Spring/Summer 1995, Volume 12.2
Reflections on the Wilderness Act: Three Decades and Counting
Max Oelschlaeger (Ph.D., Southern Illinois University) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies University of North Texas. His recent publications include Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis (Yale University Press, 1994), and "Wilderness," in R.A. Paehlke, ed., Encyclopedia of Conservation and Environmentalism (Garland Publishing Company, 1995). Read other work by Max Oelschlaeger published in Weber Studies: Vol. 17.2.
The idea of wilderness has played a central role in American history, if not the history of Western civilization. One example is the controversy that has swirled around Frederick Jackson Turner's The Frontier in American History. Turner's thesis was that with the closing of the frontier, America entered terra incognita, since the frontier had been instrumental in shaping not only the character of individuals, but, indeed, the nation's identity. Later generations of historians have reassessed Turner's thesis, judging it in part workable and in part needing revision.
Turner's thesis claimed too much in alleging that the frontier experience made Americans democratic and gave us our distinctive character—different from Europeans. Neither American democracy nor sense of identity began on the frontier. We simply borrowed defining philosophies, including our notion of government, from Europe.1 However, Turner's thesis was accurate in placing emphasis on the land's importance in shaping culture. In the last decade his insight has been reinforced by geographical historians, such as D. W. Meinig, who argue that "Geography and history are not only analogous, but complementary and interdependent, bound together by the very nature of things" (xv), landscape historians, such as John Stilgoe, who argue that "The antithesis of wilderness is landscape, the land shaped by men" (12), and environmental historians, such as Donald Worster, who argue against the cultural predisposition to think of the land as "passive and ineffectual, a blank slate without form or meaning, before humans arrived "(x).
The Wilderness Act readily fits into an amended Turnerian frame. In the first place, such a statute would have been unthinkable during Turner's lifetime, during the larger course of American history, indeed, during the course of Western civilization itself. Only in this century, and particularly in the second half of this century, has the land conceptually emerged as anything more than raw material out of which enlightened humans manufacture culture, the finished product and bearer of all value. By 1964 it had become almost self-evident, even to members of Congress, that the scale of humankind's relationship to the land had dramatically changed: the total domestication of the forty-eight states loomed as an ominous possibility. The kind of land that had spread from coast to coast upon the arrival of Europeans, that is, wild land, untamed and undomesticated in any European sense, land standing outside the intentions of civilization, was gone, or almost gone.
Clearly, the changes in perception reflected in the Wilderness Act are related to nineteenth-century shifts in the idea of wilderness. Thoreau heralded those transformations when he avowed that "in wildness is the preservation of the world." Whatever else Thoreau meant, he was announcing that a sea change had transpired, so that wild nature was no longer conceptualized as merely a recalcitrant resource that had to be conquered for civilization to advance, but was increasingly thought of as an end in its own right, even an endangered species needing preservation. In the ensuing century this idea of wilderness helped justify the creation of national parks and organizations dedicated to protection of wilderness.
Thus, the Wilderness Act might be interpreted as simply continuing nineteenth-century initiatives. But its roots go into cultural soil below the nineteenth century. Consider that the idea of wilderness has been continuously cultivated in Western civilization for more than 2,000 years, part of an ongoing dialogue that has probed into questions involving the interrelations of humankind and the natural earth. The Gilgamesh and Psalm 104 are two ancient texts testifying to the long standing interest in, indeed, vital concern with such questions.2 By setting the Wilderness Act in a longer historical and wider philosophical context it takes on new—or at least expanded—meaning, a significance that counters the typical interpretive gesture that reads the Wilderness Act as primarily involving contemporaneous questions of land use (management) and acquisition of geographical areas that are "untrammeled by man."
Historically considered, the areas now designated as "untrammeled by man" were generally not devoid of human inhabitants. For example, the vast Weimenuche Wilderness of southwestern Colorado lies at the heart of the prehistoric range of those indigenous people now called the Utes. And the Sandia Mountain Wilderness of northwestern New Mexico was home to so-called Sandia Man as early as 10,000 B.C.E. More generally, paleo-ecology and anthropology make clear that humans have inhabited virtually every ecological niche they could find, from the frozen regions of the Arctic to alternately sweltering and freezing deserts of the southwestern United States to the fetid forests of the Amazon. Recent studies, like William Cronon's Changes in the Land and Kat Anderson's Before the Wilderness, offer detailed arguments that indigenous peoples inhabited what American colonists and their successors called "wilderness."3
Herbert Schneidau perhaps sums up the point by contending that the late-nineteenth-century discovery of Paleolithic cultural strata is the most consequential anthropological breakthrough of modern times. At the very least, the recovery of the deep past challenges us to rethink the meaning of the Wilderness Act, since the core concept of wilderness as land "untram meled by man," set against the background of the Paleolithic, stands forth as a culturally constructed artifact, unique to our own circumstances, to our own situatedness in the modern era. Our attitude toward the land is, more than anything, an artifact of Western culture, especially the idea of history. Paradoxically, then, in order to comprehend wilderness we must at least outline its antipode—the idea of history.
During the Neolithic revolution, ancient peoples became increasingly adept at and aggressive in humanizing the land and, almost concomitantly, they became aware of themselves as beings partially dependent upon yet distinct from nature. They devised increasingly abstract and complicated mythologies and theologies to account for their relation to, domination of, and separation from the natural world. These schemes recognized a limited mastery over the land through technology, while preserving the idea that some forces were beyond human control; the land was increasingly conceptualized as divinely designed for human habitation, cultivation, and modification. Ultimately, and more recently, the earth came to be conceived as valueless until humanized, no more than standing reserve for the purposes of human appropriation. This tendency was reinforced by the first scientific revolution, which gave Western culture the idea that Man was the master and possessor of nature. Everything that followed in the wake of these changes, especially the last two, represented an unparalleled amplification of the exploitation of the land for narrowly human, utilitarian ends. The modern world in which we live has been built upon—or framed by—this philosophy: the Wilderness Act is no exception.
Whatever ideals the Wilderness Act represents, and I am in absolute agreement with the notion that we must preserve large, core areas of wilderness, it also serves as a cultural compass indicating the direction we follow, a purposiveness pivoting on the opposition of culture and nature. William Cronon points out the enormous paradox that wilderness "is quintessentially an urban cultural space if measured by the majority of people who visit it, defend it, and hold it dear" (1994: 632). Most Americans think that wilderness areas are, if not Edens, at least spaces where nature can be experienced pure and pristine, free from the encroachments of industrial civilization. Yet this attitude reflects, more than anything else, our own alienation from Earth, confirming what the deep past itself discloses: namely, that "civilized humans" have erected a fence between wilderness and civilization. Wild nature, so construed, is Other, that is, other than human, a place apart from humans whose identity is totally inscribed within the artifice of culture.
Insofar as these conjectures have plausibility, they pose a complicated set of questions. For example, is the wholesale creation of wilderness areas an act of technological dominance and anthropocentric arrogance, an action that aims to extend human control across the face of Turtle Island more so than an action grounded in ecological wisdom and ethical sensibility that transcends concern only for Man? Is the Wilderness Act itself part of the neo-colonial project, yet another chapter in the story of the invasion, conquest, and domestication of the neo-Europes? Are designated wilderness areas more simulacra, artificially created and maintained spaces masquerading as wild nature, than chthonian places capable of self-replication and, indeed, evolution? Or, to sum up these questions, does our contemporary idea of wilderness as places "untrammeled by man" confirm, more than anything, our alienation from Earth?
Such questions are not easily answered; simply beginning the conversation that might lead to answers is enough. Such a conversation would accord ecology (as discourse, as text) a genuine role in reconsidering ourselves in relation to the rest of nature. Today the Wilderness Act can be read as testimony to Man, that is, to his project to extend his mastery across the face of the planet. Tomorrow the Wilderness Act might be reconceptualized as the opening of a door on to a future where humankind recaptures a sympathy with intelligence.4 Clearly, the three decades that have followed passage of the Wilderness Act offer instructive lessons. As the questions above suggest, the Wilderness Act is as much problem as solution when set within the socially dominant, that is, modernist frame. However, alternative interpretations are possible. It can be assessed both retrospectively, that is, as reflecting a deep and abiding stream of Western thought that has found human meaning and value through intimate relation with wild nature, and prospectively, that is, as a harbinger of a shifting conceptualization of humankind's relation to the rest of nature. The remainder of this essay briefly explores these interpretive possibilities, hoping to read the Wilderness Act and its subsequent history as a benchmark of our national character and as an index of our future possibilities.
Wilderness Areas as Farms, Playgrounds, and Prisons
The Wilderness Act can be read as a colonizing gesture that issues from the totalizing story that Man is in control of Earth.5 Thus Man, in his enlightened state of being, can extend rights to wild lands, bringing those chaotic and unruly areas under the domain of law and order.6 So construed, the Wilderness Act is entirely consistent with the politically dominant form of environmentalism, itself rooted in the Enlightenment philosophy of Man and society, known in the United States as progressive conservation. On this philosophy, nature is little more than a stockpile of resources for exploitation by Man. However, the Wilderness Act does change one thing: the utilization of nature is not to be governed by the market, but by a bureaucratic cadre that, following the guides of utility and efficiency and employing state of the art scientific knowledge, manages nature. Within this rubric, wilderness becomes primarily one of three things: farm, playground, or prison.
As farm, wild nature is placed under the control of an agricultural elite, trained in the ways of resource management, including wildlife and forestry. The ideas that wild nature might be a self-sustaining enterprise, that its processes are not inherently linear and predictable, and that nature knows best are concealed behind the managerial impulse. Wild nature, including landforms, natural processes, and the flora and the fauna, needs to be managed.
Consider wild animals, such as bears, the bears that are now endangered or endangering, who perforce need to be counted and monitored, brought under the surveillance of human intelligence, a directing intelligence in control of wilderness ecosystems. Technology provides the means to effect this end. Radio transmitters are attached to appropriately labelled subjects, who become part of a remote telemetry system. Appropriately digitized, bear data becomes raw material for computer analysis. The movements of number 1, number 2, and so on are plotted, as Cartesian coordinates, by season, by food type, by elevation, and the like. Actual bears are re-presented as conceptual models, statistical patterns derived from plotting data points. Any sense of bear as chthonian being, of bear as sacred being, and of bear as figuring pivotally in the evolution of human being, is entirely obscured behind this conceptual artifice.7 Like bears, natural processes such as fire also need to be studied modelled, and ultimately controlled. Human intelligence, disguised as Smoky the Bear, dictates the law that fire must be suppressed, that it has no place in the managed ecosystem. Indeed, the entire "balance of nature" needs to be maintained by a scientific elite, inculcated with the philosophy that humans know best.8
As playground, wilderness is a resource for a multi-billion dollar outdoor industry that first creates and then satisfies the demand for "wilderness experience." The motivations of wilderness experience consumers are typically thrill seeking, adventure, and excitement as nature is challenged and ultimately conquered.9 As playground, wilderness is brought within the domain of civilization and thus objectified in its relation to us, subject to the dynamic that governs Western culture, a dynamic predicated upon the exploitation of nature for profit and for entertainment. Ironically, when recreation is commodified, it furthers the domestication of ourselves and the land community. Wild nature recedes, concealed by activities that create the illusion of wildness.
As prison, wild nature is constrained within the ideological walls of Man, the Rational Man who controls the planet.10 Just as walls of concrete and cells of steel hold miscreants not fitting within the domestic domain, so wilderness preserves fence in the not yet totally domesticated, the rough lands and wild animals outside civilization. The boundaries that incarcerate the wild are conceptual rather than architectural, but within these fences the floral and faunal domains, the spontaneous and chaotic, the potentially evolutionary, are confined. Wild creatures that stray from the confines of the preserve are either re-incarcerated or eliminated. Wildness must be, at any cost, constrained, rendered safe and docile.
Viewed as prisons, wilderness preserves represent a kind of bad faith at the ideological heart of modern culture: the discourse of power is hidden within the preservationist ideology. So framed, designated wilderness areas are hyper-realities that deceive us into thinking that we are conserving wild nature when in fact they conceal the gesture of continued domination. Such simulacra displace the possibility of truly wild, chthonian beings and wild ecosystems not subject to human constraint. Interpreted as prisons, wilderness preserves conceal the awesome reality of life, a nature subject to its own imperatives rather than an object, subject only to human control.
My reading of wilderness areas as farms, playgrounds, and prisons is not meant to diminish the positive achievement they represent, but rather to indicate that designated preservations have not escaped modernity. The very fact that some places must be protected from human incursion is itself an awesome reality. Hans-Georg Gadamer argues that modern society "clings with bewildered obedience to scientific expertise, and the ideal of conscious planning and smoothly functioning administration dominates every sphere of life even down to the level of molding public opinion" (111). Clearly, the most basic kinds of philosophical issues are shot through and through with human relations to wild nature. By contextualizing wilderness preserves as farms, playgrounds, and prisons, I begin to scratch at the kinds of questions raised about authority, more generally, by Alasdair MacIntyre, who argues that the manager is the central character of modern life. The manager's stock in trade, of course, is the conjury of the illusion that "I am in control."
Alfred Crosby suggests the term "ecological imperialism" to describe the course of events by which Europeans colonized the new world. As the twenty-first century nears, the same cultural dynamic is taking a new form: Bureaucratic Imperialism. Wild nature is categorized as "the Other" that must be brought under control, under management, so that nothing is beyond or outside civilization. Ed Abbey observes that we are "coming so close to the end [of the process of humanization] that we can easily foresee an American state, inhabited by our children, in which swamp and forest, desert, seashore, and mountain are nothing but recreational parks for organized tourism" (vii). Managed farms that turn out an endless supply of game animals; managed recreational areas that entertain, amuse, and otherwise provide a spectacle for consumers; managed prisons that constrain unruly animal others who, if not totally domesticated, are rendered into harmless simulacra, mere resemblances of wild animals.
Thoreau once expressed a desire for a wildness that no civilization could withstand. The statement is paradoxical, since it is typically wildness that must resist the onslaught of civilization, not the other way around. The interpretation of wild nature as farm, prison, and playground perhaps confirms that the cult of domesticity reigns supreme in Western culture. Yet consider the possibility that wildness characterizes not only place, but also discourse that is unconstrained by convention—and thus conversation that might stir up sedimented cultural patterns.
Reflections on the Wilderness Act invite wild talk, a conversation that is the beginning of wild knowledge.11 Wild talk creates the possibility of an ecosocial place that is connected with rather than divorced from the biophysical world. In postmodern jargon, it horizontalizes binary oppositions that divorce knowing subject from known object, science from literature, spirit from matter, history from nature. Such talk is not anti-intellectual, since it is informed by a number of sciences, including chaos theory and non-linear thermodynamics. Neither is wild talk mystical, since it is fully cognizant of the Western ego. But it refuses to privilege the Western psyche as anything more than a contingency, as a cultural artifact.
Wild talk, conceptualized as a metaphor of opposition to the dominant cultural ethos, is one means by which we can articulate and discuss the verboten, the hidden presuppositions undergirding the modern story. Wild talk begins to entertain a discussion about alternative definitions of human beingness. Can we truly manage planet Earth? There are a few among us, such as John Firor, who argue that we cannot. "Continued expansion," he writes, "with its accompanying trust in technological solutions, is firmly established as our custom; any change would require major and continuing efforts on the part of world leaders in many fields and the development of a widely held, alternative definition of what it means to be human on earth" (124). Wild talk is part of the means by which we can begin that process of reconsidering what it means to be human.
But is wild talk practical? the critics ask. Marjorie Grene suggests our predicament lies in an "image of a human world shorn of any roots in nature and a natural world devoid of places for humanity to show itself" (182). Insofar as wild talk about the Wilderness Act leads toward an alternative definition of human being, especially as being inside rather than outside nature, it has social utility. Given the failure of mainstream environmentalism to forestall ecocatastrophe, wild talk has more survival value than the day in, day out kinds of policy discourse that predominate within expert communities. The challenge to the entrenched, to the dominant discourse, is essential. For if wilderness has become farm, playground, and prison, then wild nature is no longer wild, but entirely domesticated. So construed, wilderness is no more than hyper-reality, where reality has collapsed into an image or set of images of our own making, images that are "more real" than that which is signified.
But there are other possibilities. By reflecting on the Wilderness Act, especially on our three decades of experience with it, we might begin to find our way toward an alternative definition of human beingness that, among other things, naturalizes history. Two possibilities lie open. One is to continue on the present path as defined by the Industrial Growth Paradigm. We will term this the technocratic or expert management path, a path entirely consistent with the definition of "Man" as the rational animal, with the notion that science gives us the power to control nature, with utilitarian individualism, and with our conception of history as outside nature.
The other path is a novel one, that is, one not totally determined by the past, having more to do with the wilderness idea and the possibility of a wild culture than continuing upon the path of mainstream conservation. This path was envisioned, more than fifty years ago, by Aldo Leopold. As he put it then, the capability to
see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility. It is only the scholar who appreciates that all history consists of successive excursions from a single starting-point, to which man [and woman] returns again and again to organize yet another search for a durable scale of values. It is only the scholar who understands why the raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise. (279)
E. O. Wilson has also spied this path, arguing that the wilderness idea might undergird a conservation ethic that could forestall the sixth mass extinction of life. Clearly, and unequivocally, the survival of the vast and rich array of life on earth depends upon the conservation of core habitat that remains unhumanized, that is, wild. "Only in the last moment of human history," Wilson argues, "has the delusion arisen that people can flourish apart from the rest of the living world" (348). But through biophilia, the love of life, and more generally through the idea of wilderness, Wilson claims, we might develop a deep conservation ethic that naturalizes history and reconnects us with Earth.12 "Wilderness," he continues, "settles peace on the soul because it needs no help; it is beyond human contrivance" (349). It reminds us of our place in a larger scheme of things. Upon such discovery we begin to realize the conceptual trap inherent in our dominant discourse, the lexicon and categorical scheme in terms of which the world and all the things in the world are designated: wilderness as farm, playground, and prison. Wilderness as place that must be protected.
But wildness, in distinction from wilderness, is not, ultimately, about place. Ecomalaise is, more than anything else, a matter of spirituality, particularly a conflict of two spiritual outlooks. The socially and politically dominant spiritual outlook is instrumental and utilitarian. It defines the dignity of human being, Charles Taylor argues, in terms of our ability to "control an objectified universe through instrumental reason." The other spiritual outlook regards the socially dominant one as "a [dogmatic and uninformed] denial of our place in things." This alternative conception of spirituality, Taylor contends, relates human dignity to the recognition "that we are part of a larger order of living beings, in the sense that our life springs from there and is sustained from there" (384).
I believe that such an earthy spirituality is one that should be revivified. The human spirit truly lives, not in the sense of some ephemeral, ethereal, transcendental essence divorced from matter. Rather the spirit lives through the very energies that move the oceans and continental plates, that cause the heavens to pour forth renewing rain and green plants to grow, shape the great round of reproductive being, and energize human speech and thought. Simply by walking in wild nature we can dis-cover the presence of life, concealed beneath conventional narratives of ethics, politics, technology, and mainstream environmentalism. The wildness of the world invites each of us to recontextualize ourselves as a member of a moral community of subjects that goes beyond the traditional bounds of civilization. Of course, humans have categorized, have named, all of the various natural creatures and processes, so that the idea that somehow they are one—the awesome mystery of existence—is concealed by the idea that they are many.
Yet maybe, just maybe, things are not quite so simple. It is possible that the cultural web of belief, the dominant social paradigm, our habitual discourse that names us Homo sapiens, conceals a deeper truth, a primordial reality. Namely, that all life is bound together in ongoing process and that we humans, despite our pride and arrogance, are of and about Earth. Consider the possibility that our speech, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggests, "is the voice of no one, since it is the very voice of the things, the waves, and the forests" (155).
No doubt these claims will strike some as hopelessly romantic. "Romantic," of course, as that term is used in the dominant culture, is another of those semantic spaces that conceals more than it reveals. But the kinds of considerations entertained herein, the kinds of considerations undertaken by the Leopolds and Wilsons, are anything but romantic. Indeed, such arguments are the most realistic, the most sober assessments, of which I know. I appeal here to Charles Taylor's monumental work, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, a 601-page tome of arduous philosophical argument that is anything but a paean to the idea of wilderness. But it contains a rigorous philosophical analysis confirming the existence of the interpretive possibilities for human renewal concealed within the Wilderness Act. For wild nature is not farm, playground, and prison; those are merely the limits of our contemporaneous projections. Rather, Taylor argues, wild nature is a primary source of the human self—a moral source that makes demands upon us. Wilderness experience, in all its many guises, challenges the modern identity of Man as manager of the planet and as consumer of wilderness resources. Those are dangerous and self-refuting conceptions of the way we are set in nature, illusions exposed through wilderness experience that escapes the categories of playground, farm, or prison. Recovering the sense that we are of and about Earth is not, then, hopeless romanticism, but as Taylor suggests, it is hard realism. "If we could recover a sense of the demand that our natural surrounds and wilderness make on us," then that sense alone would help humankind avert ecological disaster. "The world is not simply an ensemble of objects for our use, but makes a further claim on us " (513).
That claim lies at the root of an alternative definition of being human and, ultimately, the practice of the wild.
1 On this point, see Paul Shepard, Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991). Shepard argues that the relative newness of America precluded any sense of identity with tradition. Hence, Americans found their identity in what they had that Europe lacked: vast tracts of wilderness, especially the alpine ecosystems and badlands characteristic of the western regions of the United States.
2 For discussion, see my Idea of Wilderness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991). Also see David R. Williams, "Critics in the Wilderness: Literary Theory and the Spiritual Roots of the American Wilderness Tradition," Weber Studies 11.3 (Fall 1994): 120-130. Williams argues that IOW "puts new wine in old bottles" by wanting "the old theology without the Hebraic mythology" (126).
3 See also Arturo Gomez-Pompa and Andrea Kaus's "Taming the Wilderness Myth," in BioScience 1992: 271-79.
4 I here confirm my embededness in Western narrative; yet reflexive awareness of the reality of language makes possible its reform, as in rethinking our dominant ideas of temporality.
5 Colonizing in that it categorizes all places in terms of universals and/or principles that are indifferent to the texture of place; totalizing in purporting to be a master narrative that is epistemologically normative.
6 See Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), where he sets the stage for a "rights based" wilderness preservation argument, and The Rights of Nature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), where he pursues that argument.
7 Among many see Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders, The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth and Literature (New York: Viking Press, 1985); David Rockwell, Giving Voice to Bear (Niwot: Roberts Rinehart, 1991); and Richard Nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
8 The critical literature that deconstructs this mindset, such as Alton Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone, is well-known. Less well-known are the autobiographical accounts of individuals who have slipped the trace of managerial indoctrination. For example, see Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac.
9 See Max Oelschlaeger, "Taking the Land Ethic Outdoors: Its Implications for Recreation," in R. L. Knight, K. Huylsman, K. Gutzwiller, eds., Wildlife and Recreationists: Coexistence through Management and Research (Washington, D. C.: Island Press, 1995).
10 I am here following Thomas H. Birch, "The Incarceration of Wildness: Wilderness Areas as Prisons," Environmental Ethics 12.1 (1990).
11 See Will Wright, Wild Knowledge: Science, Language, and Social Life in a Fragile Environment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).
12 See my "The Idea of Wilderness as Deep Ecological Ethic," in David Clarke Burks, The Place of the Wild (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1994).
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Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.
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