Monday, January 10, 2011

Wilderness | A Unique Perspective

My dear friend, Laura Page - author of Literary Legs, an excellent blog on literary form and interest - brought a fascinating article to my attention today, on the subject of wilderness. The author, William Cronon, contends that wild nature, in our modern world, has lost its original meaning, and is more a human construct than not. Where once wilderness connoted a desolate waste, forsaken by God and man, today it is perceived as a welcoming place of beauty and gentility, and something to be preserved and returned to at any cost. Using Biblical and literary imagery to illustrate his thoughts, Cronon has truly captured the essence of human interaction with nature over the centuries. This article is a must-read for anyone whose heart yearns for the divine...

It was vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits. Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends. He is more lone than you can imagine …. Vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty. She does not smile on him as in the plains. She seems to say sternly, why came ye here before your time? This ground is not prepared for you. Is it not enough that I smile in the valleys? I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors. I cannot pity nor fondle thee here, but forever relentlessly drive thee hence to where I am kind. Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother?
~ Henry David Thoreau
But Cronon doesn't stop at describing our perception and description of nature. He goes farther, delving into history to reveal how we - modern humanity - came to view nature and wilderness as we do. He fearlessly lays bare the fallacious thinking that caused us to "preserve nature" by forcibly removing the human inhabitants from their land; after all, how does fundamentally altering the history of an area, subjecting its inhabitants to unnatural and restrictive "reservations", really preserve anything beyond the subjective imagination of the civilized elite who enforce these reordering of natural environments in the first place? Cronon follows this logic to question methods and motives of current environmentalists who are in danger of repeating the tragedies of the Native Americans in other parts of the world, by seeking to "protect" nature from the people who live in her midst. Cronon eloquently challenges the idea that, in order to preserve "nature" in a world profoundly altered by human technology and environmental impact, we must remove ourselves from it; to do so, imbibes the false ideal that nature must be pristine and untouched in order to truly be nature.

This line of thinking is inherently nihilistic - it holds up nature as the divinely perfect, and necessitates self-destruction of the human species in order to protect and preserve nature. This exclusivist view also precludes from thought environmental issues that directly affect humanity - Cronon notes such examples as lead poisoning of children in the inner cities, famine and poverty, and other strictly human concerns in "unnatural" (non-wilderness) settings - a mind-set that allows those focused on the preservation of human-less nature to side-line humanity, inevitably excusing them the necessity of caring about their suffering, de-humanizing the less fortunate in favor of deifying the "natural".

Cronon argues that to truly protect the natural environment, we must stop looking exclusively to preserving untouched nature, and start at home, where the true problems exist already. Seeking to reach a middle ground between responsible use and non-use of natural resources is truly the only way to find and perpetuate harmony amongst all inhabitants of Earth, human and non-human. Rabid environmentalism that seeks to prohibit human interaction with nature inherently seeks the destruction of humanity, or at the very least, a complete return of humans to a primal state of hunter-gatherer existence. While cultures that currently fall under that mantel arguably do not see themselves as poor or under-privileged, historical experience dictates that humans naturally develop along a cultural curve; to insist that people groups remain in (or revert to) primitive states is to deny humanity's natural tendency to self-improvement. In other words, the insistence that humans preserve the "natural" state of the environment as an untouched wilderness, is inherently an insistence that humans ignore and suppress their own natural inclination to evolve, culturally.

Ultimately, Cronon states that he dislikes the concept of "sacred wilderness" because it trivializes the existence of wilderness to be found in our own environments - from the unexpected sunset over quietly cultivated farmland, to the blue birds in our garden fruit trees - and it insists that some natural vistas are more valuable than others. It is a purely privileged way of thinking, born of elitist ideals from an age where the culturally privileged sought the "wilderness experience" in vast, untracked landscapes, ignoring the fact that their presence and manner of experience (fancy hotels, guided hunts, staged throw-backs to a somehow "simpler era") immediately negates the "wildness" of their excursion. Cronon states that "one of my own most important environmental ethics is that people should always be conscious that they are part of the natural world, inextricably tied to the ecological systems that sustain their lives. Any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from nature—as wilderness tends to do—is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior."

In the end, the most important lesson that nature may teach us is to value the natural in our own environment...

Wilderness gets us into trouble only if we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit. Nothing could be more misleading. The tree in the garden is in reality no less other, no less worthy of our wonder and respect, than the tree in an ancient forest that has never known an ax or a saw—even though the tree in the forest reflects a more intricate web of ecological relationships. The tree in the garden could easily have sprung from the same seed as the tree in the forest, and we can claim only its location and perhaps its form as our own. Both trees stand apart from us; both share our common world. The special power of the tree in the wilderness is to remind us of this fact. It can teach us to recognize the wildness we did not see in the tree we planted in our own backyard. By seeing the otherness in that which is most unfamiliar, we can learn to see it too in that which at first seemed merely ordinary. If wilderness can do this—if it can help us perceive and respect a nature we had forgotten to recognize as natural—then it will become part of the solution to our environmental dilemmas rather than part of the problem.
~ William Cronon
To assume that humanity can be responsible for the end of the natural world is to don a mantel of an almost god-like pride; the assumption that we are so important that we could destroy the earth is hubris at its most grandiose, and forgets that wildness is an inherent part of every thing on earth, natural and unnatural, human and inhuman. Cronan suggests that true balance may only be found by assuming an attitude of mindfulness toward nature - both within and without - seeking to consider our actions (and inaction) in all their far-reaching implications, to preserve and promote the wildness and value of humanity, as well as those same qualities in nature.

To read the full article by William Cronon, click on the following link...

Most of all, it means practicing remembrance and
gratitude, for thanksgiving is the simplest and most
basic of ways for us to recollect the nature, the culture,
and the history that have come together to make the world
as we know it. If wildness can stop being (just) out there
and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as
humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with
the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the
world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness,
but in the home that encompasses them both.
~ William Cronon,


  1. Aahhhh!!! You've done full credit to that article! I was exhilerated by the read, as well, and I'm almost as exhilerated by this excellent review! I wish I had written this!

    Maybe I'll post some "buzz" on this seed on my own blog.

    Incidentally--would you consider letting me "guest post" for you at some point and vice versa?

  2. the last comment was me. Under a different google account. Sorry if there was any confusion!

  3. Thank you for reading!! I was beginning to wonder if I was posting in the wrong genre for this blog, lol :P Nick read it, but he said it took him a couple tries because it was, I believe he said, "deep". Anyway, glad you enjoyed it :)

    I would LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE to have you guest post for me here!! Any subject you want, just remember that my family are conservative so keep it "clean" lol :P You're an AMAZING writer, and I am certain I'll love whatever you come up with!! If you want to continue this discussion, let's do so on FB?

    I would love to guest post for you, too, luv! :) I'm so flattered you asked! Any topic in mind? I'm very open :)


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