Supplementary Reading Review of Wilderness and the American Mind

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Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind walks a reader through a chronological timeline of the evolving perception of wilderness that has resonated within America since its discovery. From the outset, Nash indicates an obvious but difficult question to answer; what is wilderness? He explains how “land managers and politicians” have struggled to formulate a definitive answer to this question, which introduces a central question of his work, one which remains in mystery at the conclusion of the book.[1] Though Nash never reaches a definitive answer as to what the wilderness truly is, it cannot be ignored how important nature is within our lives and those of people before us. One could believe that because Nash never clearly articulates one answer to this question, that the idea of wilderness is a personal discovery, something that is different for every person. Even though Nash leaves this discovery up to us, he still does a magnificent job of portraying how the different ideas of wilderness and nature have been perceived inside American society, while also indicating the importance of the debates that surrounded these ideas.

Of the numerous chapters of Nash’s piece, one that comes off as one of the strongest is his work on the Old World perceptions of nature that later Europeans brought with them to the New World, that being America. Drawing on numerous secondary sources about Greek and Roman perceptions of nature, Nash initially argues that the old world perception of nature was man vs. the wild. As Nash describes, it was man’s job to overcome nature, as “safety, happiness and progress all seemed dependent on rising out of a wilderness situation.”[2] For the ancients (Greeks and Romans), the wilderness was believed to be filled with demons and lesser gods who were there to thwart human efforts in conquering the wilderness, which Nash’s writing frames as the greatest evil towards man.[3] In fact, this idea did not change too much over the centuries, as Nash indicates how Christians also partook in this negative view towards nature. In the Old Testament, the wilderness is described as a sort of barren wasteland, a place for the devil and punishments from God towards humanity. Moving away from religion, physically wilderness represented a direct threat to human survival, as the trials it presented pioneers could strip any man of his life.[4] From these connotations, Judeo Christian Europeans, who were some of the first to arrive in the New World, perceived the wilderness as something purely evil that must be subjected to their will.[5] Faced with the vast wilderness of the Americas, the colonists’ “courage failed” as their fears were multiplied because of the unknown dangers that resided in these woods.[6]

As Wilderness and the American Mind continues along the timeline of American society, Nash indicates how the perception of the wilderness shifted as American culture began to blossom. Introduced in Chapter 3, Nash describes how individuals began to perceive nature under a romantic connotation, desiring to indulge in the primate lifestyle of the untamed wilderness that had previously been scorned because of the potential dangers that resided outside of civilization.[7] It went so far as to have the romantic ideals of nature become its own literary genre by the 1840s, making the appreciation of wilderness a necessary characteristic of all gentlemen within American society.[8] Using accounts from Abigail Adams, as well as references to Thomas Jefferson’s view on nature, Nash displays how the American wilderness was something Americans started to take pride in during the 18th and 19th centuries. Specifically with Abigail’s claims, Nash indicates how Americans’ respected the beauty in the American wilderness, something they believed Europe had lost to its further industrialized society.[9] This beauty became the centerpiece of many poems, literary works, and paintings about the New World, defining the American landscape as something entirely different than Europe.[10] Using information from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, Nash diligently describes the shift in American perspective on the wilderness. Instead of being a roadblock to success or something evil, Nash described how Cooper’s work positioned Americans as understanding the pure beauty that resided within nature, as well as the potential for “exciting adventure.”[11]

As Americans pushed further and further west, altering nature into civilization as their ancestors had done before them, Nash notes how people began to realize the beauty of the wilderness was disappearing as civilization took center stage. As a result of this, numerous Americans like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, both American preservationists, made great efforts to preserve the wilderness. Nash depicts how the first instance of American preservation began with President Grant signing an act in 1872 that zoned off 2 million acres of Wyoming to create Yellowstone National Park.[12] In order to secure this act, Nash describes how preservationists had to convince the legislature not of the beauty of the land, but of the lack of use this region had for natural resources. For in American society, the wilderness was no longer perceived as an evil entity, but something filled with vast resources to exploit. Only as a secondary effort did advocates of preservation reference the “remarkable curiosities” or “rare wonders” that were prevalent within Yellowstone as reason not to cultivate this land.[13] Following the creation of Yellowstone, as well as many more national/state parks like it, many politicians and others began to question the need for untouchable territory. Nash introduces this theme in a number of ways, one of which is direct quotes from politicians of the day. Using Kansas Senator John J. Ingalls’ comments from 1883, Nash displays how many politicians were against the zoning off of wilderness for preservation, as he believed it should be sold off “as other public lands are sold.”[14]

Using the example of the Hetch Hetchy debates that began in the late 1800s and grew ever important in the early 1900s, Nash displays the chronic and unending debates regarding preservations vs. use of resources. In early 1900s, San Francisco experienced numerous disasters, such as an earthquake, that made their continual need for fresh water even more of an urgent issue. Within a few hundred miles away was the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which if damned could provide an excellent source of water for the region, but was protected under the creation of Yosemite National Park as a wilderness preserve.[15] President Roosevelt, a fervent preservationist, was faced with a difficult decision which placed his desire to preserve the wilderness against his position to do what is best for the American people. Using various letters and comments from John Muir, who was against the use of the land for a dam, as well as Gifford Pinchot’s comments in favor of it, Nash does a wonderful job of displaying the difficulty that existed within this type of debate.[16] On one side of the issue was the old world mentality of man conquering nature for his personal gain. Yet, on the other, was the newer position of preserving the wilderness, specifically for the inherent beauty that was native to American land. Though the President decided on opening the land for use as a water supply, this did not stop people like John Muir from continuing to comment on the wrongness of the decision, specifically stating that “everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and play in where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike” in reference to the need for preserved wilderness.[17] These types of debates of preservation vs. resources were not isolated to earlier times, as Nash indicates they continued well on into the 20th century, remaining a relevant political issue. They remain in the spotlight as more people continue to see the destruction of the wilderness around them, while other individuals only perceive the monetary value that could be gained from these “wild” lands.

In terms of the wilderness of these national parks, one thing Nash does not note in his work, which is commented on in Section II of The Great New Wilderness Debate is the artificiality of these reserves. In an essay by Carl Talbot “The Wilderness Narrative and the Cultural Logic of Capitalism,” this issue is brought to center stage. Talbot indicates how national parks are not “preserved wilderness” but something more artificial, as they do not allow for the natural interaction of humanity and its ecosystem. Instead, this piece of land is something that has been withdrawn from the natural order of the world, essentially quarantined by human hands, seemingly making it just as unnatural as the creation of cities.[18] This type of thought is something that Nash seemingly ignores in his work, which in the light of one of the major questions of his book (what is wilderness) seems to greatly diminish an otherwise thorough piece on the evolution of wilderness perspectives. Wilderness preserves and national parks are a great thing to have if your perception of the wilderness is untamed and void of human interaction, but in light of Talbot’s comments, it appears as though there are people who do not buy into this position. Knowing this, Nash neglects to provide a complete analysis of how natural national parks are, diminishing their effectiveness as something that is “wild.”

In comparison to Nash’s piece, The Great New Wilderness Debate also provides a more thorough analysis of international conservation of the wilderness. Within Chapter 16 of his piece, Nash goes into discussion about international conservation, specifically commenting on Africa as an example. From the start of this chapter, this section of the book seems out of place in light of the rest of the piece. The title of his piece is Wilderness and the American Mind, so why is he going into international preservation, when Africa is not an American land? It appears as though Nash wanted to give a globally encompassed study of perceptions of wilderness, which based on his title is outside the frame of his work. Quite differently in The Great New Wilderness Debate, which does not focus on American conservation, numerous international preservation efforts are described to provide a global perspective on the efforts. Topics ranging from the differences between American preservation efforts and Indian directives, to how the Kidepo National Park in Uganda actually hindered people more than helped are all discussed within the various essays of this piece.[19] Though Nash tries to provide a thorough understanding of wilderness preservation by bringing in international discussions, his efforts seem out of place based and forced, specifically when compared to the much more detailed discussions presented in The Great New Wilderness Debate.

This review barely scratches the surface of all the content that Nash provides within his piece on the evolution of the American perspective on wilderness. There is so much more from his piece that could be discussed for hours on end, such as the pioneering differences between the American West and Alaska or Henry David Thoreau’s journeys through the wilderness and his discoveries to just name a few topics. One of my personal favorites that was not discussed within this review were Nash’s comments on how the hippy counter-culture of the 1960s-70s latched onto the preservation of the wilderness as just another way to fight the current system.[20] Due to the exuberant amount of information that Nash presents in his piece, topics like these could not be given the ample respect they are due using a short discussion. Through Nash’s writing, the chronological changes in perspective of the American wilderness are thoroughly presented. Furthermore, though at the conclusion of Nash’s work one of his central questions regarding what the wilderness is remains unanswered, I believe this was intentional, as well as unavoidable. Using The Great New Wilderness Debate as an example, numerous definitions for the wilderness are presented, such as “an area without people” or one in which people live within the land, drawing upon its resources for survival while also maintaining its purity.[21] With such differing perspectives presented from another piece, it appears Nash’s work fits within the framework of the current understanding of what the wilderness is, which is inconclusive and open to personal interpretation.

[1] Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1982), 5

[2] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  9

[3] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  9, 11

[4] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 24

[5] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  15

[6] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 26

[7] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  49

[8] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  60

[9] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  68-69

[10] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  75

[11] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  76

[12] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 108

[13] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  112

[14] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 113

[15] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  161

[16] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  162-164

[17] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,  165

[18] J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson, The Great Wilderness Debate, (University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1998) 326

[19] Callicott & Nelson, The Great Wilderness Debate, 223, 241

[20] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 251

[21] Callicott & Nelson, The Great Wilderness Debate,  295, 319