Nowadays we think of wilderness as a fully natural environment that contrasts sharply with the designed and constructed environments in which we normally move.
The 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness as an area where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” which “retains its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement or human habitation.” I like that definition. I especially like the phrase “untrammeled by man.” It’s poetic and inspiring -- just like the wilderness itself. But it’s not entirely accurate. Take the Desolation Wilderness, near lake Tahoe -- a place I love to visit. It’s not exactly untrammeled. It’s got some trails, some signs. Until the year 2000, the US Forest Service even dropped trout from airplanes to stock lakes there. In fact,it takes a lot of human effort to maintain this pristine, untrammeled wilderness. That sounds a little paradoxical.
That’s because the concept of wilderness is confused. It’s not a natural concept. It’s a human invention, a social construction. And it’s built on myths. It confuses our thinking when it comes to important issues like conservation and biodiversity. Though the wilderness itself ought to be preserved, perhaps the concept of wilderness should be jettisoned.
Taken literally, the concept doesn’t seem to apply to anything at all. There’s no place left on earth that’s entirely untouched by the hand of man -- not even Antarctica, or the depths of the Pacific.
Still, even thought the concept of wilderness is a bit of a myth, not all myths are bad. Myths sometimes encapsulate our deepest aspirations. In American Folklore, for example, the idea of wilderness is associated with the idea of a boundless frontier --- a place that beckoned Americans to go and make themselves anew. A myth, perhaps, but still a useful myth. And partly to recapture the spirit of the mythical lost frontier, we’ve formed national parks, forests and wilderness areas. And we think of them as places of renewal and re-creation. That seems like a very good thing to me.
On the other hand, our concept of wilderness may distort our own relationship to nature. It assumes a dualism of man and nature, as if humans are outside of nature. In reality, for better of worse, humans are a part of nature.
Perhaps, if we are parts of nature, we should think of ourselves as an aggressive, non-native species that impacts every conceivable ecosystem on the earth -- mostly in a destructive way. If we really want to protect the rest of nature from us, we need to do a little pest control. And what we call wilderness is a place where the invasive human pest has been driven out.
This sort of squeezes the romance out of the concept of wilderness. We want a concept of wilderness that's beautiful and inspiring. But if we're going to get serious about “preserving” wilderness, we need a more serious and sober understanding of what wilderness really is.
So there's lots to talk about here. Can there be a descriptive concept of wilderness that actually applies to some stretches of the Earth and not to others? Can we have a concept of wilderness that doesn’t buy into a distorting dualism about the place of humans in nature? What’s the right way to think of humankind’s relationship to the rest of nature? Are we the pests? Or are we wise stewards?