You don't know what true wilderness is

When you hear the word "wilderness," usually you imagine vast expanses of untouched nature, full of beautiful plants and untamed animals. But according to historian William Cronon, you've got the wrong idea.

Photo by the Pinedale Ranger District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest

In fact, misunderstandings of wilderness may be causing problems for environmentalists who want to preserve nature from human meddling. In a prescient essay written back in 1995, Cronon explains how the word "wilderness" has a long, strange history in the United States, and it's linked to an ideal of the virgin landscape that is out of touch with our global realities. Instead of idealizing the untouched, non-human wilderness, he argues, maybe we should remember that nature is all around us.

Human civilization is not the opposite of wilderness, and this binary thinking is getting in the way of making good environmental decisions. We shouldn't get humans out of nature, but put nature back into human culture.

Writes Cronon:

We American environmentalists . . . quite rightly worry about the future of the earth and the threats we pose to the natural world. [But] idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home. Most of our most serious environmental problems start right here, at home, and if we are to solve those problems, we need an environmental ethic that will tell us as much about using nature as about not using it. The wilderness dualism tends to cast any use as abuse, and thereby denies us a middle ground in which responsible use and non-use might attain some kind of balanced, sustainable relationship. My own belief is that only by exploring this middle ground will we learn ways of imagining a better world for all of us: humans and nonhumans, rich people and poor, women and men, First Worlders and Third Worlders, white folks and people of color, consumers and producers—a world better for humanity in all of its diversity and for all the rest of nature too. The middle ground is where we actually live. It is where we—all of us, in our different places and ways—make our homes.

That is why, when I think of the times I myself have come closest to experiencing what I might call the sacred in nature, I often find myself remembering wild places much closer to home. I think, for instance, of a small pond near my house where water bubbles up from limestone springs to feed a series of pools that rarely freeze in winter and so play home to waterfowl that stay here for the protective warmth even on the coldest of winter days, gliding silently through streaming mists as the snow falls from gray February skies. I think of a November evening long ago when I found myself on a Wisconsin hilltop in rain and dense fog, only to have the setting sun break through the clouds to cast an otherworldly golden light on the misty farms and woodlands below, a scene so unexpected and joyous that I lingered past dusk so as not to miss any part of the gift that had come my way. And I think perhaps most especially of the blown-out, bankrupt farm in the sand country of central Wisconsin where Aldo Leopold and his family tried one of the first American experiments in ecological restoration, turning ravaged and infertile soil into carefully tended ground where the human and the nonhuman could exist side by side in relative harmony. What I celebrate about such places is not just their wildness, though that certainly is among their most important qualities; what I celebrate even more is that they remind us of the wildness in our own backyards, of the nature that is all around us if only we have eyes to see it.

This essay, despite being almost 20 years old, remains as challenging and thought-provoking as it was the day it was published. Cronon is also the author of a terrific book, Nature's Metropolis, about the history of Chicago, and why the city succeeded partly because of its relationship to the environment.

Read the full essay on William Cronon's website