“Wilderness” didn’t always have the same meaning that we understand it as today. In Europe, 250 years ago, the connotations of wilderness were very different. It was generally associated with areas that were barren, desolate, deserted, and generally a wasteland (1). In the Bible, people were banished into the wilderness as punishment, like Moses and his people who were condemned to wander the wilderness after escaping from Egypt.
“Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us into the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that none passes through, where no man dwells?
Since most people worked the land for a living, wilderness represented unworked land, and wasn’t regarded on favorably. This was the general mindset colonizers had when they began arriving in the United States.
In the early 1800s, writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir rose to prominence as founders of the transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalism romanticized nature and glorified self-sufficiency within it. These writers wrote poetically about their experiences in the natural world, and framed it as something that was pure and sacred, and apart from human civilization.
“In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” -Thoreau (2)
“In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate [innate] than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.” -Emerson (3)
Today, these perspectives are common, but back then it was a total change in thinking. Wilderness was being redefined. In that time, colonizers were expanding west in the United States. The “frontier” was seen as the last pure wilderness, a proving ground for man and a stark contrast to his urban counterpart, which was seen as becoming soft and intellectual, and lacking in some essential manly capability and toughness. Nature was akin to a wild woman that needed to be tamed. Under transcendentalism, wilderness also existed completely separate from people, but was pure and beautiful specifically because of that, and should be preserved. It was like another realm to escape into to find your true self.
Thoreau’s most famous work is the book Walden Pond, in which he lives in a cabin in a dense forest in rural Massachusetts, grows beans and spends time by a nearby pond. In actuality, the landscapes the transcendentalists wrote about were already a direct product of human influence. Before disease wiped out a huge proportion of the indigenous population, people had actively maintained the forests of Massachusetts to be more open and park-like. They used fire to clear seedlings and open the forest structure (1). This encouraged grazing by the game animals indigenous people hunted, and also increased the growth of edible tubers that thrived in the clearings. The burning was not half-hazard, but rather precisely timed and executed to create a forest of mixed succession. When the colonists arrived, indigenous influence on the landscape was greatly reduced because so many were killed and lost to disease. As a result, the forest became thick and overgrown.
Fire was a common tool in pre-colonizer Americas to shape landscapes (4–6). Indigenous people shaped landscapes across the continent. Europeans were stunned to find open forests they could drive wagons through, massive abundances of fruit trees and wide, open grasslands with huge amounts of game. To them, it seemed like Eden. Naturally optimal for people. Before colonizers spread west, they were preceded by a wave of disease, and then a wave of ecological instability as indigenous influence on the landscape ground to a halt. These ecosystems had been kept in balance over hundreds of years in a way that provided for human populations. The massive herds of bison the colonizers encountered were actually “outbreak populations,” a symptom of a severely disrupted ecosystem. Grasslands were no longer being maintained to the same extent, and bison herds were not regulated by indigenous hunting, so they exceeded the carrying capacity of their ecosystem and swarmed across the plains.5
Agriculture in some form existed in two-thirds of what is now the United States (4). But indigenous agriculture didn’t look like European agriculture, so colonizers did not recognize it as such. Indigenous agriculture largely was designed to work as a natural system, with the curves and fluctuations of the land. In Europe, agriculture always left scars on the land and was rigid and structured. Colonizers thought the land they encountered was natural. They had no understanding of indigenous practices and technologies that had shaped it, because they did not recognize indigenous people as capable of landscape engineering. They assumed Native Americans were mostly roving bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers and were “invisible” in the landscape. Colonizers saw indigenous people as part of nature in the same way animals were, with little impact on their ecosystem. Indigenous people did work with and understand their home ecosystems, and in that way, they were more “a part” of the landscape. But their impact was a result of centuries of technology and skill-it was calculated and intentional.
This erasure of indigenous technology and skill happened wherever colonizers encountered local peoples. The amazon basin is held in the public imagination as some kind of ultimate wilderness, the exemplification of everything that is a thriving, non-human nature. But actually, indigenous people had a huge role in shaping the Amazon rainforest, too. Rainforest soil is made up of riverbed sediment, and is usually clay-like and has poor nutrient holding ability. In a rainforest, all the nutrients are held by biomass. Indigenous people had found a way to amend the soil with charcoal (which requires a specific burning process to produce) and organic matter. This created a dark, fertile anthropogenic soil called Terra preta, which allowed indigenous communities to grow annual crops and develop their own version of agriculture. Terra preta is still found in large swaths of the Amazon basin. People also maintained orchards, planting and propagating species that provided food. Today, the composition of the Amazon rainforest is heavily influenced by the maintenance and selection of indigenous communities (7, 8).
This glorification of wilderness as a sacred form of non-human nature had very real consequences for indigenous communities. In the United States, conservation was largely fueled by the transcendentalist movement. Yosemite was one of the first parks created and set aside for recreation. Before it was a park, the Ahwahneechee people had lived there and maintained Yosemite Valley with their own fire and horticulture practices. Even settlers had built villages and established agriculture there. But in order to maintain the idea of a total non-human wilderness that tourists could go visit, all people were forcibly evicted. Remains of human villages were destroyed and razed. Human presence in the valley was erased as much as possible (5). Yosemite was often used as a model for establishing other national parks in the United States. These recreational grounds for tourists and white people were often created at the expense of indigenous people, costing them their home territory and subsequently some part of their cultural identity.
There are definitely areas in the world that exist outside of human influence (although few remain) in the same way that there are ecosystems that exist without pine trees, or bees, or bears. But largely these are not the ecosystems our culture is referencing when we use the term “wilderness.” Wilderness reinforces the nature/human divide, which is a colonial construction. This construction serves to objectify nature, but also to glorify it as some kind of cohesive entity. The more you look into this divide, the more it falls apart. Everything in this world is nature. We didn’t just come from nature, we also ARE nature. Otherizing nature is a colonial construct created so it can be objectified and profited from. We need to understand that our ideas of nature and wilderness are deeply rooted in our culture as much as they reflect the actual physical reality of trees and ponds and mountains.
Written by Naira de Gracia
1. Cronon W. The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature. Environmental history. 1996;1(1):7–28.
2. Thoreau HD. Walden, or, Life in the woods. London: David Campbell; 1992.
3. Emerson RW. Nature. Project Gutenberg.
4. Denevan WM. The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 1992;82(3):369–385.
5. Uncommon ground : rethinking the human place in nature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.; 1996.
6. Mann CC. 1491 : new revelations of the Americas before Columbus. 1st ed. ed. New York: Knopf; 2005.
7. McMichael CH, Piperno DR, Neves EG, et al. Phytolith Assemblages Along a Gradient of Ancient Human Disturbance in Western Amazonia. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. 2015;3(141).
8. Levis C, Costa FRC, Bongers F, et al. Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition. Science (New York, NY). 2017;355(6328):925–931.