The Idea of Wilderness

The concept of wilderness is one of the most complex ideas in environmental and human history. As environmental historian Roderick Nash pointed out in Wilderness and the American Mind (1967), the word wilderness comes from old English and Germanic words, wildern and wildeor. Nash notes, "The root seems to have been 'will' with a descriptive meaning of self-willed, willful, or uncontrollable. From 'willed' came the adjective 'wild' used to convey the idea of being lost, unruly, disordered, or confused."6 To many people living in medieval Europe, the ancient forests contained dense trees and underbrush, deep shadows, and frightening beasts. The word was likewise associated with barrenness and the desert. In the Bible, the book of Deuteronomy is called "In the Wilderness," and many of the connotations of wilderness come from the desert lands in which the Israelites sought enlightenment and in which they wandered for forty years. Wilderness, therefore, means not only a dense forest, but also a barren land. In addition, there is the sense of fear and bewilderment. Such connotations associated with the concept of wilderness came with the Puritans to the New World as cultural baggage. The wilderness is the antithesis of the garden, or of paradise. The biblical story says that Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden into the wilderness, a desert. They had to labor in the earth to change it into a garden, just as the colonists had to change the New England wilderness into a cultivated garden.

The idea of wilderness appeared in the sermons of many of the ministers of New England churches during the 1640s and 1650s. Hartford, Connecticut minister Thomas Hooker (1586-1647) preached that Puritans "must come into and go through a vast and roaring wilderness" before "they could possess that good land which abounded with all prosperity [and] flowed with milk and honey."7 Peter Bulkeley preached in 1646 that God had dealt with the Puritans as he had "dealt with his people Israel" for "we are brought out of a fat land into the wilderness."8 Rhode Island founder Roger Williams (1603-83) likewise spoke of a "wild and howling land" as a reminder that his people had fallen from grace and that their souls were spiritual wildernesses.9 Thus purification of the wilderness in the soul of the Pu ritans was an important part of the religious experience. The wilderness provided symbolic justification for Puritan land conversion as well. They could take over the wilderness from the Indians and transform it into a garden through their own ecological additions, even as they transformed the spiritual wilderness in their own souls.

The idea of wilderness changed in this country toward the end of the eighteenth century as a result of ideas developed in England, Germany, and France. In England, Edmund Burke's Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) began to look at forests, mountains, and waterfalls as beautiful places. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime in 1761, in which nature and wilderness began to take on meanings of reverence and awe. God's action in the land through thunderstorms and lightning was now looked upon not as the work of the devil, but as a manifestation of God's goodness. The sublime was manifested in waterfalls, mountains and canyons, and in sunsets, rainbows, and oceans. The idea of the sublime as a religious experience became important in the romantic period of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America. Nature was now cathedral, temple, and Bible.

New Englanders began to treasure their mountains, forests, and waterfalls and to look upon them as exemplars of the sublime rather than as obstacles to be surmounted, as the Puritans had viewed them. In her poem "An Hymn to Evening" (1773) African-American poet Phillis Wheatley of Boston eulogized the sunset as God's glory in the world below: "Through all the heav'ns what beauteous dyes are spread! But the west glories in the deepest red: So may our breasts with every virtue glow, The living temples of our God below!" In "Thanatopsis" (1817), Massachusetts poet William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) wrote of "the venerable woods —rivers that move in majesty," while his poem "A Forest Hymn" began with the lines "The groves were God's first temples." Massachusetts teacher Caroline Barrett White wrote in 1850: "When I contemplate nature my heart expands with an intensity and feeling of love, of admiration, of reverence for that Being who has spread out before us the sublime works of creation____"10

The American wilderness began to be appreciated in the nineteenth century as the nation's forests began to disappear. What remained of nature that had not been used for economic purposes or settled was eulogized as wilderness. Wilderness was also connected with a sense of racism against Indians. Indians had lived on the North American continent for at least 10,000 years. They had managed the land, made their presence known, and transformed it through hunting, gathering, and fire. But by the late nineteenth century, Indians were being moved to reservations, and national parks were being designated as people-free reserves. Although William Bradford had found the New England forest "full of wild beasts and wild men," his "wilderness" nevertheless contained Indians. In contrast, the Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, stated that in a wilderness, the earth and its life are untrammeled by "man," and that "man" himself "is a visitor who does not remain." Wilderness was thus defined as devoid of human presence.

The concept of wilderness, therefore, has changed over time. In 1977, Roderick Nash summed up the changes, noting that "historians believe that one of the most distinguishing characteristics of American culture is the fact that it emerged from a wilderness in less than four centuries."11 In 1995, however, environmental historian William Cronon wrote a controversial article entitled "The Trouble with Wilderness" in his edited book Uncommon Ground (1995), arguing that wilderness is a social construction. The idea of "wilderness," Cronon noted, is "a profoundly human creation."12 Like "nature," "wilderness" is a cultural construct. As an idea, it is a product of civilization, created in contrast to civilization. It is only through our own civilization that we know something that is not civilized to be wilderness. Cronon observed that "There is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness. It is entirely a creation of the culture that holds it dear, a product of the very history it seeks to deny."13 There is a sense of an opposite, or otherness, to the idea of "wilderness." In the article, Cronon argued that "we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture's problematic relationships with the non-human world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem."14 Numerous ecologists, environmental advocates, philosophers, and historians, however, differed with his interpretation on the grounds that nature was a real, evolved, ecological system rather than a historical construct. The Pilgrims and Puritans, therefore, have left not only the legacy of a transformed New England, but also a transformed idea — that of wilderness.

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