Fall 1994, Volume 11.3
On 3 September 1964, the United States Congress approved Public Law 88-557 and created a National Wilderness Preservation System. The language of "The Wilderness Act," as this law is now called, has itself become an emblem of American environmental consciousness, defining "wilderness" as "an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." (For the complete text, readers may consult The Wilderness Act Handbook, published in 1984 by the Wilderness Society.) Over the years, scholars, writers, environmentalists, and politicians have both celebrated the Wilderness Act as landmark preservationist legislation and cringed at the artificiality of creating "islands" of wild places across the American landscape. Still others, of course, have argued that more and more of America's public lands should be opened up to drilling, digging, cutting, and developing, that we need space and resources for today's society more than we need the preservation of wild places. This special wilderness issue of Weber Studies acknowledges and commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act and explores the meaning of "wilderness" in the United States during the 1990s.
As I write this note, I am sitting in a two-room apartment in Tokyo, Japan, one of the most thoroughly managed, human-dominated landscapes in the world. All of the rivers in this area have been straightened and lined with concrete, the trees and abundant mosses and flowers fastidiously groomed by armies of gardeners. Apartment buildings and skyscrapers sprawl as far as the eye can see in every direction, transected by an intricate network of winding roads and alleys. Subway trains, packed so tightly that commuters' dazed and sweating faces are pressed against the windows, worm their way beneath the city, deep underground. Thirty million people live here. It's difficult, from this distant perspective, to recall the American wilderness. Utah's red deserts and snowy mountains and uncultivated pine forests seem like a kind of fantasy. Even Japan's mountainous countryside seems illusory to the "Tokyojin," the inhabitant of this ultimate urban place. But every now and then the ground trembles beneath us, and we're reminded—with a mixture of fear and delight—that this entire planet is wild and we are merely fragile visitors here. "We need wilderness because we are wild animals," Edward Abbey once wrote. Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking that we can stand apart from the wild world, insular and "civilized." But this special issue of Weber Studies shows, in a startling variety of voices, how "wilderness"—as physical reality and as idea—has so permeated the American psyche that it now emerges both explicitly and obliquely in our literature. "Who needs wilderness?" asked Abbey. His answer: "Civilization needs wilderness." This collection of articles, stories, and poetry affirms Abbey's famous claim.
Neila C. Seshachari
As we dedicate this issue to the memory of Wallace Stegner and William Stafford, I am reminded poignantly of one other person who, in her brief lifetime, made a difference in our thinking about nature, wilderness, and ecology—Rachel Carson. Her courage and convictions moved May Sarton to say, "One person can change the world. The whole environmental emphasis, the whole thing that has happened since The Silent Spring, was to a large extent brought about by Rachel Carson" (Endgame).
I met Wallace Stegner on a few occasions—mostly readings sponsored by the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Program—when I was at Stanford University during my sabbatical year, 1984-85, as a year-long visiting scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. The aging Stegner looked such a genial guru, full of wisdom. I would talk to him for a few minutes after the readings, but I never had a real opportunity to sit at his feet and soak up his wisdom, Upanishadic fashion.
With William Stafford, it was different. Bill stayed at our home when he visited Weber State University as a Writer in Residence for a week in 1991. I trailed his workshops and talks everywhere on campus, taking my students along with me. An unhurried week, even in the structured con fines of a campus (aren't campuses the epitomes of civilization?), even sans wilderness, can impart a sense of a lifetime of friendship and bonding. Bill wrote a poem specially for us and left it on his bed for us to discover after he had boarded his flight back to Oregon. The handwritten poem with its dedication to Sesh, Neila, and daughter Ruthi, hangs atop my computer as I write this in my office. It gives me an uncanny feeling that Bill is watching from his special place on a wilderness stretch in the hereafter. "The World"—only "For a while it is our home," he says in the poem published in this issue.
Wilderness as a construct, an idea, or as nature takes on manifold meanings for all of us who venture into it or even think about it. Terrifying at times, calming at others, wilderness nevertheless is often thought of as a pristine piece of creation, unadulterated by human interference. And, as Bill McKibben astutely points out in The End of Nature, even those of us who like to be surrounded by highrise buildings and other vestiges of highly developed civilization, still love the idea of wilderness out there somewhere.
As human competence to control wilderness grows exponentially with advances in technology, is it possible to preserve "wilderness" despite The Wilderness Act?
The Wilderness Act gives a human the right to be "a visitor who does not remain," and yet thousands of humans who only visit can still devastate wilderness into something that is anything but wilderness.
There is thus the irony that the moment humans enter wilderness, it ceases to be wilderness. Hence one might have to say that wilderness is where humans are not. More ironically, most wilderness lovers/writers give themselves the right to roam the wilderness but resent others who encroach upon its pristine state! The whole issue of wilderness and wilderness preservation is thus hopelessly complex.
It is easy for most of us to enjoy the delights of managed wilderness, thanks to the Wilderness Act of 1964, and just as easy to ignore the inexorable consequences of human abuse of our natural resources. Like AIDS or cancer, the two most dreaded diseases of our times, the malaise infesting wilderness is being diagnosed competently by scholars and scientists who nevertheless are unable to come up with a practical cure. But reading about wilderness can be fun and compelling, even if its problems have no ready solutions.
We have for you, dear readers, a fascinating array of fictions, interview, poems, essays, and book reviews centered around the idea of wilderness. Read on!