Here’s a new definition I just thought up this morning:

Wilderness is any place where human beings can know themselves to be endangered.*

dead red-tailed hawk

*The Wilderness Act of 1964, written by Pennsylvania native Howard Zahniser, defines wilderness 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.

“Untrammeled” is a great word — and, as advocates for more eastern Wilderness like to point out, it is not a synonym for “pristine.” Few parts of the North American continent have been unaffected by their 10+ millennia of human occupation. But I think it’s also critical to note, pace timber industry apologists, that the chief “management” tool of the Native Americans was fire: an essentially untamable force whose careful manipulation requires the very opposite of managerial hubris. I’m not sure whether periodic burning qualifies as trammeling — “enmesh[ing] in or as if in a fishing net; hinder[ing] the activity or free movement of,” as the Free Online Dictionary puts it — but I’m quite sure that fire suppression amounts to the worst kind of trammeling.

Wilderness has roots in our Biblical heritage, as I’ve mentioned here before. In the Gospels, Jesus is tested in the wilderness for forty days, following the time-worn practice of prophets and leaders in the Tanakh, where

Desert or wilderness (tohu) is portrayed as part of a separate order that in some sense (as the tohu-wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2) predates and gives rise to Creation; thus, it is a place of testing and renewal (for Jacob/Israel, David, Elijah, etc.) and an image almost of Emptiness in the Buddhist sense.

American Indians, too, valued wild areas for their power to heal and transform, usually through some harrowing encounter with ultimate otherness.

So from a humanistic as well as an ecological perspective, wilderness is much more than a mere park — in fact, in many ways it is the opposite of a park. Though Yellowstone National Park was the world’s first (1872) federally protected area devoted to nature conservation, its original conception was flawed in three significant ways. First, it was founded upon the white supremacist doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Not only were the Indians then resident in the park not consulted about its creation, but they were driven out as so much vermin. Second, the expulsion of humans was followed by the eradication of natural predators, in accordance with the Western European demonization of carnivores. Third, we now know that, big as it is, Yellowstone National Park is still too small to fully preserve the genetic diversity of the species it is intended to protect. Conservation biologists now recognize that effective conservation areas cannot simply be set apart from the rest of the world, like modern versions of Noah’s Ark. Boundary fences, too — despite what I wrote about “gated communities” the other day — are an impermissible form of trammeling.

Wilderness must be web-like, with protected nodes and linkages to allow the free interchange of genetic materials — hence, for example, the international effort known as the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. For this to work, we have to stop thinking in dichotomous terms — humans versus nature, urban (or reservation) squalor versus pristine park. The human and non-human realms must be much more effectively interwoven, while preserving the sovereignty of each. In human-dominated areas, people must learn to become better hosts for nature and for “the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien,” as the Bible always puts it. In wilderness, the tables are turned and it is we who are poor and homeless.

Incidentally, if you want to keep abreast of news affecting wilderness and wildlife in the United States, be sure to bookmark Alan Gregory’s Conservation News.

9 Replies to “Wilderness”

  1. I love this contemplation of wilderness, dave. It is that thing I cry over for not knowing enough of. It is that thing I celebrate when it arrives in my own skin, which it has done from time to time. I made eye contact with a bobcat yesterday in the yard. I saw it through the window. It saw me. Those wild yellow eyes looked straight at me. My un-wild clumsy self clumped through the tall grass hoping for a second sighting. Of course, I didn’t see it even though I was probably only twenty feet from it. I took the one step that sent it out of the yard so fast that all I saw was its lanky and tawny hind legs fleeing the scene.

  2. Thanks for the lyrical comment, robin andrea. I am a little envious of your bobcat sightings, as I think I’ve told you, but just the knowledge that bobcats are around is almost enough for me.

  3. Dave, you express exactly how I feel about the whole dichotomy of wilderness versus civilization, nature versus human, as I think we’ve discussed before. I think one of the reasons I, and I’m sure many others, feel this deep sense of dislocation that we can’t quite name, is that the way of life most humans have taken upon themselves today counts out any kind of direct dependence upon and interaction with the whole world around… today our worlds are restricted to what is human and we are told that is what the world is made of. But it is a great lie, of course. It is like a recluse who sits inside a room pretending that the food he eats and words he uses and television he watches has nothing to do with the world out there. Personally, I deeply believe that without our being part of the “wildnerness” that all free creatures are born into we can never truly realize our full potential as human beings and as members of a true global community.

  4. Another lovely discussion of nature and our relations to it!

    The photo makes me think of the times I’ve played with a friend’s cockatiel, noticing the scales under the feathers and being reminded that birds really are the surviving dinosaurs….

  5. Sorry to paste this whole email in here, but I’m not at home… in spare moments in the temp assignment I’m on, I’ve been exploring this fascinating installation artist, Olufur Eliasson. Check out his website. Unfortunately I can’t go to the talk next week, but this abstract and your post on wilderness resonated. I like to think of ‘wilderness,’ in its true form, as something only a madman could comprehend, if at all. Though you are surely speaking of a caretaking role, honouring the wilderness and preserving it. Anyway, just dropping by for a moment:

    On Olufur Eliasson:

    On Mark Cheetham:

    Mark Cheetham
    (History of Art/Canadian Studies, University of Toronto)
    “Interfaces of Art, Science, and Technology:
    Seeing and Thinking with Olafur Eliasson”

    Olufur Eliasson is a Danish/Icelandic artist whose complex and provocative art installations challenge and potentially extend our idea of what nature is and how we can coexist in community with the natural realm, however defined. In his best known work – The Weather Project (2003), seen in London, England ­ he illuminated the cavernous indoor space of the Tate Modern gallery’s turbine hall with the artificial rays of a giant indoor sun. The illusion of warmth transformed a former site of industry into an inviting micro-climate replete with the changeability typical of the weather in England. Fogs appeared and dissipated, distributing the pervasive yellow light. Serious visitors responded to this new amenity with contemplative awe. Others saw it as a welcoming public playground.

    Eliasson¹s work is playful but also profound. Working in transformed urban spaces, he seeks to blur the boundaries between inside and outside, to show how easily we can move from one to the other without the categories of nature and culture to define where we are or how we are supposed to behave. Our perceptual and emotional experience is the passport. We structure provisional communities with our peers as we go. Ultimately, he sees these journeys as experiments in a new democracy. Asked what his work tells us about nature, he is disarming: “I don’t find anything out there — I find my own relation to the spaces. We see nature with our cultivated eyes. Again, there is no true nature, there is only your and my construct.”

    Eliasson’s highly technical yet transparent work is an excellent discussion point for new ideas about the evolving definition of nature, about the uses of technology in the environment, and ultimately, about the interface between science and art.

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