America’s Love-Hate Relationship to Wilderness
In 2002, PBS produced a six-part reality show called Frontier House, in which 3 families are whisked back to 1883 Montana to live like the original American homesteaders. As a viewer, I wanted to know — could contemporary Americans hack it? Were we as determined and hardworking as our predecessors? Clearly, the answer was NO. One reviewer on IMDB wrote: “even from my living room couch, the challenges faced by these families seem insurmountable… We’ve all dreamed of ‘simpler’ times without the hustle and bustle of modern life, but our idea of a simpler world usually has a refrigerator in it, somewhere.” It seems that western ambivalence about wilderness is still going strong.
On one hand, humans — like all living organisms — rightfully seek habitats that best support our survival. But on the other, our predilection for immediate comfort seems to outweigh our desire to protect and sustain those habitats for the long term benefit of our species. Rather than working with the natural environment to develop reciprocally beneficial ecosystems, our shortsighted urge to live the “easy life,” combined with our technical creativity, led to an ongoing ethos of “destroy and conquer.” Why wait for comfort later when you can have it now? Early European-American environmental writers — naturalist William Bartram (1739–1823) and farmer Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813) — appear to be keenly aware of this contradiction.
Published in 1791, Bartram's Travels offers intricate descriptions of his solo scientific expeditions and wilderness expeditions. One story recounts a harrowing encounter with a hungry congregation of alligators just as he was settling into camp for the evening. Immediately, he recognizes his physical inferiority to these intimidating reptiles. He repeatedly describes their vocalizations as “roaring,” and their movements as oscillating between sneaky: “the head in the waters resembles… a great chunk of wood floating about” (74), violent: “two very large ones attacked me closely, … rushing up with their heads and part of their bodies above the water, roaring terribly and belching floods of water over me” (69), and indiscriminate: “the old feed on the young as long as they can make prey of them” (74). In these waters, the alligator is king of the jungle — “absolute sovereign” (75). Having interrupted the animals' feeding time, Bartram knows they are already primed to attack their prey, and he’s fully aware that they see him as such. Rather than waiting — allowing them to fish and hunt unmolested — he consciously chooses to provoke, entering their domain to fish for himself. Is it any surprise then, that he’s attacked? His anthropocentrism is further revealed when, after having antagonized them, he shoots one in the head, killing it on the spot (70). For Bartram, reverence for nature only extends to a point; his own urge for immediate satisfaction ultimately triumphs. While Bartram expertly illustrates the alligators’ ferocity, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge his own.
By contrast, Crèvecoeur is fully aware of his own hypocrisy. His 1782 letter entitled On the Situation, Feelings, and Pleasures of an American Farmer states, “Man is a huge monster who devours everything and will suffer nothing to live in peace in his neighborhood,” (62). His intricate descriptions of all the nearby animals and their interactions seem to humanize them: a cock… “endowed with thoughts, with memory, and every distinguishing characteristic of the reason of man” (54), the bees fly in a military formation (p.55), quail’s “passions… are exactly the same as among men” (56), and squirrels, “Like man… know the approach of the winter and wisely know how to prepare” (63). He goes on to describe the ways in which the animals’ needs often mirror his own; everyone is simply trying to survive. He also observes that by changing some of his farming methods or adjusting when or where certain tasks are done, he could easily support the survival of all. Instead, he often chooses a more destructive course of action, going so far as to eradicate blackbirds by poisoning the corn seeds themselves! (I wonder, were these the first GMO’s?) Here, like Bartram, Crèvecoeur highlights the tensions between western culture’s propensity for cruelty, violence and domination and our human desire for harmony, reciprocity, and sustainability.
Despite their apparent duplicity, theorist Michael Branch argues that Bartram, Crèvecoeur, and others were instrumental to the emergence of a new environmentally conscious mindset in America. These writers were up against a centuries-long ideology that pitted the pastoral against wildernesses — a classic good versus evil narrative that’s often irresistible.
During the early days of colonization, Europeans imagined the New World to be the abundant, provincial paradise that they believed God had promised. But, when immigrants came ashore, they were met with a different reality. Myriad complaints were registered as new arrivals came to terms with the wildernesses they encountered. Historian Roderick Nash explains that since the Middle Ages, western culture had become saturated with mythic stories and religious belief systems that encouraged people to view wild places as enemies that needed eradication, not preservation. Common accounts included descriptions like “grotesque limbs,” “screaming wind,” “cursed land,” and “hideous and desolate wilderness.” Furthermore, should a person find beauty, wonder, or God’s presence in natural environments, they could be punished through forced exile or religious excommunication (Nash, 18–20). Bartram and Crèvecoeur were up against centuries of cultural indoctrination.
Western society’s overarching assumption that the wilderness should be conquered is still prevalent today. The U.S. government recognizes the areas where human development encroaches on natural environments as the “wildland urban interface (WUI),” and studies the impacts of each on the other. There are numerous instances across the western U.S. in which we could choose to live in concert with nature, but instead make matters worse through our own arrogance. Despite arguing in 2018 that grizzly bears should be removed from the Endangered Species list (fearing the species' recovery might negatively affect her sheep herd), Thoman Ranches continued to thrive. In 2020, they were working to expand their operation. Environmental groups bought and preserved land between the National Forest and Thoman's property, providing a physical buffer that kept the bears away (Molvar). Foresight and simple strategic adjustments to our interactions with nature can facilitate positive outcomes for all,
Instead, we habitually decline to examine all the possible ways we might cooperate with nature to provide mutual benefit. Wildfire management teams across the western U.S. have to contend with residents who continually push development further into wild places, thus putting both human development and natural areas at risk. When fires are allowed to burn naturally, the risk of “catastrophic” damage and loss of life is greatly reduced. But we don’t want to see charred earth on our recreational outings, smell the smoke, or adjust our behaviors. So we've suppressed nearly all wildfires for more than 100 years, creating conditions that make the WUI more vulnerable to extreme conflagrations. In 2020, California’s Bay Area was confronted with two of the state's largest wildfires on record. More than 1,000 homes and other structures were destroyed (Graff). Americans have staked our national identity on the uniqueness of its natural environments (Branch), but we haven’t yet come to terms with the cultural belief systems that place people’s immediate desires over all else.
Bartram, William. Excerpts from Travels Throught North and South Carolina, Georgia... The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Edited by Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 64-75.
Branch, Michael. "Indexing American Possibilities." The Ecocriticism Reader. Edited Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: U Georgia Press, 1996. 282-302.
Crevecouer, Hector St. John de. Excerpts from Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eigteenth-Century America. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Edited by Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 51-64.
Frontier House. Directed by Nicolas Brown and Maro Chermayeff, PBS, 2002.
Graff, Amy. "Santa Cruz County posts 'damage map' with homes destroyed in CZU Complex, San Francisco Gate, 25 Aug 2020, https://www.sfgate.com/california-wildfires/article/CZU-Complex-wildfire-damage-map-home-addresses-15514893.php#taboola-2. Accessed 21 Jan 2022.
Molvar, Erik. "It's always the ranchers," The Wildlife News, 16 July 2020, https://www.thewildlifenews.com/2020/07/16/its-always-the-ranchers. Accessed 21 Jan 2022.
Nash, Roderick. "Old World Roots of Opinion," "A Wilderness Condition," and "The Romantic Wilderness." Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale U Press, 1967. 8-66.