The scholar William Cronon talks at length about the problems with the concept of wilderness in his article “The Trouble With Wilderness.” In this essay he discusses the early American identification with the notion of a “Frontier.” Cronon recounts the American movement to create and protect National Parks, and states that “to protect wilderness was in a very real sense to protect the nation’s most sacred myth of origin,” and that embedded in the frontier myth “was the powerful sense among certain groups of Americans that wilderness was the last bastion of rugged individualism.” Ultimately, his claim is that the concept of wilderness is a cultural construct, one that sets up a false separation between people and nature, a separation that creates a duality that is ultimately unsustainable:
“To do so is merely to take to a logical extreme the paradox that was built into wilderness from the beginning: if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves. The absurdity of this proposition flows from the underlying dualism it expresses. Not only does it ascribe greater power to humanity that we in fact possess–physical and biological nature will surely survive in some form or another long after we ourselves have gone the way of all flesh–but in the end it offers us little more than a self-defeating counsel of despair. The tautology gives us no way out: if wild nature is the only thing worth saving, and if our mere presence destroys it, then the sole solution to our own unnaturalness, the only way to protect sacred wilderness from profane humanity, would seem to be suicide.”
These statements lead me eventually to thinking about a man like Chris McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, a young man whose romantic notions of wilderness as a separate state of being, a kind of return to the Garden of Innocence, led him to his death. If a person believes that you must throw off the trappings of civilization (in McCandless’s mind, even the tools of survival) in order to commune with nature, then nature becomes a deadly foe.
I’d like you to continue thinking about the Wilderness and begin asking your own questions, questions like how do we define wilderness? Why do we need a concept of wilderness? What is the role of a human being in the wilderness. You should also begin thinking about the ways in which Alaskans interact with nature compared to the ways in which those living in the Lower 48 interact with it.
In The Last New Land read pp. 452-515
Also, read William Cronon’s essay “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”
Blog Entry 5
This week your assignment is to write a blog post that discusses your understanding of the Alaskan Wilderness. What are its boundaries for those of us living here? Talk about how you understand the concept. Do you think that we have a role in protecting the Wilderness? If we think about the Wilderness as thing to be either protected or exploited, does that set up a false dichotomy, like Cronon seems to think, that ultimately gets us into trouble?