Creating “Wilderness”

In his essay “The Wilderness Narrative and the Cultural Logic of Capitalism,” Carl Talbot quotes Robert Nash as having stated that “wilderness is a matter of perception – part of the geography of the mind” (330). Along with Talbot’s passage about the Wilderness Narrative, I also selected Chief Luther Standing Bear’s “Indian Wisdom” and David Harmon’s “Cultural Diversity, Human Subsistence and the National Park Ideal” in order to develop my definition of American wilderness. After reading these essays, I would align myself with Nash and argue that the “American wilderness” is a culturally constructed perception that emerged during the early ages of European settlement in the Americas – and continues through the present day – that nature is untamed and therefore must be controlled by or otherwise separated from humans.

In “Indian Wisdom” Chief Luther Standing Bear argued that prior to the arrival of white European settlers in North America, there was no such concept of “wilderness.” To the Native Americans, all things in nature were tamed, and humans were merely surrounded by the wonders of the “Great Mystery” (201). It was the white men, he said, who first distanced themselves from nature by trying to control it and thus first developed the idea of the “wilderness” (205). In effect, Chief Luther demonstrated that American “wilderness” first emerged as a result of being molded by the culture of white men. This theme continues to the modern day as reflected in Talbot’s essay. Talbot stated that “nature was organized so as to meet the spatial, economic, and psychological needs of capitalism” (326). By pairing the idea of wilderness with the growth of white and capitalist cultures in, these writers depict how “American wilderness” is a continually renewed cultural construct throughout American history.

Additionally, Talbot and Harmon aid in illustrating how nature is incompatible with mainstream American culture. Harmon used words like “protected,” “ownership,” and “management” to describe modern national parks. These words connote meanings directly in contrast to a word like “nature,” which emphasizes a lack of manipulation by humans. Talbot also asserted that for many the “wilderness is a leisure resource” and has been commodified for the modern world (325, 328). We can take this to mean that because “nature” is not a piece of mainstream American culture, it needs to be cordoned off into an occasionally visited segment of society. Nature in its purest form is too inconvenient for Americans. Moreover, while places like national parks are often considered the most natural pieces of our culture, even they fail to be truly natural. This idea ties back into our discussion last week about how even the places which we feel resemble nature in Davidson have actually been the most manipulated by humans.

After reading Manish’s post I agree with his claims about Turner’s method to achieving an understanding of the environment. I think we can see some similar sentiments in Chief Luther Standing Bear’s essay. Both highlight the distance that man has put between himself and the environment. In order to regain an understanding of the wilderness, man needs to once again immerse himself in nature. This in turn goes back to Chief Luther Standing Bear and how he recalled the Lakota living among nature, rather than dominating it. It is fascinating to see how two men like Turner and Chief Luther Standing Bear – writing in very different times and with very different perspectives – ultimately reached similar conclusions about how Americans need to understand “nature” and “wilderness.”

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