Economics and the Wild

A definition of THE American Wilderness is hard to compose. The definition depends on the individual asked and from where this individual lived. A person who lives out West might harbor softer and more passionate feelings for the ‘wilderness’ than say someone from a major city like New York or Chicago (who might sense the wilderness is a rugged environment). Most certainly THE American Wilderness’s definition has changed over time and continues to change with new interpretations. Should ‘wilderness’ even be a term still commonly used?

The term ‘wilderness’ developed from Eurocentric thought. Even though Europeans arrived to the New World in the sixteenth century and crafted the land for their use, almost four hundred years later, natives spoke of how the white man’s language and thought forced an opinion about the open and unconquered lands. Chief Luther Standing Bear states, “Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it ‘wild’ for us” (201). Sadly, Europeans and their ancestors grouped natives and animals as wild savages and used the term ‘wilderness’ to collectively identify both.

Sometimes it is easier to define something by what it is not rather than by what it actually is. The American Wilderness is not a savage place. As Chelsea Creta said in her post on January 19, “Some students chose the cross-country trail as the most natural place on campus, for it appears untouched, wild, and uncultivated.” The wilderness is not a place of any specific wild or rambunctious behavior. The American Wilderness is a completely constructed and unnatural representation of a supposed natural place (much like Davidson’s campus). Tourists from all over visit national forests and parks. Many venture to these places to see ‘natural’ wildlife and fauna. Like Davidson’s campus, many of these places are constructed to appear natural. Yes, they are more ‘natural’ than Davidson’s campus, but humans have still intervened with the surroundings. America’s version of the wilderness is anything but natural.

The American Wilderness is used to strengthen the capitalist system.  As Roderick Nash reminds us, “The economics of land-based tours work out better for native people, but it is still foreign-owned airline companies, hotel chains, and travel agents who chiefly benefit”  (211). This concept can be applied locally and internationally. Thus, the American Wilderness is a commodity. While thoughts and actions have shifted to a more nature-preserving attitude, these actions are done to better the capitalist system. Carl Talbot states, “Thus nature was organized so as to meet the spatial, economic, and psychological needs of capitalism” (326).

The phrase itself connotes a feeling much like “The American Dream.” This is something that one cannot actually pin down. Searching “American Wilderness” using Google Images provides one with an extremely glorified version of the term (mostly in the form of landscapes). Both “The American Dream” and “The American Wilderness” are abstractions grounded in economics.

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