The Myth of Wilderness

In society today we place a high value on the concept of wilderness.  A wilderness is a region of the landscape that we perceive as pure, pristine, and untouched by human influence.  We like the idea of the wilderness.  We like the idea that, even as our cities grow larger, there is still a part of the world that remains wild, separate from the worries of our everyday lives.  But, like it or not, there is no true wilderness left anywhere on the planet.  And maintaining this ideal of wilderness in our interactions with nature only serves to further disconnect us from it.

Once upon the time, everything in the world was wild.  Humans were wild too.  We didn’t perceive any separation between ourselves and the plants, animals, and other beings who provided us with food, clothing, fuel, inspiration, and so much more.  But, somehow, things changed.  The development of written alphabets, the spread of agriculture, trends in religion and philosophy, the rise of the scientific method, urbanization, the increase in technologies that isolated humans from the non-human world – all of these (and likely more) have served to increasingly separate us from the rest of nature.

Although there are increasing numbers of people today who are urging a change in the ways in which we interact with the rest of nature, the idea that human and nature are separate often remains.  We define nature as that which is not human.  We talk about “going back to the land” and forget that we are, in this moment, an intimate part of the land and always have been, even if we are sitting twenty storeys up in a skyscraper in the middle of the city.  Nature is perceived to be something that is “out there”, out in the wilderness.

But there is no wilderness.  There is no pristine, pure, untouched region anywhere on the Earth.  We have polluted the oceans.  We have changed the composition of the atmosphere. Our actions have caused species to become extinct.  We have created changes that have affected not just ecosystems or regions, but the entire planet, and there is no region that is untouched by human influence, even if it is a region that no human has actually set foot in.

Furthermore, many of the regions that we have been accustomed to thinking of as “wilderness” perhaps may never have been.  For example, in my province, many ecologists and ordinary people are concerned about the loss of the grasslands.  The extent of grasslands has always been limited here, and because most of them are in warm, sunny climates where people like to live, many grasslands have been reduced in extent even more by increased human settlement.  Humans have also changed the ecology of the region by reducing the number of forest fires, because such forest fires can threaten human-built structures.  This is, on the surface, a classic example of human versus nature, of humans encroaching on a wild piece of natural diversity and being in conflict with it.  However, before Europeans arrived, the native peoples of the region actually used fire as a tool to improve habitat for the animals they hunted and to reduce the amount of fuel available.  These periodic, low-intensity fires weeded out tree seedlings that were beginning to grow, and likely helped maintain the extent of the grassland environment.  Therefore, the idea that the grasslands were previously a “wilderness”, free of human influence, is wrong.  Rather, humans have lived with the grasslands for centuries, working to maintain a desirable habitat for both humans and other species, and it is only the changing relationship of humans to the land in recent years that has caused problems.

I think it is likely that many ecosystems could tell a similar story.  Many regions that we have commonly thought of as untouched wilderness have likely been influenced by humans in numerous ways over the centuries.  Why, then, do we maintain the myth of wilderness?

myth is a story or an idea that embodies some truth about humans and their relationship to the rest of the world.  It may not be factually true, but it serves some purpose in the culture to which it belongs.  In our culture today, the myth of wilderness serves to promote the idea of the separation of human and nature.  When we name a piece of the landscape “wilderness” we are saying that this is not human.  This is nature, this is the wild.  This is not tame, not cultivated.  This is other.  We create the idea that to find and connect with nature we have go “out there”, “back to the land”, out to the wilderness.  We begin to forget that nature is a part of everything around us: in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the materials out of which our homes are made, and in our own bodies.

The myth of wilderness may have been a useful myth way back when humans were few and we were struggling to carve out a living in a world full of things that were ready to eat us.  But it is no longer a useful myth.  Today, we need a new mythology.  Whether we recognize it or not, we are a part of nature.  We are intimately dependent on the earth for our existence, despite all of our technologies. No matter how we try to conserve and preserve the remnants of “untouched wilderness” that survive, we must live, and we must use the products of the earth to live, eat, build our homes, create our artworks, and do everything else that humans have done for millennia.

Shall we put pieces of the environment into parks and preserves and continue to maintain the myth of wilderness, or shall we live in the earth as a whole, with no separation?  Letting go of the myth of wilderness means beginning to accept that there is no wilderness, that we cannot “go back” to a time when the land was pure and pristine, because there never was such a time.  It means learning how to live with the land and to work with the other beings in nature rather than against them.  It means extending our concept of community to include not only the human inhabitants of our cities and towns, but also all the other beings as well: plants, animals, fungi, rivers, mountains. . .

Once upon a time, everything in the world was wild and humans were wild too.  Now, it is time to begin remembering that this is still true.

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6 Responses to The Myth of Wilderness

  1. Nice article!
    I think that with more and more people moving into dense urban environments our inner-city wildernesses are becoming more and more important, yet there is a seeming inability to recognise the ‘wild’ in our urban environments that leads to even greater environmental damage than the creation of cities in the first place. Wild places are self-sufficient places: flexible but closed ecosystems (thinking of the natural resilience of grasslands with high biodiversity). There is a lot that we can learn from that in urban design!

    • Heather says:

      Thank you for your comment! I agree that many people tend to ignore the wild nature that is all around them, thinking that they need to go far from the city in order to truly experience nature. Even in the city, there is still nature to observe, from pigeons and other birds to the patterns of weather. One characteristic of ecosystems that I appreciate is that nothing is wasted. The death of one organism creates organic matter that is broken down by micro-organisms and feeds back into the system, eventually becoming part of other animals and plants. Far different from the production of waste by cities that just piles up in landfills.

  2. I agree we are a part of nature, part of the “wilderness” we mythologize. I think of it as we’re all living on the edge of the wild, interconnecting with it in our own back yards, as well as in remote regions we might visit, and even in the “wild” within us, that yearning for what’s pristine and untamed within us. Anyway, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this.

    • Heather says:

      Thanks for the comment, Deborah! I think that interconnection is what many people don’t recognize. If the “wild” is out there, then it is also within us, and perhaps one reason why we are often attracted to wilderness areas is because they remind us of the wildness within ourselves. I also think that by connecting with the nature that is all around us we in a way become more complete human beings.

  3. Felix says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I enjoyed reading this. You might be interested in William Cronon’s book “Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature”, which is deeper investigating the myth of wilderness and what it means for human society and its ecological environment. There is an excerpt on his website:

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