The Problem With Wilderness

“I knew I must be nearing your woodland retreat when the Golden Pheasant lunchroom came into view—Sealtest ice cream, toasted sandwiches, hot frankfurters, waffles, tonics, and lunches. Were I the proprietor, I should add rice, Indian meal, and molasses—just for old time’s sake: The Pheasant, incidentally, is for sale: a chance for some nature lover who wishes to set himself up beside a pond in the Concord atmosphere and live deliberately, fronting only the essential facts of life on Number: 126.”

E.B. White, “Walden” (1938)

E.B. White, best known for his children’s book Charlotte’s Web, was just one in a long line of writers to document his disillusionment with Walden Pond. Most writers approach this physical landscape after reading Thoreau’s famous book about living on the shores of the pond. His writing creates the impression that Walden Pond and its environs are a wilderness. Yet anyone who had visited the area or studied its history knows that Walden is far from meeting our definition of wilderness.

Wilderness narratives in the US imagination are not dissimilar from colonial narratives of first encounters between Europeans and the First Nations that inhabited what became the United States. It is a central idea to most pioneer novels as well (whether set on earth or in outer space) and also to every Western. Wilderness presents to us a space that is largely devoid of human habitation. A blank canvas on which to present our thoughts about ourself and the universe.

Part of us knows as a reader that no such place exists, nor did it ever. The earth is much smaller than we think. Most places have traces of human habitation. Even John Muir’s Yosemite (made possible by Thoreau’s earlier encomium to Walden) was not untouched by human habitation. When Muir first lived there, it was as a sheep herder in a valley that was well used by highland flocks.

To their credit, authors like Thoreau and Muir acknowledge (albeit sporadically) the presence of humans in the landscape. They do so, however, merely to point out the threat of humans to this potential Eden. A few enlightened humans (such as Muir and Thoreau) must protect the landscape from those who would trash it.

This mindset gave birth to the 20th Century Environmental movement and also helped create numerous local, state, and national land preserves, including those at Walden and in Yosemite. These movements proved valuable as industrial growth used up large portions of the earth to produce disposable products. But their blindspots to settler colonialism, paternalism, and class bias have limited the value of these movements in the 21st century. Their obsession with unspoiled spaces has also constricted the ways in which environmentalism speaks to an age dominated by human-made climate change (often referred to by academic scholars as the Anthropocene). The whole earth now is changing rapidly and irrevocably, making the notion of untouched spaces ecologically quaint if not absurd.

Although the scale of change taking place in the world now is unprecedented, the concept of human made environmental change is not. Consider Walden Pond. This area outside of Concord could never be conceived of as a pristine landscape. It had been used as a woodlot, dumping ground, and shanty-town for as long as anyone in the village could remember. Most of its flora and fauna were either placed their by human action (especially the fish) or came after the alteration of the original landscape. Ignoring this fact is the source of much disillusionment for Thoreau’s disciples and leads to a seemingly never-ending call to save Walden from those who would harm it. To restore it to Henry’s pond.

The idea that nature has been “despoiled” by humans and must be restored regardless of the impact of that change on the humans currently living there is a problem. People only want to help the environment when they feel that they can have a meaningful relationship with it. That somehow it is a space they can interact with and enjoy. Just such a realization influenced the US government’s approach to national parks.

What would it mean, however, if we turned our gaze away from wilderness and all it represents and focused instead on a different set of metaphors? Emma Marris attempts to make this shift possible in her book The Rambunctious Garden, which I reviewed on my website over a year ago. Like the historian William Cronon, she asks her readers to imagine the everyday and ordinary space around them as a habitat. Then to ask themselves, am I living sustainably in relation to it? This doesn’t turn our yards or parkways into wilderness. It does, however, mark them as what they are–part of nature.

Humans have always lived in nature (even in the city) and the idea that we can manage or protect it is an illusion. Nonetheless, we can live in a more healthy landscape. One where human and non-human co-exist in symbiosis like two neighbors who only sort of understand each other. And we need to make this change if the planet is to have a future.

One way that this change in our relationship to the environment can be accomplished is through educating people on the landscape around them and encouraging them to tend that space as thoughtful inhabits, what I’m calling here “gardeners.”

A version of this takes place at the Chicago Botanical Garden, which is located in the northernmost lagoon of a water retention and flood control project completed in the 1930s by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). A human sculpted landscape within another human sculpted landscape.

Walking through this landscape one has an experience similar to that of Walden. You can hear the highway (Interstate 94) to the west of the garden. And on nice days the garden is swarmed with visitors. Not all of them respectful of the work done by the gardeners or all that interested in the plants.

Yet here is a place that makes it possible to change a mindset. A place like the Walden Thoreau imagined. Here if you can stop the noise (literal and figurative) of your daily life for a while you can realize that you are simply part of a larger biome. You can learn your place in that system and realize how fragile it is and how the fragility of that space directly affects your quality of life.

Another way in which this change from wilderness warrior to gardener takes place is in the efforts of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) to get local residents to plant trees. At select locations and times during the year, the MWRD gives away Oak trees for planting. These not only help retain stormwater that otherwise would overwhelm conventional sewers but also restore a green canopy to the region that soaks up carbon dioxide and helps lessen the urban heat island effect.

Gardeners are needed for the 21st Century not wilderness advocates and the pseudo-pioneer mentality they too often espouse. The former might spur people to action before the earth becomes unlivable because they focus attention on the land beneath your feet rather than somewhere far away. They also might encourage a changed attitude towards our habitat following that awareness. The latter, in contrast, will continue to fail in their attempts to persuade 2/3 of the planet to care about nature and then wax nostalgic on what we lost.

We also don’t need more technocrats to come and tell us what to do. In many cases, they are the same institutions and organization who created the problems we are living with today. Think of the corporations (for instance) who market their products as “green” without really caring at all about the environment. They simply know that such things sell today. Think of the solar panels that are made in China under unsustainable business practices and encourage the destruction of China’s landscape even as they are supposed to save that in the US.

No. Only people who care about the ground around them can change the way we live on earth. Start with your plot of earth, however small, and forge an ecologically healthy relationship to it. Then encourage your neighbors through your actions to do the same. This is the lesson I take from Thoreau and Walden in 2019. It’s a lesson I think that Henry would have been receptive to…

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