Wilderness and Wildness

Wilderness and Wildness

On September 3rd, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, establishing 9.1 million acres in 54 designated as protected “wilderness.” The act not only protected these regions from urban development, but also prohibited motorized and mechanized technology in large portions of these new areas. “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt,” said President Johnson upon signing the bill, “we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

The Wilderness Act was a follow-up to Woodrow Wilson’s National Park Service and Organic Act of 1916, which was itself an expansion upon Teddy Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act of 1906. These bills all sought to preserve and protect something about America, which the Wilderness Act alludes to in its statement of policy:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for the preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness…
-Section 2(a)

 But what, precisely, is wilderness? Section 2(c) of the Act defines it in the following manner:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized 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. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

This lengthy definition essentially defines “wilderness” as “that which is untouched by man.” It is also aligned with the etymology of the word: “wilderness” comes from the Old English “wild dēor,” or “wild deer,” with the state-descriptive suffix “ness.” The wilderness was “the place where only wild animals dwell.” And on a superficial level, this is a serviceable understanding of the term, but it creates a strange paradox. We evidently love the wilderness enough to set aside millions of acres and billions of dollars to protect it—and here, it is worth saying that the effectiveness of the policies enacted towards these ends is irrelevant in identifying the underlying quality which could motivate such a bill. Popular visitation and support indicates this attractive quality of the wilderness is more than merely another government program pursuing some bureaucratic power-scheme, even if insincere bureaucratic interests were found to be behind such bills. We love the wilderness, but the wilderness is that space which is untouched by humans. The definition we have created for “wilderness”—“space untouched by man”—relegates man to the status of mere observer of the wild, and excludes him from all participation in what it means to be wild. Is our love of the wilderness simply a collective psychological tap into general human misanthropy? Or is there something else that is attractive about the wilderness, something which can include man, and ultimately lies within man, as it does within the virgin forests and unclimbed peaks?

We know that man can be wild. We talk of wild men, in geographic contexts and in sexual ones; mountain men and pirates, rogues and Don Juans all live outside of the constraints of civilization. In medieval times, an “outlaw” was not a criminal by necessity, merely a man outside the sphere of the law’s protection—out of the law. Being wild means unconstrained and uncontrolled by the domination of civilization, and this can apply to humans as well as to nature, although it is less obvious how we might do this, given that civilization is both a benefit and, in some sense, a byproduct of human nature.

Is this attraction we have to wildness a romantic fiction, born of unfamiliarity? Civilization, after all, is a good thing. Going off “into the wilds” has always been something dangerous. For those who live in it, rather than those who merely read about it, the wilderness is sometimes even considered a hated place, full of discomfort, fear, misery, and death.

There is certainly a danger of over-idealizing the wilds, but I do not believe “comfort” or “pleasure” is the primary source of our attraction to the wilderness, or to wildness more generally. If there is a naivete in overidealizing the wilds and wildness, it must be from an excessive trust in the human capacity for suffering and risk. It is easier to talk about such things, and the benefits to be reaped from living beneath them, than it is to voluntarily choose them over the security and stability of civilization.

I’m not entirely sure what it means to be “wild” in the world of smart phones and the internet, let alone how we might better connect with this hidden and attractive quality, but it’s a topic I hope to delve into a little bit further over the next few years. I suspect it has something to do with technology, a subject I have already debated with Augustus Invictus. I suspect my view on this subject will continue to shift, more in the direction of Invictus.

We will probably be chatting more on the subject soon.

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