Construct and experience of wilderness

Wilderness. I came to envision wilderness in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native wherein Hardy’s description of the English open countryside circa late 1800s jumps vividly out of the pages, invoking a longing deep within me to be “there”, to be in the wilderness. The longing I felt was a communication between souls, that of mine and of wilderness’, how else could I explain it? The wilderness imagery playing out in my mind roused up my soul, that ‘being’ who could communicate in the language of the abstract and unknown, to translate imagery to experience, which is why at 16, wilderness was more beloved to me than going crazy over a boy and being ‘normal’ (although now I would advise my daughters to be ‘normal’ at 16 than later). I used to have this notebook – paper scraps I bound myself, more like – in which I webbed characters whose stories are set in wilderness, such landscapes not found in particular countries but within the realm of my imagination. In fact, in the exercise I found that imagination is wilderness. I’m not sure if the activity, if imagining wilderness, if roaming in wilderness through those stories’ characters was some sort of escape (too, escape is wilderness) but it was fun, at least to me.

That was at 16. Twenty-one years after, now, I encountered wilderness again. I was in the university library to do research on a graded homework (how queer to actually go to the library to read when in college I go there to nap.) and as I was skimming over volumes of journals (a dizzying act) I chanced upon The Trouble with Wilderness or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature by William Cronon in 1995, featured in the Environmental History Volume 1 Number 1 January 1996. Naturally, I took it off the shelf and went to a corner to read. But you have to understand I’m not as crazy over wilderness now as when I was much younger because since then I think I’ve had too much of actual wilderness experience, that is, if the real world could be a metaphor for wilderness!

The first paragraph of Cronon’s article reads:

wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural. …we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.

Nature as the reflection of my own unexamined longings and desires. OK. When this is understood in the context of ecology, does it mean that one’s ‘unexamined longings and desires’ could be so perverse that these are projected into how one relates with elements in one’s environment, destruction of ecosystem for one?

Cronon continues:

…the modern environmental movement is itself a grandchild of romanticism and post-frontier ideology which is why it is no accident that so much environmentalist discourse takes its bearings from the wilderness these intellectual movements helped create.

Ah. Now I understand why, in my graduate class, the study of ‘environment’ goes hand in hand with the study of ‘culture’. ‘Environment’ as the movement (as opposed to the science) finds its wellspring from cultural ideologies, romanticism and post-frontier particularly. Also, this explains why the movement tends to come off as a bit above ground, having borrowed its terminologies and construct from these.

Cronon then moves into describing wilderness in the contexts of the two ideologies.

Wilderness as a landscape. Landscape, is defined in three ways, a stretch of scenery usually rural that is visible from one viewpoint; a pictorial representation of such a view; the branch of art comprising such representations. The operative word here is ‘representation’, a thing that represents, such as a statue, picture, or the like. To Cronon, wilderness represented as a landscape is a fluid space ‘less certain boundaries’ between human and non-human or between natural and supernatural. To illustrate, Cronon brings in the desert or wilderness experience of Christ. There, in the desert,

‘if Satan was there then so was Christ who had found angels as well as wild beasts…’

and that

‘one might meet devils and run the risk of losing one’s soul in such a place but one might also meet God’.

Cronon takes the wilderness as a landscape construct further, as expression of the doctrine of the sublime. He defines ‘sublime landscapes’ as

‘those rare places on earth where one had more chance than elsewhere to glimpse the face of God’

as theorized by proponents of the doctrine, Immanuel Kant, William Gilpin, and Edmund Burke (who differentiated ‘the sublime’ from ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the picturesque’). And where are these sublime places? Generally,

‘God (experience of sublime) would most often be found in those vast powerful landscapes where one could not help feeling insignificant and being reminded of one’s own mortality’ such as ‘on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud, in the rainbow, in the sunset’.


‘best proof that one had entered a sublime landscape was the emotion it evoked’

and that

‘the sublime was far from being a pleasurable experience’

which according to William Wordsworth

‘was an emotion remarkably close to terror’

and this is taken up in the poet’s Prelude:

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed
The stationary blasts of waterfalls
And in the narrow rent at every turn
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospects of the raving stream
The unfettered clouds and region of the Heavens
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light –
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree
Characters of the great Apocalypse
The types and symbols of Eternity
Of first and last and midst and without end

Cronon writes that Wordsworth’s description was

‘nothing less than a religious experience akin to that of the Old Testament prophets as they conversed with their wrathful God. The symbols he detected in this wilderness landscape were more supernatural than natural and they inspired more awe and dismay than joy or pleasure. No mere mortal was meant to linger long in such a place…’

Wilderness experience as a ‘pious stance’ gave way to ‘a much more comfortable and sentimental demeanor’ as ‘tourists sought out the wilderness as a spectacle to be looked at and enjoyed for its great beauty (hence) the sublime in effect became domesticated’. Instead, ‘the sublime wilderness had ceased to be a place of satanic temptation to become a sacred temple’.

In the United States, ‘another cultural movement helped transform wilderness into sacred (and which is) primitivism’. The ideology dates back to ‘Rosseau’s belief that the best antidote to the ills of an overly-refined and civilized modern world was a return to simpler more primitive living’. Thus the birth of ‘frontier’ or wild country which ‘became not just of religious redemption but of national renewal, the quintessential location for experiencing what it meant to be American’.

But, recalling Cronon’s first paragraph statement of ‘Nature as the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires’, the ‘removal of Indians (from the frontier) to create an “uninhabited wilderness” reminds us just how invented, just how constructed the American wilderness really is. Cronon contends that (this is what struck me most in the article) ‘indeed one of the most striking proofs of the cultural invention of wilderness is its thoroughgoing erasure of the history from which it sprang’! (exclamation mine)

In the modern world, Cronon suggests that ‘wilderness (be used) as the standard against which to measure the failings of our humanity’. Wilderness since the two ideologies has undergone transformation and in the context of the modern world, it ‘is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul. It is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives’. Cronon proposes that wilderness now ought to be as a ‘landscape of authenticity’.

Yes, the backdrop or context of environmentalism has changed and that this context now calls for the construct and experience of wilderness as landscape of authenticity. Of course, what is ‘authenticity’ is the next big thing to define.


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