Article Review: William Cronon, The Trouble With Wilderness, And American Exceptionalism

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William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” originally published in Environmental History 1 (1996): 7-28.

The past fifteen years of North American environmental history has been permanently marked by the emergence, in 1995, of the controversial wilderness thesis of William Cronon: wilderness is “quite profoundly a human creation — indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures” (7). Rather than a “pristine sanctuary,” then, wilderness is in fact a “product of… civilization.” The argument is at least in part a valid and important one, albeit unsettling to many readers.

One can approach this challenge to the wilderness ideal — examining the concrete ways in which humans have managed and altered seemingly “untouched” wilderness areas, especially in our national parks; or, alternatively, examining the ways in which the idea of wilderness has developed and changed over time. In this groundbreaking article, Cronon attempts to do both, but is clearly interested more in the second.

Two ideas have combined to form the contemporary notion of “wilderness” as an untouched, natural haven which (despite this pristine-ness) small numbers of humans may enter in search of aesthetic enjoyment or spiritual rejuvenation. The first and older thread originates in the European romantic notion of the natural “sublime”: the awesome and terrible greatness of the wilds imagined by literary figures such as William Wordsworth in England and Henry David Thoreau in America. During the age of the parks themselves, beginning in the late nineteenth century, this position was still held by noted environmental activist John Muir.

According to this view, the sublime is more than simply an area in which humans can venture but do not live: the sublime is a place where one encounters the divine. Most preservationists could be described as deistic rather than Christian in the traditional sense (or, for that matter, adhering to any other traditional religion in such a sense), but nonetheless insisted that God could be found in the self-imposed isolation of the wilderness traveller on the mountaintop, in the alpine meadows, and before the great waterfalls of the Rockies.

Over the sublime is layered the peculiarly American imagery of the frontier. Symbolized by Frederick Jackson Turner’s landmark (if enormously flawed) 1890s essay on the closing of the frontier, American culture of the late nineteenth century forward imagined that the sparsely populated, rugged, masculine frontier had been the origins of republican democracy and American national character. If the frontier was dying — choked to death by the sprouting of settlements in previously “barren” lands — then the wellspring of American identity might die with it. National parks, therefore, were a means of protecting the history-myth of American culture.

Of course, national parks were at best a flawed vehicle for preserving this myth, Cronon admits. For one thing, national parks were generally already inhabited — if not by white people, than by Native American populations which had been living there for thousands of years, and altering the landscape around them the entire time. A key part of the construction of national parks, he suggests, was the process of removing the “Indian” from the land, and then collectively forgetting it had ever been there. (This argument parallels a book published shortly thereafter by Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness.)

Environmentalists tended to react to Cronon’s thesis with considerable alarm, accusing him of selling out to development interests and lending intellectual support to the corporate project of taking over the nation’s wilderness. To an extent Cronon’s argument may be led in that direction, but the author himself does not seem to have felt his work to be an attack on nature or on environmental protection. Instead, Cronon argued (17-18), preservationists needed to rethink their models of what deserved to be protected and why, recognizing that there are few if any truly “untouched” natural areas left and that, in any case, entering them as tourists would by definition make them touched by human activity.

The point is well taken in a presentist context, but the historical value of the Cronon’s thesis can be challenged to an extent, ironically, by returning to the matter of “wilderness” itself. Beyond citing several literary discussions of nature, Cronon is vague on what “wilderness” really means or how that definition may have changed. The assumptions that wilderness must be uninhabited and entirely untouched, for example, likely reflect our present-day values more than the values of those who actually built the national parks in the first place, most of whom saw no contradiction at all between drawing protective boundaries around impressive scenery and then attracting tourists to enjoy that scenery. Moreover, as Ted Binnema and Melanie Niemi have shown in the Canadian context, Native peoples certainly were removed from national parks, but not usually as part of a scheme to render the land seemingly empty; instead, they were generally relocated in the face of complaints from sportsmen who wanted to monopolize access to game.

Despite these potential shortcomings, Cronon’s reinterpretation of wilderness marked a new phase in the environmental history of national parks and “wild” areas, just as had the first critical turn of the 1970s, led by Alfred Runte in the United States (the worthless lands thesis) and Robert Craig Brown in Canada (the doctrine of usefulness theory). In the same way as Runte’s work, his own is touched by an ironic degree of American exceptionalism — frontiers of various sorts existed in many countries, not just America, and national parks developed in these countries too, but both phenomena proceeded at least in part without simply taking their lead from America’s own. Nevertheless, as the prompt publication of an edited volume on this subject (edited by Cronon) indicated, the idea has had considerable impact on recent work in environmental history.

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