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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The trouble with the trouble with wilderness

Roaring Falls, Glacier Bay National Park. Courtesy National Park Service.

      Toward the end of the last century, William Cronon deconstructed the prevailing definition of American wilderness, as nature apart from the influence of humankind. Henry Nash Smith's classic in American studies, Virgin Land (1950), had summed up the role that the myth of the frontier, as unexplored and unsettled wilderness, had played in American life. As long as American settlers, Cronon argued, had conceived of the American frontier as wilderness, the land was available for possession and settlement. The trouble with wilderness, Cronon pointed out, was that it ignored millennia of Native American settlement on this same land; indeed, Natives were erased from the land both literally, and then figuratively by the idea of wilderness. 

    But when did this particular idea of wilderness actually arise? Was it present during the days of settlement when the Natives were being erased? It would not appear so. William Bradford, Colonial Governor of Massachusetts, described a different kind of frontier: a "hideous wilderness, filled with wild beasts and wild men." The wilderness Bradford described was populated with Natives and animals that were a threat to the settlers. Wilderness was not, for the early settlers, land absent the hand of mankind. It would seem that while the idea of wilderness as "the natural world" apart from human influence was present among intellectuals like Emerson and Thoreau, it didn't become fully established in American culture until the Conservation Movement. Starting in the late 19th century, when National Parks were beginning to be constructed in order to preserve nature, because "it was morally right to do so," as John Muir had argued, this idea of wilderness as land in its natural state became prevalent in American public discourse. Not coincidentally, the Conservation Movement arose at a time when the American Frontier had been formally declared closed (1890).

    The trouble with the trouble with wilderness, then, is that American settlers had not always conceived of it as empty land ready for possession. It was not, in fact, until it had been fully possessed that the modern idea of wilderness, which Cronon critiqued, came to prevail, fueled by the ideas that were rooted in the Conservation Movement. In effect, Cronon's critique, as he came to recognize, was not so much a critique of American settlement as a critique of the Conservation Movement's idea of wilderness.

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