What is Wilderness? And How Are We a Part of It?

Alzar School | 07.02.16

What is wilderness? And how are we a part of it?

For their first essay assignment of the semester, the AP English class at Alzar is investigating notions of wilderness in relation to humanity, sense of place, and environmentalism. Their prompt is to synthesize at least three pieces we have read so far to support Jennie Baron’s argument in “Innu Support and the Myth of Wilderness” (2003). This argument of focus is that, contrary to western images of pristine wilderness as free from human interference, mankind is actually an integral part of a wilderness landscape. The examination of how we define “wilderness” and how we interact with such spaces is fundamental to students’ experiences throughout the semester, as it lays the groundwork for dismantling our own privileges and biases, and moves us towards a more inclusive environmentalism.

In class on Thursday, AP English students discussed what wilderness currently means to them. Many described it as a place where humans do not go. Others explained it as a place foreign to them, where they have no sense of place. However, as students discussed, these opinions overlook indigenous peoples who have long lived in these spaces. In fact, American National Parks, which our society often considers the most pristine wilderness areas in our country, are only free of humans because the government removed any Native American groups who had long called those lands home. Western environmentalism, in general, has a xenophobic history. Sarah Jaquette Ray (2009) explains:

“The modern environmental movement… gained support from… those who wanted to preserve the myth of American exceptionalism… and those who feared the loss of White, Protestant dominance and wanted to prepare Americans for the competition ahead… But the positive image of environmentalism as protecting nature for “resources” and “refuge” disguised its exclusions and reinforced social norms in ways that helped regenerate the declining power of the Anglo-Protestant elite… It justified the displacement of Native Americans, subsistence farmers, and squatters to “conserve” land for White men who came from politically powerful families. The wilderness cults of the Progressive Era promoted wilderness as essential to moral, racial, and national “purity,” a focus that reflected American culture’s obsession with ‘social hygiene’ in the late 19th century” (p. 258).

By questioning romantic ideals of what a wilderness “should” look like, we inherently challenge racism and classism. Then, it is possible to begin imagining what inclusive environmentalism can look like.

Establishing a sense of place is necessary to integrating humanity with nature. In his piece Rediscovery of North America, which AP English read in the first week of school, Barry Lopez (1991) suggests that in order to truly appreciate and respect the environment, we must view land as our companion, as part of our community. Natural landscapes, therefore, are part of us, and we are part of it. If we view nature in this way, mankind integrating with wilderness areas becomes a less terrifying idea. Alzar is largely founded in an inclusive environmentalism: three of Alzar’s six foundations are Outdoor Adventure, Environmental Stewardship, and Cultural Exchange. A thorough consideration of these foundations encourages students to transcend western biases, champion a more inclusive environmentalism, and find a sense of place within natural landscapes.
When we go down to Chile, we will experience a wide range of wilderness. We will backpack through pristine mountainous landscapes in Patagonia National Park, and we will camp on trampled pasture land full of ranchers and cattle. Likewise, here in Idaho, there are protected national forests and canyonlands, as well as vast grassy fields dotted with old barns and cabins. Not one of these lands is any more or less valuable than the next. Each natural space, no matter its condition or its interaction with humans, serves a purpose, whether it be for recreation or for local livelihood. Environmental stewardship means seeing the sacred value of not only empty wilderness frontiers, but also of what Baron describes as “those local, less pristine, less sublime places that make up most of the natural world” (6).

By investigating their own beliefs of what wilderness is and is not, students will examine their western biases of land access and land management. They can also begin to see nature as an integral part of themselves, and themselves as a part of nature. They will begin to seek the wilderness within, and find their true selves in the context of the great outdoors.

Baron, J. (2003) Innu Support and the Myth of Wilderness. NOLS 2013 Diversity Briefing Guide.
Lopez, B. (1991) Rediscovery of North America. Orion Summer. 1992.
Ray, S. J. (2009). Risking Bodies in the Wild: The “Corporeal Unconscious” of American Adventure Culture. Journal of Sport& Social Issues: 33 (3) doi: 10.1177/0193723509338863

– Megan MacKenzie