15 February 2017
Reaction Paper #3
In Frank Sinatra’s song Love and Marriage, he famously sang “you can’t have one without the other”. That notion is applicable to William Cronon’s view of the “wilderness” and society in his piece “The Trouble with Wilderness”. Cronon argues that the idea of “wilderness” is a social and cultural construct created to satisfy people’s need to escape from the hardships and troubles of everyday life. He writes the wilderness “is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives”.
Many writers advocating for the preservation of “wilderness” due so on the basis that nature has an intrinsic value and that man has an innate desire for it. These ideas are echoed in Muir, Abbey, Thoreau, McKibben and others. Compared to those writers, Cronon’s argument is provocative because it challenges many of the fundamental premises of the environmental movement.
Both explicitly and implicitly, Cronon highlights the shortcomings of man as a primary reason for our fascination with “wilderness”. He implies that the human race would rather flight than fight. He explains how “wilderness” is synonymous with hope, for example the myth of the American frontier and the clear distinction between humans and nature. If “wilderness” still exists there is still some part of the world to run to when the idea of starting fresh is easier than facing challenges directly. This begs the question: can the environmental movement be summed up as nothing more than fear? Cronon writes that some of the biggest supporters for “wilderness” preservation are those that have gained the most from the capitalist system and industrialization.
In the process of explaining the merits of “wilderness”, American society has misrepresented the Native Americans’ relationship with the environment. Native Americans’ are portrayed to have had a minimal impact on the environment, and even are depicted as stewards of the environment. However, Cronon debunks these commonly held assumptions. He cites examples of Native Americans burning large areas of land for farming. He writes that Native American tribes played a significant role in manipulating the environment. Additionally, Charles Mann writes that researchers grossly underestimated the time frame when Naïve Americans first appeared in the Americas. If we do not know definitely when Native Americans first appeared, how can we possibly know that the Native Americans had a minimal impact on the environment? Mann writes that when Columbus arrived in the West Indies it was “thoroughly dominated by humankind”. With that information in mind, it is not far-fetched to claim that history is taught through rose colored glasses.
Interestingly, Cronon describes the accounts of early English settlers in New England in his book “Changes in the Land”. These settlers are not described as viewing the Native Americans as perfectly harmonious with the environment. Rather, it appears that the settlers are more interested in comparing the typical gender roles and culture of the Native Americans to their own. Cronon’s historical account of the “new world” is vastly different the story of Pocahontas and what children are taught in elementary schools
Cronon made an excellent point. He identified the subconscious reasoning for people’s fascination with the “wilderness”. While his ideas depict the human race as more fragile than many would like to accept, his view towards the environment is pragmatic and honest. While Cronon’s views are starkly different from many other environmental writers, I believe his ideas will resonate with more people than one might initially expect.