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December 25, 2015 | Defining: “The Wilderness”

Although protecting the wilderness has become the status quo in many communities around the world, have you ever stopped to take a moment to question how we got here?

In the context of the human society, the definition and opinion of the “wilderness” has not been inherently consistent. To some, the wilderness is how people approach spaces that are untouched, how people perceive these spaces as being untouched, and how people propose to treat these unique spaces. In this blog post, I hope to explore a polar shift in the last two centuries that digressed Western perceptions away from the subjugation of nature and towards the conservation of nature.

Originally, in American society, pioneers and writers were primarily fixated on mankind’s dominance over nature — that ultimate achievement was characterized by winning a “battle” against the wild. At this time, connotations surrounding the wilderness were anything but positive, and famous writers of the time would often reference the word’s closest synonym: waste. The wilderness was therefore, at the onset, portrayed as an “enemy” that had to be vanquished and subdued by man, which resulted in literature on the subject of wilderness to be marked by predominately militaristic and warmongering diction.

Over the years, the relationship between wilderness and humans began to experience a profound shift in opinion. As the transnational conservation movement grew in influence, wilderness preservation became the instinctive response to a creeping disappearance of the American frontier. For example, in 1872, the first American reservation, which we all know as Yellowstone National Park, was established in northwestern Wyoming. Yellowstone National Park was the international community’s first example of a large-scale safeguard and preservation of wilderness in the name of the public interest.

What exactly caused this shift in opinion? In American Cult of the Primitive, renowned conservationist Roderick Nash attributes two reasons to this shift: a resurgence of national identity under the Theodore Roosevelt administration and a refocus on individualism (that the unrepressed savage was superior to the civilized man). For example, while earlier religious prose associated the conquest of the wilderness with “illuminating pagan darkness with God’s light,” this newfound shift towards a reverence for nature redefined the wilderness as both a place of purification and renewal of faith where God could be calmly approached by man.

Humans began to ascribe the wilderness with a sacred identity — that is, a refuge that contrasted the quintessential manmade city by defending such space against a polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity. By the end of the nineteenth century, these godless wastelands that had once seemed entirely lacking worth had become beyond price for many Americans. In The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, author William Cronon noted wilderness’ transition from the “antithesis of all that was good and orderly” to a refuge that was “likened to Eden itself.”

The massive outflow of people eager to see the majestic beauty of Niagara Falls, the Adirondack Mountains, Yosemite, and Yellowstone were testaments to this radical transition that further complicated the myth of wilderness. This myth of wilderness, that we can somehow leave the natural untouched by our presence, was reflected when a national debate exploded in San Francisco over the damming of the Tuolumne River in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Although the dam was eventually built, this episode in conservation history served as a battle cry of an emerging movement to safeguard, preserve, and protect the wilderness.


If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I recommend the following journals:
Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” 1996.
Nash, Roderick. “The American Cult of the Primitive.” 1966


Eric Beeler is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Eric is a sophomore studying International Affairs and Chinese at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.