Thursday, April 21, 2011

The roots of the problem of nature in America

The American idea of wilderness as untrammeled nature is threatened by the shadow of the city as urbanization sprawls across the land. This cultural construction relies on the belief that there was untrammeled nature before Europeans arrived in America.[1]  Despite the debunking of the myth of Pre-Columbian wilderness,[2] the belief persists that there once was an American Eden that was undone by the arrival of Europeans.[3]  This concept of wilderness as a Lost Eden sets up a misanthropic exclusion of humans from nature which relies on the persistent root idea of the natural as the antithesis of the cultural.[4]  
However, as Thoreau formulated our dilemma, Americans look toward this mythic wilderness as our “West and our Wild”, and our paradoxical quest is both to tame the wild and preserve it, “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world.  Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild.  The cities import it at any price.”[1]  We look out from our American cities with longing for that pristine natural world and import vestiges of the wilderness as “nature preserves” and persist in misreading Thoreau’s words so that wildness is equated with wilderness.  In Cronon’s 1995 essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” he argues that Americans need to reassess the role of the foundational myth of wilderness as the standard of nature in America and abandon the polarizing dualism between wilderness as natural and all else as artificial.  Instead, Cronon argued that “we need to embrace the full continuum of a natural landscape that is also cultural, in which the city, the suburb, the pastoral, and the wild each has its proper place, which we permit ourselves to celebrate without needlessly denigrating the others.”[2]

[1] Thoreau, “Walking,” in Glick (1993) p. 348.
[2] Cronon (1996), pp 88-89.

[1] Oeschlaeger (1991)
[2] Deneven (1992) The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492
[3] Merchant (2003) p. 3.
[4] Williams (1980)

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