Wilderness Essay

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Wilderness is one of the most potent and contentious concepts in Western, particularly North American, framings of society-nature relations. As a symbol of humankind’s moral and spiritual condition, it is deeply imbedded in Western philosophy and religion. As an actual place, it lies at the heart of political-economic struggles over the future courses of development and biodiversity protection around the world. When wilderness is debated among scholars and scientists, it is more often about the idea of wilderness than actual wild places.

The Idea of Wilderness

The idea of wilderness can be categorized into one of three roughly historical trends: Ancient, classical, and romantic. The origins of the ancient view are traceable to the Neolithic revolution in the Fertile Crescent of the ancient Mediterranean, according to Oelshlaeger. This region experienced the earliest transition of human culture from a reliance on hunting and gathering to the domestication of animals and permanent cultivation. This shift in material existence was accompanied by a shift in the cultural meanings of nature, including a move away from totemic rituals and myth, to animal idolatry and fertility cults, a greater sense of separation of humanity from the natural world, and the rise of the belief that nature could be manipulated to fit the designs and desires of humankind, according to Glacken and Oelshlaeger. The later emergence of monotheism, specifically Judaism, in this region marks a major shift in ancient ideas of nature, with the Hebrew’s supreme being, Yahweh, believed to be not of nature, but above nature as its creator.

It is from the Hebrews’ Old Testament, particularly as translated into English in the King James Version of the Bible, that some of the most influential and persistent ideas of wilderness are introduced into Western thought. Some historians have argued that the roots of modern environmental problems can be traced to the Old Testament and its negative portrayal of wilderness, as claimed by Nash and White. In particular, the metaphor of the garden as the site of God’s grace and the wilderness, into which Adam and Eve are cast, as a spiritual wasteland is seen to have tainted Western attitudes toward nature for centuries. In addition, the Book of Genesis, which portrays people as having been created separate from and having dominion over the rest of God’s creation, promotes a sense of nature as having no value or purpose beyond service to humankind. Some would argue, however, that the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of the wilderness is inconsistent and ambiguous and not reducible to either a positive or negative generalization, as claimed by Oelschlaeger. For example, the Old Testament also portrayed wilderness as a spiritual refuge, a place where the Hebrew prophets and their followers could come in more direct contact with their God, Yahweh.

The classical view of wilderness is rooted in the Greco-Roman civilizations, specifically in a blend of Greek rationalism, Roman pastoral aesthetic, and Christianity. Greek philosophers developed several key trends that continue today to influence Western conceptualizations of wilderness, particularly the idea of order, unity, and harmony in nature, a rational approach to observing and categorizing phenomena in nature, a homocentric understanding of the universe, and a strong distinction between the city and the county. According to Glacken, no earlier period in Western thought “revealed such strong, self-consciously expressed contrasts between the urban and the rural as did the Hellenistic.” These trends were not formed in isolation, but were combined with elements of Hebrew and early Christian thought to create the “genesis of the idea of wilderness that has ruled Western civilization for these past two millennia,” according to Oelschlaeger.

The classical view portrays wilderness as a condition of nature that awaits the transforming hand of civilization to make it productive and useful. This perspective is clear in the pastoral poetry of the 1st century B.C.E. poet Virgil, urging farmers to “mellow your harsh fruits by culture, nor suffer fields to lie idle,” as quoted by Glacken. This drive to civilize wilderness takes on overt spiritual dimensions in early Christianity, when proselytizing monks set about converting pagan Europe. Paganism, built upon a reverence of nature and wild places, presented a challenge to early Christian missionaries who viewed pagans’ sacred groves as the dwelling places of witches and other agents of the devil. Doing God’s work meant simultaneously exercising dominion over nature and converting pagans to Christianity, both of which entailed cutting down the sacred groves and other places of nature worship and turning them into pasture and field, according to Nash and Oelschlaeger. There remained within Christian thought, however, the ideas of wilderness as a refuge from corrupt civilization, and of exposure to wild nature as a means to come into closer contact with God’s creation, perspectives more commonly associated with the romantic view.

The romantic view of wilderness is best characterized as a reaction against modernity among Western artists, poets, writers, and philosophers. These cultural elites were generally situated far from the physical reality of wild nature. They lived in civilized Europe or the coastal cities of the Americas and admired wilderness from a comfortable distance, as noted by Nash.

The philosophical roots of the romantic view are found in the concept of the sublime, a term that until the 18th century was associated with the awesome, fearful, and majestic grandeur of God, explain Cronon and Cosgrove. As the industrial revolution transformed Europe, the sublime gradually came to be associated with remote mountain and rugged coastal landscapes, where the awesome display of wild nature’s power could be experienced and contemplated. By the turn of the 19th century, genres of romantic poetry and landscape painting had emerged in which raw, untamed nature was celebrated for its very wildness. Wilderness, rather than being morally degenerate and economically unproductive, as in the classical view, became inspirational, even sacred, and deserving of protection and preservation. This romantic vision of wilderness experiences its fullest expression in the North American conservation movement of the 19th and 20th centuries.

American Wilderness

The dominant conceptualization of wilderness today is most commonly associated with ideas that developed among North American conservationists. So pervasive is the wilderness idea in North American conservation thought that some have characterized it as an obsession that provides “the dominant ideological underpinning” for a wide range of environmental concerns, as stated by Cronon. To understand how the wilderness became so dominant in U.S. environmental thought, the idea has to be situated within the broader history of European conquest of North America, the role of the frontier in political culture and national identity, the encounter between Native Americans and Europeans, and the development of capitalist social relations in the United States, as pointed out by Cronon, Nash, and Cosgrove.

The Pilgrims and Puritans who spearheaded the European colonization of North America carried with them from Europe a classical perspective on wilderness. For the Puritans and the colonizers that followed in the 17th and 18th centuries, the continent’s forests were obstacles to overcome, lands to be tamed, made productive, and civilized. Colonists described the lands beyond the meager coast-bound settlements as a “howling wilderness” that was dark, savage, and filled with dangers to both the physical and spiritual health of the colonizers. In various secular and sacred forms, this perspective remained dominant until the end of the 18th century.

By the latter half of the 19th century, there was a reversal in wilderness thought among cultural and political elites in the United States. Western North America, with its rugged and monumental mountain ranges and expansive deserts and forests, came to be viewed as a landscape of virtue and natural purity as opposed to the decadent and desecrated lands of Europe and North America’s eastern seaboard. The writings of Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and John Muir gave shape to a new romantic vision of American wilderness.

A myth of national identity emerged that positioned Americans as different from European nationalities by virtue of their historical encounter with wilderness. Artists, writers, historians, and politicians began to celebrate North American wilderness as the source of personal characteristics of rugged individualism, self-reliance, and moral virtue, which were said to provide the core of American national identity. Something of a “wilderness cult,” according to Nash, emerged that celebrated primitivism and noble savagery, suggesting that periodic wilderness encounters kept America vigorous by cultivating manliness and virility among its citizens. Among American political figures, Theodore Roosevelt is most closely identified with this perspective on wilderness through his many writings and his initiatives as president to establish national parks in the wildest areas of the U.S. West.

Among other historical developments, particularly the closing of the American frontier, the 19thcentury cultural shift in the wilderness idea has been linked to new waves of immigrants coming to the United States. A nativist movement arose based on the belief that “since 1880 a new type of person had come to dominate movement into the United States … unskilled, transient young men, largely from southern and eastern Europe, entering urban industrial employment and keeping a distance from earlier settled Americans,” as stated by Cosgrove. According to nativist logic, the new immigrants, having come from a different “racial stock” and never having experienced the transforming influences of the great American wilderness, could not be true Americans.

In combination, the wilderness cult and nativism gave the early conservation movement in the United States pervasive racist and masculine underpinnings. Early 20th-century conservationists were almost universally well-to-do, eastern-based, white males whose concerns about wilderness preservation, masculinity, racial purity, and immigration tended to bleed one into the other, an idea expounded upon by Haraway, Cosgrove, and Cronon.

A new political movement to protect what were widely viewed as the vestiges of a disappearing North American wilderness accompanied the cultural shift in American wilderness thought from a classical to a romantic perspective. Muir and Roosevelt were the primary catalysts for the movement, with Muir being the chief philosopher and promoter of the wilderness movement through his writings about Yosemite, and Roosevelt being the elected official most closely associated with early federal government initiatives to legally protect natural areas. Muir and Roosevelt, however, were on opposite sides of the plan to dam the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park and create the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, an initiative that ultimately set the American wilderness movement on fire when Roosevelt approved the project in 1908. Hetch Hetchy became a rallying cry for conservationists.

A new generation of wilderness advocates arose, led by Aldo Leopold, a visionary forester with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and Robert Marshall, a professional forester from a wealthy New York family who also worked for a time with the USFS. Marshall made his principal mark on the movement when he founded the Wilderness Society in 1935, an organization specifically dedicated to promoting the permanent preservation of wilderness for wilderness’ sake. In 1964, the movement achieved its goal of establishing a federally designated system of protected wilderness areas. The arguments for the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964 reflected the romantic wilderness perspective developed in the writings of Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold. Today, there are over 106 million acres officially designated as wilderness under the act, more than half of which is in the state of Alaska.

The New Wilderness Debate

Since the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the wilderness idea has become more politically charged than ever, sparking what Calicott and Nelson identify as the “great new wilderness debate.” The debate is not so much one between those that argue for and those that argue against wilderness preservation. Indeed, many of the critics of the wilderness idea make an effort to state their endorsement for the protection of wild areas, such as Cronon and Calicott. Rather, it is a debate about the idea of wilderness, as developed in the American and, now, the global conservation movement, the values that it reflects, and what it means for the ability to imagine models of sustainable societynature relationships. Critics such as Calicott have labeled the writings of Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, Marshall, and the U.S. Congressional act that they inspired as the “received wilderness idea.” The argument is that these writings provide the foundation for current Western conceptualizations of wilderness, yet they were shaped by ethnocentric, racist, and sexist ideologies and since-discredited scientific models of ecology.

At the heart of scholarly critiques of the wilderness idea is the proposition that wilderness is a social construction or, more specifically, that according to Calicott “the name wilderness socially constructs, as we now say, the landscape, in a way not shared by all social groups.” The new wilderness debate is thus one aspect of a larger debate from the 1980s and 1990s surrounding the critiques of the philosophy and methodology of science by a broad range of social constructivists in the humanities and social sciences, subsequently labeled “science wars” by Ross. Among other claims, constructivists argued that nature, as an object of scientific study, is socially constructed. The social construction of nature is a phrase commonly employed to stress the role of representation, discourse, and imagery in defining and framing our knowledge of nature and the natural. As Bird argued, “scientific knowledge should not be regarded as a representation of nature, but rather a socially constructed interpretation of an already socially constructed natural-technical object of inquiry.” Wilderness, it is argued, has become synonymous with a distinctly Western conceptualization of nature and so has been a central concept in scholarly debates over socially constructed nature, according to Proctor.

Perhaps the most notable critique of wilderness in the new debate is William Cronon”s widely reprinted essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Cronon argues that nature in Western conservation thinking is idealized as an empty wilderness, clearly placing human society and nature in separate spheres and leading inevitably to the conclusion that human presence alone is enough to degrade nature. This dualistic vision of society-nature relations is for Cronon “the trouble with wilderness.” His constructionist approach suggests two fundamental empirical and theoretical limitations of the wilderness model of nature. First, acceptance of this model would require ignoring the conclusions from the empirical findings of cultural geographers, environmental historians, and archeologists that people have manipulated and shaped nature “for as long as we have a record of their passing.” In short, the physical actuality of nature as a vacant wilderness is not supported by geo-historical research. Second, the wilderness-humanity duality leaves no room for considering other, less environmentally destructive theories of human history and society. As Cronon explains the core paradox of wilderness, “if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves.”

On the other side of the debate, Foreman has suggested that critics do not understand the science of biodiversity conservation and the importance of wilderness to the maintenance of global biodiversity. Another objection to social constructionist approaches is political. As Hayles asks, “If nature is only a social and discursive construction why fight hard to preserve it?” Soule argues that wilderness critics play into the hands of antienvironmental political initiatives. More generally, wilderness advocates have rejected the philosophical position of constructivism altogether and tried paint it as an extreme fringe perspective. Constructivist arguments have been characterized by Soule and Lease as “certain radical forms of ‘postmodern deconstructivism” ” that “asserts that all we ever perceive about the world are shadows” and so denies the external existence of nature. Foreman dismisses Cronon and others as “postmodern deconstructionist scholars” a label that, while inaccurate, effectively marginalizes those who may support wild land and biodiversity protection, but question the idea of wilderness. There is “real wilderness” in the world, so the argument goes, that is disappearing fast and is in desperate need of protection, according to Foreman.

The Political Ecology of Wilderness

While the idea of wilderness, particularly in North America, continues to be debated, wilderness has become a dominant component of global biodiversity conservation strategies and the promotion of international ecotourism. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which resulted from the 1992 Earth Summit, now provides the framework and rationale for international efforts to stem biodiversity loss, focusing on in situ conservation in the wilderness of national parks and protected areas. The international tourism industry uses the wilderness idea to sell ecotourism packages to third world settings, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. In short, the North American wilderness idea has been globalized as the dominant way of thinking about nature.

The transfer of the wilderness idea around the globe has raised questions about the political ecology of wilderness. These include how the relationship between society and nature is defined and conceptualized, how access to land and resources is controlled, and how environmental costs and benefits are distributed. For instance, many of the areas now designated as wilderness were only recently cleared of people who had occupied and transformed the environment over generations, sometimes millennia. Recent studies in North America report similar process of forced relocation, suggesting, “uninhabited wilderness had to be created before it could be preserved,” according to Spence. More often than not, both in North America and around the world, the dislocations of resident populations were conducted as part of larger efforts by the state to control or eliminate some of its subjects. Thus the wilderness idea has been labeled “a tool of genocide,” as stated by Calicott. Because the history of wilderness is a human history of conquest and colonization, wilderness areas have become enveloped in larger struggles for social justice, historical land claims, and self-determination among indigenous peoples and peasant communities around the world.


  1. Bird, “The Social Construction of Nature: Theoretical Approaches to the History of Environmental Problems,” Environmental Review (v.11/4, 1987);
  2. B. Calicott, “Contemporary Criticisms of the Received Wilderness Idea,” USDA Forest Service Proceedings (v.15/1, 2000);
  3. B. Calicott and M. Nelson, eds., The Great New Wilderness Debate: An Expansive Collection of Writings Defining Wilderness from John Muir to Gary Snyder (University of Georgia Press, 1998);
  4. Cosgrove, “Habitable Earth: Wilderness, Empire, and Race in America,” in D. Rothenberg, ed., Wild Ideas (University of Minnesota Press, 1995);
  5. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998); W. Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (W.W. Norton, 1995);
  6. Foreman, “All Kinds of Wilderness Foes,” Wild Earth (v.6, 1996);
  7. Foreman, “The Real Wilderness Idea,” USDA Forest Service Proceedings (v.15/1, 2000);
  8. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore (University of California Press, 1967);
  9. Grove, “Environmental History,” in P. Burke, ed., New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Penn State University Press, 2001);
  10. Haraway, “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936,” Social Text (v.4, 1984);
  11. Hayles, “Searching for Common Ground,” in M. Soule, and G. Lease, eds., Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction (Island Press, 1995);
  12. Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, 1982);
  13. Neumann, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa (University of California Press, 1998);
  14. Neumann, “Africa’s ‘Last Wilderness’: Reordering Space for Political and Economic Control in Colonial Africa,” Africa (v.71/4, 2001);
  15. Neumann, “Nature-State-Territory: Toward a Critical Theorization of Conservation Eenclosures,” in R. Peet and M. Watts, eds., Liberation Ecologies (Routlege, 2004);
  16. Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology (Yale University Press, 1991);
  17. Proctor, “The Social Construction of Nature: Relativist Accusations, Pragmatist and Critical Realist Responses,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (v.88/3, 1998);
  18. Ross, ed., Science Wars (Duke University Press, 1996);
  19. Soule and G. Lease, eds., Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction (Island Press, 1995);
  20. Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (Oxford University Press, 1999);
  21. White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science (March 10, 1967).

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