A SECOND LOOK AT WILDERNESS: A SUMMARY OF WILLIAM CRONON’S “THE TROUBLE WITH WILDERNESS; OR, GETTING BACK TO THE WRONG NATURE”
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In the past several decades, wilderness has been illustrated as the sole standing retreat for civilization to escape to when our world becomes overwhelming. In William Cronon’s The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to The Wrong Nature, he preaches how over time our definition of wilderness has completely changed. Today, we define the concept of the wild as natural areas as perhaps a cottage, resort, or national park. In his article, Cronon deems that our society has the wrong perception of wilderness by reminding us of how historically this wasn’t the case. He believes that there is nothing natural about how we view wilderness, as our interpretations towards it have changed from savage life to a safe retreat. Our society is certain need to protect our land from human activity. However, Cronon’s proposition is that the only way we can preserve nature from human activity would be to all commit suicide.
The following short analysis examines Cronon’s ideology towards wilderness. Going back 250 years ago in American as well as European history, people were never found wandering in remote areas. People focused their lives around biblical views in which the wild was a savage and deserted area. “The wilderness,” Cronon explains, “was where Christ had struggled with the devil and endured his temptations.” In other words, the wild was where someone went against their will and in fear. Fast forwarding to the nineteenth century, everything had changed. In 1869, John Muir described his view of Sierra Nevada by saying, “No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine”. America then began to be explored and by 1872 Yellowstone became the first national park with many following. To think, only fifty years prior, nature preservation was completely unheard of.
William Cronan classifies two sources as the sublime and the frontier. The sublime is more culturally orientated as it is older, as it is expresses what we define today as romanticism. The frontier is purely new and American with European similarities. Both sources together construct the view of wilderness as its own image with moral values and cultural symbols that we still use today. When comparing our environmental views to our historical views he writes, “Indeed, it is not too much to say that modern environmental movement is itself a grandchild of romanticism and post-frontier ideology, which is why it is no accident that so much environmentalist discourse takes its bearings from the wilderness these intellectual movements helped create.”
In other words, environmentalism is the product of our history of exploring American land. Cronon creates a strong argument that has the ability to change how one may view our wilderness. His stimulating reference to our history is a direct reflection of how we tend to believe what society considers a norm. Our generation is clueless of how our ancestors lived and what their beliefs were unless we are fortunate enough to be educated. Therefore, the majority are only following what they know best, our norms. Cronon addresses society’s belief that to preserve nature means no human activity by using the paradox, “If nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves.” One may believe that this is a very dramatic judgement and very extreme.
To conclude, Conan places emphasis that wilderness can ultimately be found anywhere if we pay attention. He says we need to learn to honour the wild and question our use by asking ourselves if we can reuse and sustain without diminishing in the process. He believes that nature will always be present as it has been and that society just needs to take a second look at our history. That wilderness is not some natural place for the wealthy to escape to, and rather a place of our history that we should embrace. Therefore, wilderness will never be natural unless we return to historical life.
Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In Uncommon Ground, 69-90. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995.