Here’s a new definition I just thought up this morning:
Wilderness is any place where human beings can know themselves to be endangered.*
*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.