We often define Wilderness as our idealised true home, where we can leave our troubles and responsibilities of the modern world behind. A place free of humans and their influences, where we only go to rediscover our true self. William Cronon picked up this idealised fantasy of Wilderness in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting back to the Wrong Nature”. He discussed how this idealisation of Wilderness poses a dilemma for properly protecting it and feeling responsible for its preservation.
Please also read: What is the Wilderness Continuum?
Wilderness is, as Roderick Nash put it, a state of mind. A human creation only possible through its opposite – urban environments. This at least is as the majority of people see Wilderenss – the opposite of urban environments, the absence of humans or any of their traces and influences. And this is also how Wilderness is defined for protecting it – to preserve places where nature is on its own and can evolve undisturbed, untrammelled by man as the U.S. Wilderness Act states it. It seems necessary to define Wilderness as something where humans do not play any active role for the reason of protecting it. However, Wilderness can hardly be seen as a place without humans if it only exists through our comparison with urbanisation or culture, seen as the opposite of nature. The essential question in the preservation of Wilderness remains: What role do humans play in Wilderness?
Our Image of Wilderness
The image humans had from Wilderness changed significantly over time. Similarly as mountains, Wilderness used to be something deserted, savage, barren, something frightening or even wasteland. But even though the first explorers of these remote places, which we today call Wilderness, found them frightening, they described them in a religious way. They found proof in the existence of god there and saw these places as sacred. With the start of the environmental movement in the second half of the 1800’s the protection of such remote and wild places gained popularity mainly for their beauty. The National Park idea was born.
Nowadays, people climb mountains and explore wild remote areas still for their beauty and the joy it evokes in one. However, our associations with Wilderness are not shaped by religion that much anymore. The places did not loose any of their effect, they are just more accessible, analog and digital. What does that do with our appreciation for them?
We describe the Wilderness we protect as virgin and primeval, even though none of these places are truly virign or primeval. America’s Native Americans lived on the lands that are protected as Wilderness today for thousands of years. They lived of these lands and shaped them, but were forced to move and make way for an ideal of Wilderness. A Wilderness without people reflects our constructed image of Wilderness, but not the reality of any lands on this planet. Similarly, European Wilderness has been used and shaped by humans for thousands of years as well. In some cases even more extensively and until just recently. The European Wilderness definition adapted to the history of the continent and defined Wilderness and Wild Areas as areas out of current use, not as areas that have never, to a certain extent, been used before.
Wildeness is a part of us, we are a part of Wilderness
No matter what image we create of Wilderness, we have to be aware that to do justice to the land and to us, it has to involve people. Because if it does not, where do we come from? It all leads back to the ever ongoing debate – are we and our actions part of nature or not? Is everything humans do and create culture, and everyting without our interference nature? Separating us from nature, and Wilderness, and making our whole existence culture sets us up to failure in protecting Wilderness properly.
Literature often glorifies Wilderness as a place of freedom where humanity is able to escape its troubles and responsiblities of its artificial, cultural lives. Wilderness offers the illusion of a place where we can find the world as it really is, as it was supposed to be. A place where we are able to rediscover our true selves. Wilderness gives us a place where we can lessen our guilty conscience, wiping clean the slate of our past actions and interventions on the earth.
However, such a pristine Wilderness without any signs of people and without responsibilities, where we will finally find our true home, is only a fantasy and a contradiction in itself. Returning to an unworked natural Wilderness without using our surroundings would simply leave us naked, cold and hungry.
Idealisation puts protection up for failure
Pretending that Wilderness is our true home, we give up responsibility for the lives we actually live. This makes Wilderness a place of idealisation and longing, where only the most essential part of us is at home. With such a fantasy of our true home, Cronon says, we forgive ourselves the homes we actually inhabit. And with this we try to forget, and again forgive ourselves, that most of our serious environmental problems start where our actual homes are – right in front of our door step and not in some remote idealised wild place.
Finding solutions for these problems in the preservation of Wilderness is a popular, nevertheless often misguided, remedy. This does not mean that Wilderness protection is not important. However, we can not use it as an excuse to not take on responsibility for our everyday lifes and actions. Cronon suggests an environmental ethic that will tell us as much about using nature as about not using it. We must step back from labeling any use as abuse as this takes away the middle ground. This is where responsible use and non-use might lead to a balanced and sustainable relationship between nature and humans, because this middle ground is where we live.
History teaches us that people have been using, changing and living from and in nature for as long as we know it. So, putting the fantasy of a true home in Wilderness aside does not mean that all our, often devastating, actions on the earth and its non-human inhabitats should be accepted as “natural”. It rather demands that we have to redefine our image of Wilderness as much as our image of home. And furthermore, it demands to broaden the responsibility for our home to the outside of the walls of our apartment.
Home is where the heart is
Cronon offers us one of his own environmental ethics to find our role in nature.
“People should always be conscious that they are part of the natural world, inextricably tied to the ecological systems that sustain their lives.”
Separating humans from nature, or from Wilderness, as many definitions and interpretations do, separates us from our responsibility over it. Wilderness can teach us feelings of humility and respect to our fellow beings and earth itself. For these feelings to rise, we have to practice self-awareness and self-criticism. These views are necessary to see and realise our ability to transform the world around us. Eventually, this will help us to set responsible limits to our actions and as Cronon calls it “human mastery”.
He adds the importance of “recognising and honouring non-human nature as a world we did not create.” Wilderness helps us to remember that the interests of people not necessarily overlap with the rest of the living world or earth itself. And realising this likely, and hopefully, fosters a responsible interaction and behaviour with and in nature and Wilderness. Wilderness can thus be a place where we step back and watch, and try to withhold our power to dominate.
Bringing Wilderness home
The experience of wonder should not be limited to Wilderness. Even though many definitions descibe Wilderness as places evoking feelings of wonder and grandeur. Incorporating these feelings in defining Wilderness grants it its deserved exceptionality. And it again reminds us that Wilderness is a state of mind. However, we agree with Cronon’s statement that we need to embrace the full continuum of a natural landscape to fully embrace Wilderness. A spectrum where the cultural, meaning the city, the suburb and agricultural lands as well as the wild each have its proper place. The Wilderness Continuum from Roderick Nash’s underlines this statement. We need to grant the feelings and adjectives we connect to remote Wilderness also to nature next door. As Cronon puts it:
“We need to honor the Other within and the Other next door as much as we do the exotic Other that lives far away.”
Most importantly, we need to find a way to encompass the whole continuum to the word “home”. After all, home is the place for which we take responsibility, for which we feel responsible. And this should include all places necessary to sustain our lives. In a sustainable and livable way, near or far, physically and mentally.
Taking on responsibility for our home
Humans will always use the nature surrounding the place we call home. Making a place one’s home is impossible without using or altering, working and even killing some parts of nature. Be it cutting a tree to build shelter or eating the fruits of a plant. Cronon closes with the statement:
“If we acknowledge the autonomy and otherness of the things and creatures around us – an autonomy our culture has taught us to label with the word “wild” – then we will at least think carefully about the uses to which we put them, and even ask if we should use them at all.”
Summing up, we only engage in the protection of things or areas we feel responsible for or are part of. And there is no place we are more responsible protecting for us and our children than our home.