The trouble with wilderness • By William Cronon, in “Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature.” EHUF 362 Lecture 5
The idea of wilderness has been a fundamental tenet of the environmental movement for decades. • “that last place where civilization (the human disease) has not infected the earth” • “the place we can turn to for escape” • Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Actually, wilderness is a human creation • Created by particular human cultures • At particular times in history • 250 years ago there were few people wandering the remote corners of the earth looking for the “wilderness experience”.
Terror • In the late 18th century, wilderness referred to places that were: desolate, deserted, savage, barren, wastelands. • In the King James Bible, wilderness was used over and over again to refer to places on the margin of civilization, where it was all too easy to lose one’s self in confusion and despair. • Wilderness was a place one came to against one’s will, and in fear and trembling.
By the end of the 19th century, wilderness had changed • Wilderness had once been referred to as the darkness at the edge of Paradise, into which Adam and Eve were driven. • Now it was frequently referred to as Eden itself.
People began to trek to sites that had been designated as places of wild beauty: • Niagara Falls • Catskills • Adirondacks • Yosemite (in 1864, nation’s first wildland park) • Yellowstone (in 1872, first true national park)
Hetch Hetchy • Most famous episode in American conservation history • In first decade of 20th century • City of San Francisco proposed to dam the Tuolumne R. in the Hetch Hetchy valley, well within Yosemite National Park
Hetch Hetchy lost • John Muir led fight, but lost. • The damming galvanized the emerging movement to preserve wilderness. • 50 years earlier, few people would have questioned “reclaiming” such a wasteland. • Muir portrayed it as desecration; flooding the valley was “the work of the Devil”.
Sources of transformation of the perception of wilderness • The sublime • The frontier
The sublime • Sublime landscapes in the 18th century were those in which one had more chances to glimpse the face of God. • Sacred places • If Satan was there, then so was Christ • Places of grandeur, great beauty • Mountain as cathedral
By the time of Muir, wilderness was becoming more of a romantic concept of the domesticated sublime. • The sublime wilderness ceased being a place of Satanic temptations and became a sacred temple.
The national myth of the frontier • May have its roots in the primitivism of Rosseau; the belief that the best antidote to the ills of civilization is a return to simple, more primitive living.
The frontier and American character • Historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 described the way the frontier molded the national character: • Easterners and Europeans moved west into wild unsettled lands • They shed civilization • Rediscovered primitive racial energies • Reinvented direct democratic institutions • Reinforced themselves with a vigor, independence and creativity that were the source of American Democracy and national character
The frontier was temporary • Based on free land • “In the myth of the vanishing frontier lay the seeds of wilderness preservation” • Set-asides for national parks occurred just when sentiment about passing frontier peaked • Individual freedom was an important theme
How invented is the idea of American wilderness? • The fact that Indians had to be removed from it remind us how artificial it is. • A flight from history; a place to escape from our world and past. • “The dream of an unworked natural landscape is usually had by people who never had to work the land to eat.”
Central paradox: • “Wilderness embodies a vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural; if nature is wild, our presence there is its downfall. Where we are is where nature is not.”
William Cronon: “If nature and humans are on two poles, we will never discover what the ethical, sustainable human place in nature is.”
A common perspective is that nature, to be natural, must be pristine. • But, people have been manipulating the natural world for as long as we have a record of people. • And, many environmental changes we now face have occurred quite apart from human intervention in the earth’s past.