When you think of the wilderness, what comes to mind? Is it a dark forest full of tall pine trees and howling wolves? How about a natural place that hasn’t been noticeably altered by humans? When you search the term wilderness on Google Images, the first several lines of results are of beautiful scenery, completely devoid of people. You have to scroll down pretty far through the mountains, fields of flowers, forests, and waterfalls to find any pictures with someone in them, and even then only single individuals are depicted, dwarfed by their surroundings. So what is the deal with wilderness? William Cronon, an environmental historian, proposes that it is merely a cultural invention in The Trouble With Wilderness.
Cronon explains that people used to be afraid of the wild in its rawest form because that is where the “boundaries between human and nonhuman, between natural and supernatural, had always seemed less certain than elsewhere” (Cronon, 4). That it was a place where you could either meet the Devil or glimpse the face of God, both of which were terrifying possibilities. It brings to mind Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which young girls in a Puritan settlement are accused of witchcraft after dancing naked in the forest. Even more relevant, it is reminiscent of the first settlers in Jamestown! They considered the natives savages and built a fort to protect themselves from the wilderness and who, or what, might live in it. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, things changed. Nature was still considered a sacred place, but instead of being revered for being sublime it became, and remains to be, a quiet sanctuary from the happenings of civilization and modern society.
Opened in 1872, Yellowstone was the first national park in the United States. It highlights the contradictory nature of our notion of wilderness because it is supposed to be free from human influence, yet humans ultimately decided whether or not to preserve it. Our hands are always in the equation in that sense, but our eyes are usually averted. We picture wilderness as a pristine place unaltered by human activity, conveniently forgetting that there were people on these lands long before Europeans arrived.
By romanticizing the wild as a sort of utopia, yet also excluding ourselves from its definition, we create a problematic dichotomy of good and bad. What is left of uninhabited wilderness being the good, and everything else being the bad. This results in the mindset that if how we live is neither pure nor wild, and cannot become so, then there is no point in trying to preserve or improve our environmental conditions. Why should people care about restoring vital habitats or reducing pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay? So many people live in the watershed that it cannot ever be completely restored, but donations to places like Shenandoah National Park can keep them protected and preserved!
Instead of idealizing the wild as a remote place separated from ourselves, we should consider it as just another part of the environment in which we live. The wood ducks in the Bay’s wetlands and the squirrels in your backyard are just as wild as the grizzly bears in Alaska, the only difference is that they have adapted to coexist with us, and us with them. If we saw our environment in this way, greater value would be placed on protecting and preserving the land on which we live as well as the land that we don’t, and Google Images might bring up a picture of a family fishing on the Chester river when you searched wilderness.