verse (Song 3:6) "Who is this that cometh up out of the wilderness" is interpreted as "her [Israel's] rise dates from the wilderness" (Song R. 3:6, no. 1), since from it came all Israel's virtues in Torah, prophecy, and kingship. However, the diasporas are also compared to the wilderness.
J.W. Flight, in: jbl, 42 (1923), 158–226; S. Nystroem, Beduinentum und Yahwismus (1946); N. Glueck, The Other Side of the Jordan (1940); A. Reifenberg, Milḥemet ha-Mizra ve-ha Yeshimon (1950); S. Talmon, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Biblical Motifs (1966), 31–63; S. Abramsky, in: Eretz Israel, 8 (1967), 31–63.
wilderness, land retaining its primeval character with the imprint of humans minimal or unnoticeable. In the United States, the Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System with a nucleus of 9 million acres (3.6 million hectares) of land in 54 different areas, mostly in Western states, and provided for the designation of new wilderness areas. By 1992, the total had risen to 95 million acres (38.4 million hectares) in 708 parcels of land. Alaska, with 57.6 million acres (23.3 million hectares), was by far the leading repository of wilderness; Ohio had but 77 acres, and some states had none, although designated areas included several Eastern locations where signs of civilization were substantially erased. Wilderness lands are to be preserved in their natural condition, wild and undeveloped, both for their own sake and for humankind's solitude and enjoyment of their beauty. The idea of wilderness has deep roots in American thought (see environmentalism). In the 17th cent. William Penn decreed that one acre of forest be left wild for every five that were cleared. Henry David Thoreau believed that the existence of wilderness was justified by the inspiration people could draw from it.
See P. Brooks, The Pursuit of Wilderness (1971); R. Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (3d ed. 1982).
wil·der·ness / ˈwildərnis/ • n. [usu. in sing.] an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region. ∎ a neglected or abandoned area of a garden or town. ∎ fig. a position of disfavor, esp. in a political context: the man who led the Green Party out of the wilderness | [as adj.] his wilderness years. PHRASES: a voice in the wilderness an unheeded advocate of reform (see Matt. 3:3, etc.)
1. Ornamental and agreeable landscape, neither wild nor deserted, carefully planned and tended, planted with trees to form a grove or wood with paths cut through it, often designed in a fantastic way, frequently with a maze.
3. Land giving the appearance of being wild or uncultivated, a variant on the idea of the desert.
4. Informally laid out woodland of mixed species and wild ?owers, with paths and open areas running through it.
Oxford English Dictionary (1933);
in the wilderness of a politician or political party, out of office, removed from influence; originally with allusion to Numbers 14:33
a voice in the wilderness an unheeded advocate of reform, originally in allusion to the words of John the Baptist in John 1:23.