Ecology & Place
A discussion and reflection on the history of America's view of the wilderness, and my personal past and present interactions with the wilderness.
9/10 Wilderness Reflection
The United States' view of wilderness is a tantalizingly simple and dangerous notion. At this moment, as the country grapples with our past in various racial and environmental ways, one concept that should be reevaluated is our past and present outlook on wilderness, and the previous and current effects that this stance has had on our nation. Due to long literary and political influence, the USA generally views wilderness as remote, pristine, and untouchable. While these adjectives may seem to some as positive, my essay will dive deeper into the history behind those labels, the truly negative effects of holding those viewpoints on America's environment and previously indigenous people's lands, a personal reflection on my evolving understanding of wilderness, and possible solutions to maintain a healthier and more aware environmental policy and country.
To illustrate a prophetic beginning of colonial narratives about the environment, Mary Rowlandson's famous narrative of her 1676 capture by Native American tribes as part of King Philip's War details her accidentally anticipatory thoughts. She reflected on her actions during her captivity:
"After I was thoroughly hungry, I was never again satisfied…now could I see that scripture verified Mic. Vi. 14, Thou shalt eat and not be satisfied. Now I see more than ever before, the miseries that sin hath brought upon us." (Rowlandson 31)
Rowlandson was referring to her sin being inadequate devotion to God and thus the reason for her capture, but in the annals of time, her collective sin was theft of indigenous land, and the beginnings of the American view of wilderness as dangerous, primitive, and unholy. Rowlandson laid out the American understanding of Western expansion and environmental destruction of the following centuries.
Mary Rowlandson captured by Native Americans
One hundred and fifty years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson, during the middle of rapid and violent theft of the Western side of North America, changed the narrative from wilderness as ownable but dangerous to ownable but serviceable:
"Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man." (7-8)
Emerson is known for his masculine self-sufficiency and interest in the intricacies of nature, but, as gorgeous as nature might be, it exists for men. More specifically, it exists for white, straight, heterosexual, cis-gendered, men. Emerson carves out a space for this demographic to play and rest from the worries of the world, careful to not include women or minorities in their splendor.
Two decades after Emerson, Thoreau's Walden comes out, and Thoreau again reaffirms the masculine, cleansing power of the woods in his escapades around Massachusetts. A decade later in 1865, Walt Whitman published Pioneers! O Pioneers!, a poem celebrating the militant style of westward expansion with such lines as “We primeval forests felling” and “O to die advancing on!...then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is / fill’d”. (193)
I give all of these examples to show a timeline of perspective, a headstrong march toward destruction and exclusion that has pervaded American thought under the guise of Transcendentalist love of nature and religious notions of devilish wilderness. The philosophy that coalesced because of the intersection between male supremacy, Puritanical dread, and fetishistic expansionism was one of wilderness as a source of spiritual cleansing, but a mighty foe that is primitive, pristine, and in need of sequestration from the normal population. This is the idea of nature that modern America has inherited, making it difficult to disentangle one’s self from the fray. It has resulted in the colossal theft of indigenous lands, destruction and extinction of species and environment types across America, and part of a global effort of environmental destruction.
Let us analyze what the notion of wilderness as pristine and remote really means. Wilderness as separate from society means that wherever anyone in America is dwelling is not wilderness, but the denoted National Parks are obviously in need of protection from humans. This viewpoint allows us to pigeonhole our support to certain aesthetically pleasing places across America, and not worry about the majority of the land we hold. As well, at its core, the idea that wilderness is separate from humans is also a false construction. Native Americans lived with the environment before European arrival, and they dwelled in the national parks that are now devoid of humans in the name of ‘conservation’.
Growing up in Atlanta, right beneath the southern terminus of the Appalachian mountains, I was influenced by the beauty of nature and the wonder it holds. I have done many hikes across America, but was ill-taught to understand the history behind America’s views of wilderness. Apart from one obligatory school field trip to Indian mounds in the state, settler theft of land was wholly skipped over, and we are taught to idolize the Transcendentalists and other movements that made National Parks America’s best idea, a white man’s phrase. In light of worsening ecological conditions every year, and realizing the horrors of America’s past, I have continually reconsidered what it means to be an American and what it means to protect the environment. I see wilderness as a place in which nature is allowed its due course without concern for humans. Indigenous peoples lived in wilderness, but the health of an ecosystem did not rely on the Native Americans being ecologically aware. Whenever a location becomes more about supporting human ambition than natural processes, the title of wilderness is lost. But, it is important to know we are responsible for that loss and its hopeful reclamation.
With this in mind, what are possible solutions out of this cornered viewpoint in which we have found ourselves? The most important change I see is to view every place in the United States as previously wilderness, with the potential to become wilderness again. Obviously, New York City will never revert to its original condition, nor should it. It is merely by understanding that all of the land was previously wilderness that a moral obligation to protect forms. As of now, I would assume most Americans care about protecting the National Parks further, and that is the extent of environmental obligation. This arises from national parks being designated as wilderness. To say that everywhere has the potential and perhaps could be nature puts the onus back on every individual in America. More temporarily, national parks should be much bigger, as the roaming capacity of many large predators makes them vulnerable to attack when they venture outside the irrelevant boundaries of the national park. Other solutions would be to attempt to declassify the outdoors as a white, male space. All of the writers I mentioned were white men except for Rowlandson, and she was forced into the outdoors when captive. Perhaps the most difficult solution involves reconciliation between America and indigenous tribes. The 1946 Indian Claims Commission, the first time indigenous peoples could legally bring any suits against America, only allowed monetary repayment, and no option for giving land back. Nowadays, progress is finally being made. Thousands of acres are being gifted back to Native American tribes, the only justifiable repayment for theft. While it is a far cry from the true breadth of land on which native Americans lived, the fact that the door is open for reassignment of land significant, it being deemed impossible in the past.
Realigning our values is possible. I have shown here part of the lineage of America’s environmental viewpoint inheritance, and I hope that a slow but real metamorphosis occurs in moral obligation toward all of the nature around us. Our writers today can transform the paradigm of wilderness to be an inclusive and valuable space. This space exists all around us, but has been dampened by American hubris. Wilderness depends on our ability to recognize its significance, its history, and its capability.
Brooks, Ed Atkinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Nature.” The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Modern Library, New York, NY, 2000, pp. 5–39.
Martin, Wendy, and Mary Rowlandson. “A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” Colonial American Travel Narratives, Penguin Books, New York, 1994, pp. 5–48.
Moon, Michael, et al. “O Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Other Poetry and Prose, Criticism, Norton, New York, 2002, pp. 192–195.