When you think of “wilderness” you probably think of something like the Grand Canyon. It’s somewhere you go to marvel at nature and to have fun. But to early western settlers, places like the Grand Canyon and the surrounding desert were unforgiving and even terrifying.
How could that be? How could a terrifying landscape become a natural jewel? As Roderick Frazier Nash suggests in Wilderness and the American Mind, it’s all about context.
Today’s Grand Canyon is wild, but it’s still surrounded by campgrounds, roads, and cities, and the comforts of modern society. It’s part of wild nature, but it is less wild than the Grand Canyon of 200 years ago. Back then, wilderness was something that had to be conquered, and now it’s become something to be protected. Nash’s point is that the ways we think of wilderness – terrifying or beautiful, conquer or protect – are products of our culture. But they also effect how we run our society.
Consider the animals in Alaska’s national parks. Tourists think of them as part of a pristine environment and want to protect them with hunting regulations. But, to Native Alaskans, some of those animals are an essential part of their subsistence, and regulating hunting means interrupting very old way of life.
Or think of Alaskan oil pipelines. Companies want to build oil infrastructure while preservationists argue that would scar the landscape.
Who’s right? To decide, we have to think about those ideas of wilderness and where they came from.