The Idea of the Wilderness

Can there be such a thing as an urban shaman, or is that a contradiction in terms? To think about that question is to think about our idea of the wilderness.

The wilderness has been an integral part of the American vision almost from the moment that Europeans stumbled across a huge land whose existence they had never even suspected. The idea of wilderness is now the subject of a deeply political debate couched in postmodernist intellectual terms. Is there really such a thing as wilderness at all, or is wilderness merely a social and historically determined construct – and one that is racist and classist to boot? Is the idea of wilderness a modern idea — even more, a modern American idea — without application to traditional indigenous peoples? What value is there in the wilderness?

It is clear to me, anyway, that the value of wilderness is profoundly spiritual, and that what we call shamanism has deep roots in the wilderness, from which it must continue to draw its sustenance. Many of the books below were instrumental in forming that point of view. Many of my copies are bent and stained from being crammed into my backpack, and I present them here unapologetically for your consideration.

  • Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. Well, the crusty old curmudgeon Edward Abbey is dead, and we won't be hearing a voice like his for a long time. When he was young, he worked as a park ranger for three seasons in the Utah desert, living in a beat-up trailer, hanging out with uranium miners in Moab bars, and journeying into the desert in pursuit of his own soul. These essays are typical Abbey – raucous, outrageous, personal, passionate, and fascinating. The desert he loved is largely gone now, despite Abbey's own lifelong rant against the commercialization of the American wilderness. Abbey went on to write other books, most notably the notorious Monkey Wrench Gang, but this early work is perhaps the best introduction to the man, who throughout his life stood as a uniquely independent advocate for the stark landscapes of the red-rock West.

  • Mary Austin, Land of Little Rain. First published in 1903, these poetic studies of the Southwestern desert set terms to our understanding of wilderness that remain important today. Austin describes the desert plants, animals, mountains, birds, skies, Indians, prospectors, and towns, not as a traveler but as a participant. "To understand the fashion of any life," she writes, "one must know the land it is lived in and the procession of the year." One of the earliest American writers to celebrate the harshness and austerity of the desert and its life, Austin is a predecessor to such crusty individualists as Edward Abbey. Throughout, she focuses on how creatures adapt to the desert environment and to each other — including humans, who, like herself, find in adapting to the arid and demanding desert a release of their own soul.

  • J. Baird Callicott, The Great New Wilderness Debate. As all the books in this list attest, the idea of wilderness has been central in shaping not only environmental debates but also the American identity. Recently, the concept has been challenged from several fronts – by postmodernists, who insist that there is no such thing as wilderness, but only a contingent and mutable social construct; and by postcolonialists, who claim that the idea of wilderness is dualistic, ethnocentric, and racist. This book is an excellent collection of writings that both put the debate in context and move it forward. The book starts with the now traditional notion of wilderness – writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Teddy Roosevelt, Sigurd Olsen, setting forth the idea of wilderness as the site of spirituality and redemption. Then J. Baird Callicott, William Cronon, and other postmodern and postcolonial scholars attack this notion as romantic, colonialist, exploitative, and antihumanist; and they in turn are rebutted by Reed Noss, Dave Foreman, and others. Along the way, there are thoughtful essays by such writers as Jack Turner and Gary Snyder. These are all important ideas, significant to all of us who are trying to think through the role and value of wilderness in America and in our own lives.

  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The interconnected essays in this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection are far from celebrating a nurturing and comfortable wilderness; they are grittily consistent in exploring both the beauty and savagery of nature. Dillard is no romantic. She writes, for example, ”Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn't it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital.” But there is still a spirit at work in nature, where a cedar tree becomes ”the tree with the lights in it.” Bring this book into the wilderness with you; you will not see things the same way again.

  • Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac. First published in 1949, this book ranks with Walden as one of the seminal books on the relationship of man and nature in America, and is the ancestor of such diverse work as Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire. One part of the book simply describes, from January to December, the monthly changes of the Wisconsin countryside; another collects pieces written by Leopold over a forty-year period as he traveled through the woodlands of the American west; and a final section addresses the philosophical issues involved in wildlife conservation. Throughout the book are Leopold's trenchant comments on our abuse of the land and on what we must do – and how we must change — in order to save it. This is a classic work on our relationship to the land — sensible, ethical, observant, and profound.

  • Barry Lopez, Crossing Open Ground. Barry Lopez is one of our best contemporary nature writers, whose book Arctic Dreams won the 1986 American Book Award for nonfiction. His style is conversational, talking about Aztec aviaries, beached whales in Oregon, the killing of animals in order to study them. He is not programmatic; rather, each essay encourages, in its understated, thoughtful way, a view of nature less as an ecological and more as a spiritual system. Lopez does not rant; he tells stories. He is someone you would want to share a campfire with.

  • John Muir, Nature Writings. John Muir holds a unique place in the history of the American west. He was an explorer, writer, passionate political activist, and eloquent spokesman for the mystery and power of the wilderness. It is largely because of Muir that we have preserved for us today some of our most beautiful wilderness areas. He was one of the first of a long line of American nature writers, and still among the best, with a unique ability to evoke the landscape of Alaska and the American west. This book collects Muir's most important works in a single volume. My First Summer in the Sierra, written in 1911, describes his spiritual awakening in the Sierra region in 1869, when he first encountered the mountains and valleys of central California. The Mountains of California, written in 1894, is a celebration of the high Sierra country, considered a classic evocation of the region's lakes, forests, flowers, and animals. The essays highlight various aspects of his career — his exploration of what became Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks and the Grand Canyon, his successful crusades to preserve the wilderness, his early walking tour to Florida, and his Alaska journey of 1879.

  • Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind. First published in 1967, this is a classic study of America’s changing attitudes toward wilderness, tracing the development of preservationist and environmentalist thought. The book is important as much for its influence as for its content: the Los Angeles Times listed it among the one hundred most influential books published in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Outside Magazine included it in a survey of “books that changed our world,” and it has been credited as being instrumental in the passing of the Wilderness Act by Congress. This is the fourth edition of this highly regarded work, with a new preface and epilogue in which Nash explores the future of wilderness and reflects on its ethical relevance.

  • Max Oelschlager, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. The concept of wilderness clearly has changed over time and from culture to culture. This wide-ranging work of intellectual history examines the environmental consequences of those varying conceptions. More than a history of ecological ideas, the book argues for a new relationship to the wilderness; it seeks ”to reverse America's historical process, to urge the wilderness to grow back into civilization, to release the stored energy from layers below us.” The question the book addresses is not only the idea of the wilderness; it is the purpose of civilization.

  • Gary Snyder, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds: New and Selected Prose. This is a collection of twenty-nine essays written by poet Gary Snyder over the past forty years, with thirteen of them written since 1990, the date Snyder published his previous book of essays, The Practice of the Wild, discussed below. The focus here is on bioregionalism – an ecologically based politics in which places like Arizona, California, and Wyoming would give way to Sonoran, Sierran, and Wind River ecosystems governed by freeholders on the land. Fundamental to this vision, whatever you may think of it politically, is an experience common to those who spend time in the wilderness – a profound sense of place. Snyder is a poet, a Buddhist, a scholar of Chinese, a student of Native American myth and story, and, above all, a lover of the wilderness with what one reviewer has called a playful and subtle intellect. Like his poetry, his prose style is direct; reading his essays is like having a conversation with a thoughtful friend who has lived a varied and interesting life. My copy is bent and water-stained from being carried in my backpack.

  • Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild. Snyder – friend of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Buddhist, translator of Chinese, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet – offers nine thoughtful essays that blend his personal Buddhist beliefs, respect for wildlife and the land, and fascination with language and mythic tradition into a ”meditation on what it means to be human.” Once again, all the essays center on the question of place – how we might begin to live in a ”culture of wilderness,” at home in the American landscape, ”actually living here intellectually, imaginatively, morally.” Snyder's hope is that someday we might all be native Americans, at home in our grand place. The essays range from language to mythology and from politics to school curricula. Yet the essays never preach; Snyder's tone is always conversational and direct. As in his other book of essays, A Place in Space, discussed above, reading the book is like talking to an interesting friend.

  • Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod. Any understanding of the American wilderness begins with Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau wrote four full-length works, collected here for the first time in a single volume. He was literate, educated, upper class, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson; and it is easy to forget how much he was, in any sense of the word, a woodsman – physically strong, intimately familiar with the plants and animals, competent in the wilderness. His friend and mentor Emerson said he had an ”oaken strength.” In 1845 Thoreau leased some land owned by Emerson on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, and lived in a cabin on it for two years, two months, and two days. The experience gave Thoreau the chance to make keen observations on the world around him, and to write Walden, a truly American classic. The book combines natural observation, personal experience, and historical lore; it is about Thoreau himself, about the human relationship with nature, and about what it means to be a free and self-reliant person in a civilized world. The Maine Woods and Cape Cod portray landscapes changing irreversibly even as he wrote. Maine was then a wilderness still largely unexplored by Europeans; Cape Cod was a barren peninsula. His accounts combine close observation, prescient pleas for conservation, and meditations on survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay.

  • Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild. Jack Turner is a passionate, outspoken contrarian on wilderness issues. He dislikes natural resource managers, conservation biologists, environmental economists, park rangers, zoo directors, and environmental activists. Any kind of land management, he says, even the most benign preservation, robs the wilderness of any claim to being wild, and robs those who go there of their chance to experience the spirituality of truly wild places. In other words, the wilderness is being destroyed by the very systems designed to preserve it, which succeed only in turning Yellowstone National Park into a Disneyland with trees. Instead of preservation, he argues for just leaving things alone. Turner is a former academic who is now a mountain guide in the Tetons; he rants against mediated, managed, abstract wilderness, and in favor of connection to the real thing. This is a biting and provocative book, whose value is enhanced by the fact that Turner is largely right.

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