The Myth of Wilderness

Graphic by Zoë Carr/Graphics center

What do you think of when you think of the word “nature?” How about “wilderness?” While in American culture, many people use wilderness and nature interchangeably, I argue that they are two separate concepts. Wilderness is a human-created concept based on the exploitation of Indigenous peoples and their land, while nature can act as a form of resistance against this. Nature can be anything you want it to be and is more than anything about the way that you interact with the world around you. 

According to the New York Times, the concept of “wilderness,” for many, brings to mind a utopia untouched by modern society characterized by wide-open canyons, savage animals, rugged-individualism and most notably the absence of other people. According to the same article, many Americans see national parks as the last remaining wilderness in the United States. 

A common belief is that one must get out into the “wilderness” in order to find their “true self,” which has created associations of high morality with those who spend time in wilderness, and can intimidate those who have little outdoor experience. This has been capitalized on by advertisers and travel agencies selling wilderness as an aesthetic through the vehicle of a $200 Cotopaxi backpacks or a white water rafting excursion. In my own life, friends continually re-tell their stories from hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, increasing the mileage with each narrative. 

These ideas perpetuate a misconception about how we need to “get out” into nature and can undermine the importance of the nature in our city that we coexist with every day.

Wilderness is often presented as more “pure” than other areas, but the truth is that wilderness is a myth. Wilderness is not natural at all, but a product of the human mind and the hierarchies that it creates. 

Indigenous peoples have long inhabited and stewarded these lands considered wild. They hold deep spiritual and cultural connections to the land. Many of the areas we think of as “wild” are actually the carefully cultivated product of centuries of work. For example, California’s Redwood forests thrive in an interactive relationship with their indigenous residents, who practice “prescribed burns.” Also called “controlled burns,” this is the practice of intentionally setting fires to prevent and mitigate larger disasters. According to National Geographic, controlled burns not only help prevent wildfires through ridding the forest of dead leaves and logs that can act as kindling for wildfires, but can also promote growth of young trees as space is opened up, letting more light into the understory. Historically, the National Parks Service has had strict anti-fire policies based on the idea of conservation, which actually decreased forest health. 

Like many other American institutions, wilderness is extremely reductive to Indigenous peoples experiences and perpetuates a separation between humans and the natural world — a practice which is antithetical to the cultural beliefs of many indigenous groups. 

Post-colonization and the “closing of the frontier” in 1890, the President Woodrow Wilson instituted a National Parks system in 1916 , with the intention of preserving “untouched wilderness.” 

Presenting wildlife preserves as “natural” is simply a facade, as these lands and their Indigenous people’s had to experience genocide and violent removal before they were able to be called Yosemite or Yellowstone. 

I will not argue wilderness enthusiasts’ point that spending time outdoors, in places such as pristine national parks, is life-enhancing. But, focusing on the myth that wilderness is the only vehicle for connection with the natural world further perpetuates the separation between humans and nature. 

Enjoying nature does not have to mean traveling to far-away places which require resources and training to enjoy safely, but is more about cultivating a mutually beneficial relationship with the natural world around you. It is important to make an effort to disconnect the concepts of nature and wilderness in your mind. Nature, and how you interact with it, can be anything you want it to be.

While I will continue to visit national parks and appreciate their educational capacities and stunning biodiversity, spending time in nature can also mean sitting in the sun on your roof, taking a walk through your local park or sitting outside to eat lunch. 

More than anything, spending time with nature means slowing down and being intentional about your own nature — how you function in relationship to your surroundings. Your connection to your surroundings can be extrapolated to all of the natural world, even the rainforests and jungles from which we may be more physically removed. I want to emphasize the importance of caring for and respecting nature in our everyday lives. This can be as simple as keeping the streets of our city litter-free, or reducing your personal plastic and petroleum consumption.

This Earth Month I invite you to commune with the world beyond you in whatever way makes you feel present, while keeping in mind your connection to the world around you and how you can keep your relationship with nature reciprocal. I encourage you to treat the nature in our city with the same reverence and excitement that is given to national parks, and spend some time in San Francisco’s greenspaces this Earth Month! 

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