Unearthing American Wilderness - The Years Project

Unearthing American Wilderness

By Alexandra Brainerd

How the concept of wilderness reinforces colonialist narratives and prevents us from fixing our broken relationship with nature.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Potawatomi scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer surveys 200 ecology students on their understanding of the interactions between humans and the environment. Nearly every one of them states that humans and nature “are a bad mix.” Trying to contextualize the responses, Kimmerer says that “perhaps the negative examples they see every day – brownfields, factory farms, suburban sprawl – truncated their ability to see some good between humans and the earth. As the land becomes impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision.” She continues to pose the question, “how can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like?”

In order to push ourselves down this path, we need to rethink our culture’s connection to nature and wilderness. The belief that humans and the natural world cannot coexist is not just apparent in Kimmerer’s classroom – it dominates Western ideology. American culture’s concept of wilderness can help to explain why. 

When we think about wilderness, an image forms in some people’s minds of a landscape completely separate from humans. One that is filled with vast canyons, lush greenery, or soaring mountaintops disappearing into clouds. Humans are seen as something less natural and inherently damaging to these landscapes. This notion of wilderness was what drove the early American conservation movement to remove Native American tribes from their land to make way for national parks, and today, this notion continues to solidify the concept that humans and the natural world cannot coexist. In a culture that alienates humans from wilderness, we leave little room for conceiving improvements to our relationship with the environment. Instead, we often prioritize pristine and empty tracts of land for their aesthetic beauty, while neglecting the equally important environments we exist and engage with on a daily basis

In the 18th century English language, wilderness was most commonly used to describe landscapes that are desolate, savage, or a wasteland, according to research by environmental historian William Cronan in his foundational piece “The Trouble With Wilderness.” Back then, Westerners were not in search of wilderness, but instead fearful of it. 

However, by the 19th century, we begin to see a change in how wilderness is viewed. It becomes synonymous with the myth of the frontier, in which European colonizers who began to move further west to unexplored territory would, as described by historian Frederick Jackson Turner, “shed the trappings of civilization and thereby [gain] an energy, an independence and a creativity that were the sources of American democracy and national character.” This is also around the time that Henry David Thoreau declared that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” Towards the end of the 19th century, we begin to see the movement to construct areas of wilderness as the first national parks are created.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined the legal definition of wilderness in America as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” This solidified the notion that in order for a place to be natural, it cannot be touched by humans – an attitude still pervasive in American law, culture, and conservation. The national park system was founded on this belief, which is why Native American tribes were continuously prohibited from traditional practices and removed from designated park land. Before European colonization of America, much of the country’s landscape was inhabited and intentionally cultivated by Native Americans. To call these environments “wilderness” only dispossess native narratives.

In his writings about Yosemite, John Muir described it as a place that was “pure wildness” and where “no mark of man is visible upon it.” However, Yosmite was land owned and inhabited by the Ahwahneechee, who Muir said, “seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” The Ahwahneechee had been transforming the environment by setting intentional fires that increased the biodiversity of the land for hundreds if not thousands of years. After the forced removal of the Ahwahneechee from Yosemite and the barring of traditional practices on the land, a study found that a century of fire suppression correlated to a 20 percent decrease in tree size and made the ecosystem more vulnerable to forest fires. Protecting areas from humans is not the only way to conserve land – direct involvement of local and Indigenous populations can also help achieve this. 

Along with intentional fire setting, many other Indigenous tribes modified the American soil through the transportation of seeds, regenerative harvesting, selective domestication, and a variety of practices such as hunting, fishing, pruning, sowing, weeding, and tilling. What settlers may view as America’s classic “wild” landscapes were actually environments resulting from centuries of land modification and traditional practices. 

Today, the notion of wilderness continues to embody Euro-American centric ideals and many other cultures do not recognize the concept of wilderness. Mark Dowie in his book Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples interviewed individuals from across the world about their concepts of the wild and wilderness. In Alaska, Patricia Cochran, a Yupik native scientist, stated “we have no word for ‘wilderness.’ What you call ‘wilderness’ we call our back yard. To us, none of Alaska is wilderness as defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act — a place without people. We are deeply insulted by that concept, as we are by the whole idea of ‘wilderness designation’ that too often excludes native Alaskans from ancestral lands.”

Ruby Dunstan, a Nl’aka’pamux from Alberta held similar sentiments. “I never thought of the Stein Valley as a wilderness. Then some environmentalists declared it a wilderness and said no one was allowed inside because it was so fragile. So they put a fence around it, or maybe around themselves.” 

Another problem posed by the notion of wilderness is that it focuses the attention of mainstream environmentalism on distant tracts of pristine land, while often neglecting the ecological work that needs to be done in our more intimate, artificial environments like cities. Due to the emphasis placed on wild spaces over artificially created, or less beautiful ones, these areas are historically left behind in environmental discourse. Access to wilderness is also mainly reserved for wealthy white individuals who feel safe in and can afford to visit these spaces, while marginalized urban populations often must spend their lives in environments that are largely ignored. In cities, neighborhoods composed predominantly of people of color and lower income populations often don’t have access to green spaces, healthy food and water, and are disproportionately exposed to polluted air, lead poisoning, and trash incinerators.

By continuing to preserve wilderness while taking the attention off of our country’s other valuable and habitable landscapes, we may, to quote Cronan, “leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honourable place in nature might actually look like.” Of course it is still important to preserve our national parks and protect landscapes from being destroyed by our exploitative practices, but Western culture needs to begin to place an equal emphasis on all of the environments we experience in the United States that we work, live, and learn in. 

There are already many examples around the world of cities greening their spaces through a variety of practices such as biomimicry, green infrastructure, and urban farming. Doing so utilizes an ecosystem-based approach that is focused on seeing urban environments as a dynamic system of social, built, and natural components. Increasing the accessibility and predominance of nature in cities not only helps the cities become more livable, sustainable, and resilient to climate change, but research also suggests that exposure to nature can increase an individual’s psychological well-being.

Because America’s history of colonialism and capitalism depend on the exploitation of land and humans, the more we view humans as an entity outside of nature, the more we may justify our acts of environmental destruction and erasure of native narratives. We must do more than fencing ourselves out of designated plots of land and instead learn to integrate place-based ways of knowing into every environment we inhabit, whether it be city, countryside, or wilderness. To do so requires prioritizing local knowledge and interactions with the land as well as learning to see each environment as cultural landscapes that we all have a place in. We should all learn to hold ourselves accountable for caring about and being mindful of our interactions with the places that we call home.