Throughout this week’s selection of readings by Cronin and Mann, the concept of wilderness was repeatedly challenged. Wilderness is often thought of as a pristine “sublime.” It is regarded as untouched and virgin to anthropogenic influence. However, while this sentiment may be the popular perception, both authors have proven that this may not necessarily be the case. Mann raises an extremely valid question when he asks if it could be possible that the Native Americans changed the Americas more than the Europeans did. What he is driving at is the point that no matter the location- if it has ever been inhabited by mankind- it does not exist in the same state as it had been before man’s presence. Therefore, there is no wilderness in the sense that we view it- untouched by man. In the present age of industrialization and urban sprawl, it is abundantly obvious where wilderness seems to exist and where it doesn’t. However, before human impact was as obvious, mankind was no less severely impacting natural landscapes.
Native American maintained what Mann labels as “cultivated landscapes.” For example, they often burned landscapes in order to stimulate vegetative growth and support herbivorous communities for hunting. In this way, they were capable of altering landscapes on a massive scale. According to Mann, “Millennia of exuberant burning shaped the plains into vast buffalo farms.” This sort of anthropogenic influence works with natural systems and in this sense is sustainable. However, it still does greatly impact the natural ecosystem. If one maintains that wilderness is indeed a state of nature that is completely untouched by man, then it would be difficult, if not impossible, to locate any parcel of land that is true wilderness. In this sense, the Great Plains, or even Yellowstone National Park, is no more wilderness than New York City, as both are just as impacted by man.
This realization soon begs the question then, if wilderness is a fallacy of our society, “a creation of the culture that holds it dear, a product of the very history it seeks to deny,” why then is it worth preserving? Even Lovelock with his Gaia hypothesis states that the Earth system is far from fragile and will certainly withstand anything we can throw at it. The answer, as Cronin argues, is a reshaping of our concept of wilderness.
One travels to what we would regard as wilderness often to escape the pressures and stresses of normal life. We work our nine to five jobs and drive our fossil fuel burning cars to scattered patches of the environment that we have designated as our national parks. We regard ourselves as truly at home when we witness the wild sublime, as described by Cronin. We choose to ignore the fact that our true homes are not in this so-called untouched oasis. Instead, we reside in our sky-touching cities, our sprawling suburbias, or even our rural farmsteads, and pretend that our true home is in the wild.
Thoreau said, “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” Wildness is everything around us, for the alterations that we make to our environment are a product of nature just as much as we are. We must see wildness in the blade of grass sticking through the sidewalk, for “the tree in the garden is in reality no less other, no less worthy of our wonder and respect, than the tree in an ancient forest.”
This is not to say that we should care for the pristine sublime any less than our sidewalks and city streets. Rather, when we idealize a distant wilderness, we forget about the environment that is actually our home. And in this way we forsake our responsibility to conserve and preserve in our actual home of concrete jungle. The wild is all around us and no matter where we call home our actions are influential. Perhaps Cronin is too harsh in his accusation that we should remove our home from wilderness, as this concept could aid us in our drive to sustain Nature, even if it is just a fallacy. However, there is no doubt that we should come to terms with who we are and where we live. We live in absolute wildness, for it is just as wild as the buffalo farms of the Great Plains. Wilderness is not what is untouched by man; rather it is entirely a product of man. Regardless, despite its artificial origin, it is no less our responsibility to protect what is wild.