Defining Wilderness

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Part One: The Received Wilderness Idea

The wilderness, as defined by Robert Marshall in his 1930 essay entitled “The Problem of the Wilderness,” is an area without permanent inhabitants, impossible to cross by mechanical means, and so vast that a person attempting to cross it must sleep out.  In short, the wilderness is an escape from civilization.  The wilderness offers man a setting in which he may appease his appetite for adventure, a desire that Marshall believes is very strong in the majority of mankind.  It extends an opportunity for independence and exploration that does not exist in the midst of civilization.  The wilderness allows humans to test both their physical limits and their self-sufficiency, while also offering time for personal and insightful thought.  In the wilderness, every one of the senses is occupied.  Unlike a work of art or a composition of music, the wilderness appeals to all the senses at once.  The dynamic experience offered by the wilderness is completely encompassing.  When out in the wilderness, sufficiently distanced from human civilization, one cannot help but be enveloped by its beauty and enormity.

Because of this encompassing aspect of nature, according to John Muir in his 1901 essay labeled “Our National Parks,” the wilderness serves as a fountain of life for many people.  The wilderness is a necessity, without which many individuals would not be able to survive the monotony of everyday life.  Muir asserts that a trip to the wilderness results in an “awakening from…the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury (48).”  Venturing into the wilderness is like going home; it is a return to one’s roots.  Unfortunately, the vast expanse of wilderness that originally existed in North America is quickly diminishing as the land is altered by human civilization.  With each expansion of human civilization, forests are cut, prairies are ploughed, and the wilderness is depleted.  Without attention to and protection of the remaining wilderness, mankind will soon have no repose from the ties of civilization.

The United States government recognized the need to preserve areas of wilderness and Congress responded by passing “The Wilderness Act of 1964.”  In this act, the government defined the wilderness as a place where the earth and the life that inhabits it are not organized according to the desires of man.  Instead, nature remains in its original form.  The wilderness is not a place that man calls home, but a place for him to visit.  The government stipulates that man’s interaction with the wilderness should be largely unnoticeable.  This will allow posterity to enjoy the wilderness as it stands now.  The character of the wilderness must remain its own in order to ensure that it offers solitude and a primitive appeal to visitors now and forever.

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