Part I: The Received Wilderness Idea

Henry David Thoreau’s conception of wilderness relies on divorcing physical space from civil society. “In Wildness,” says Thoreau, “is the preservation of the World” (37). This capital-W world Thoreau describes is the world of rocks, trees and mountains, and it is more real than the world of churches, schools, and town halls. He is thankful that he can walk miles without passing houses, crossing roads, or noticing where humans have influenced the natural world. This uninhabited and untouched land is Thoreau’s small-scale concept of wilderness.

In his 1925 essay called “Wilderness as a Form of Land Use,” Aldo Leopold defines wilderness while critiquing American land use practices. Wilderness, for Leopold, is “a wild, roadless area where those who are so inclined may enjoy primitive modes of travel and subsistence, such as exploration trips by pack-train or canoe” (76). Since he seeks to explain wilderness areas in terms of land use, Leopold does expand this definition to encompass wilderness more broadly. Rather, his definition demonstrates how Americans treat even wilderness as a resource. He grapples with the conflict between how conquering wilderness formed Americans, but widespread taming of large tracts of wilderness also threatens “the things that made us American” (78).

Mark Woods seeks to explain the legal understanding of wilderness preservation and the paradoxes inherent in making “a tract of de facto wilderness qualify to become de jure wilderness” in the American practice of wilderness preservation (134). Woods employs the definition of wilderness from the Wilderness Act of 1964. Through the definition, he notes the conflict between the instrumental and intrinsic values of wilderness to humans. Though he does not resolve the paradoxes, he does explain that American wilderness policy’s definition of land use involves the necessary components that wilderness be natural and be a place where humans can find solitude.

Assembling a definition of wilderness from these three sources leads me to conclude that wilderness is a place that is free from roads, able to be explored by humans but not welcoming to their settlement, and available to satisfy the ineffable desire for humans to experience the natural world. On January 19, Brandon mentioned a short definition of wilderness as “what existed before human interaction or manipulation.” Brandon gave a time frame for describing wilderness, and I think this is important. Is a place a wilderness only if humans have never gotten to it? Can a place be redeemed from its human intervention and become a wilderness? A definition of wilderness must include a time frame, but I am still puzzling over how we ought to conceive of wilderness chronologically (and where we ought to position ourselves).

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