“In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
– Henry David Thoreau
In May of this year, I embarked upon a backpacking trip in the mountains of Northern Argentina, along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a region famous for its sweeping desert landscapes and indigenous culture. During the trek I was as much captivated by the natural vistas as by the presence of civilization up in the high mountains: the subsistence pastoralists who tread upon the same footpaths carved out by their Incan ancestors. I enjoy hiking in natural environs as a means for adventure and meditation. The contrast between a rugged mountain ridge and the familiar urban conditions in which I’ve grown up is refreshing, and I always seem to stumble upon new insights during the hike back down. However, as a result of my interactions with the pastoralists up in the Quebrada, I cannot help but think something’s missing from my usual wild haunts up in, say, California’s Sierra Nevada… but what could it be?
The de-humanization of wilderness signifies the erasure of lands’ cultural heritage; and vice versa, draining geography of its humanity. The construction of such an ideal has real-world consequences, which I’ll outline in this essay. In the U.S., Native Americans were removed from the national parks to sanitize them of human influence as part of a mission to craft an artificial if pure and wild nature to be used as an antidote for and guiding contrast to the increasingly urban and industrial world, ruled by machines and not wildlife. The removal of indigenous residents from Yosemite in order to make the future iconic national park “wild” and free from the traces of humanity is an example of this. That very action made the notable and important conservation act — the preservation of America’s wild-lands — evidently unnatural. As the great environmental thinker William Cronon wrote in The Trouble With Wilderness:
The removal of Indians to create an “uninhabited wilderness”—uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is. To return to my opening argument: 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. Indeed, one of the most striking proofs of the cultural invention of wilderness is its thoroughgoing erasure of the history from which it sprang. In virtually all of its manifestations, wilderness represents a flight from history. Seen as the original garden, it is a place outside of time, from which human beings had to be ejected before the fallen world of history could properly begin. Seen as the frontier, it is a savage world at the dawn of civilization, whose transformation represents the very beginning of the national historical epic. Seen as the bold landscape of frontier heroism, it is the place of youth and childhood, into which men escape by abandoning their pasts and entering a world of freedom where the constraints of civilization fade into memory. Seen as the sacred sublime, it is the home of a God who transcends history by standing as the One who remains untouched and unchanged by time’s arrow. No matter what the angle from which we regard it, wilderness offers us the illusion that we can escape the cares and troubles of the world in which our past has ensnared us.
Wilderness was to become a foil to the lives of a select few who’d felt that they’d wandered too far away from the virgin soils of their ancestors’ planet, a counterpoint to civilization, a means to tap into primal energies and escape especially from cities, which are so distinct from circumstances in which we’ve lived until very recently.
Our concept of wilderness is striking insofar as it reflects our very self-definition as human, and fits into a larger set of systems. The tribalistic us-them schism we’ve evolved has proven useful: domestication of species for agriculture and pastoralism; then use of natural resources for tools and energy resulting in industrialization and urbanization, carving our own uniquely human realm along the way with built environments (especially cities). Resources, basically all elements to which we owe our existence became seen as existing for our own use. Somewhere along the way a conservation ethic developed in some places, resulting in, for instance, the preservation of wilderness, not just for the sake of protecting its resources but because the wild-lands are seen to contain value in and of themselves. In countries like the U.S., some wilderness are no longer feared or romanticized as a wasteland or badlands, the shadows of God have receded due to burgeoning empirical perspectives and the scientific advancement that accompanies them, and we’re as comfortable as ever ensconced in our array of useful technologies.
The purity of an idealized nature held apart from us reflects our insecurities: survival fears in prior epochs, and now reactionary anxieties against our modern-day entrenched position in a world increasingly infused with artificiality and devoid of Arcadian influences. This is the culmination of the harsh, relationship-defining contrast to our modern civilization which especially since the second half of the 20th century values artificial more than natural: just think about how different the average American’s diet and living space is compared to a century ago. The aim is to be swaddled in a cocoon of comfort and familiarity and stimulation — basic human tendencies — but brought to the extreme thanks to modern technology, at least for urban dwellers who spend their lives shuffling between bubbles: car, office, home. It’s all part of the narrative of progress that’s chugged along since the Industrial Revolution: myriad schism-ed ontological contrasts (right/wrong, man/beast, natural/artificial), staples of Western post-Enlightenment thought. There’s the Western teleological aim of constructing civilization in contrast to the wild; a notion of progress and a fixation on control that leads to seeing the world in the polar contrasts of humanity and the primordial stew from which we’ve congealed civilization. On a practical level, control finds its equivalency in security and stability through which the species strives for survival in dominating its realm.
The response by a certain part of Western society is to view the wilds as a panacea — a cure-all for the ills some people associate with industrial society. I’m not denying that certain landscapes can’t be invigorating and sublime, if only in their alienness, and we can bask in the contrast. However, a more proactive solution would be to still conceive those lands, say, a remote mountain range, as still under our zone of impact, even if they lack human inhabitants. An extension of this would be to fuse our conceptions of the human and natural realms by incorporating more natural process in the structure of civilization (e.g. permaculture) as opposed to reinforcing the imagined division.
The sanitization of wilderness is problematic on a systemic scale, speaking volumes about why environmentalists encounter such difficulty finding adherents to their modern ethic. It reinforces artificial divide between humans and nature which itself, while useful for the development of civilization and finding an existential basis for our exceptionality, has the negative consequence of consigning ourselves apart from the ecological system which we inhabit and are reliant upon. This specie-istic hubris leads to an apathy and lack of ethos about the very environs upon which we are dependent upon for our survival.
The dehumanized conception of wilderness also creates an inauthentic conception diverging from reality in decoupling of people and land — very much a projection of urbanites who themselves may be unfamiliar with traditional landscapes and relations to natural resource leads to errors like windshield wilderness and large scale dilemmas like the water crisis in the American West due to a belief that strikingly non-native plants (think golf courses in Nevada) belong in the desert. Indeed, how wild can wildernesses be while anthropogenic climate change levies worldwide impacts?
It seems imperative that if we are to resolve the pressing environmental problems of our age, climate change in particular, we must bridge the perceived divide between humans and nature, instead of carving out an ever-deeper abyss. Recognition of our place in the world, and the fragility of our throne’s perch, isn’t just contingent upon a shift in public policy, but a sea change in our existential attitudes defining our species’ connection with its world. Given the incredible advancement of consciousness over the past few centuries, aided along by the very technological phenomena that’ve advanced the human/nature divide, there’s room to be hopeful about our cultural capacity for change. One step towards that evolution? Put humans back in our idea of wilderness, blur the schism until its erasure.
This essay is something of a sequel to On Backcountry Cabins and Defining ‘Nature’, which inaugurated the Sense of Place series in 2013.