Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Essays

Preserving the Wilderness Idea

What we talk about when we talk about wilderness.

Brian Treanor

Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile; Michele Falzone/Alamy Stock Photos.

In 2018, Kristine McDivitt-Tompkins—an American expatriate living in Chile and the former CEO of high-end outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia—donated to the Chilean government one million acres of land held by Tompkins Conservation. Combined with nine million acres of existing federal land, the bequest led to the creation of five new national parks and the expansion of three others. Among the latter was the Pumalín Douglas Tompkins Park, named after McDivitt-Tompkins’s late husband. Doug Tompkins died in a 2015 kayaking accident after spending much of the previous two decades working to preserve wild Patagonian landscapes and ecosystems. The Tompkins Conservation bequest is the largest private offering of land ever made to a national government.11xChristina Slattery, “Now Is the Time to Visit Chile’s New National Parks,” Afar, May 1, 2019, https://www.afar.com/magazine/why-now-is-the-ideal-time-to-visit-protected-patagonia#:~:text=On%20April%2026%2C%202019%2C%20the,private%20land%20to%20the%20public.

Doug Tompkins had made his fortune as cofounder of both The North Face and the discount clothing brand Esprit before purchasing some forty thousand acres of land and embarking on semiretirement in Reñihué, Chile. This was not simply the story of another affluent American leveraging wealth to retire overseas. He had moved to Chile partly because of how decisively Patagonia had shaped him as a young man, when he and climbing gear entrepreneur Yvon Chouinard drove from California to southern Chile to make the third ascent of Fitz Roy, a 11,171-foot peak on the Chile-Argentina border. But Tompkins also returned because he had a vision: to protect and even add to the wildness of this pristine land.

Tompkins’s vision was informed by his readings in the philosophy of Deep Ecology, a philosophical and spiritual movement that claims moral and legal rights for the natural world,as well as by the American experience of wilderness preservation, including the creation of the National Park System.22xAndrew Brennan and Norva Y.S. Lo, “Environmental Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 3, 2021, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-environmental/#DeeEco. Tompkins took the latter as a model and promoted it with an evangelical zeal that initially bewildered and put off some Chileans. Two wealthy foreigners—norteamericanos, no less—moving in and buying up so much land was bound to raise eyebrows. The Tompkins’ stated intention, to keep that land as a nature preserve, preventing development or the extraction of natural resources, raised alarm in some quarters. Even Doug Tompkins’s supporters acknowledged that he could be arrogant and brusque. His detractors said that his wielding of money and power to impose US-style preservation on a foreign land reeked of colonialism. The White Man’s Burden: an old story for a new century.

Origins of the Idea

Many of us grew up with a certain idea of wilderness, which, if not uniquely American (its analogs can be found in other cultures), is at least distinctively American. Rooted in the thinking of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and David Brower, this idea influences people who love wild places as well as those who consciously avoid them. It shapes the rhetoric of the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Wildlands Network, and many other environmental groups. Advertisers use it to sell products ranging from puffy jackets and hiking boots to home decor and SUVs, the vast majority of which will never leave the pavement of the heavily developed urban landscape.

From this perspective—a legacy bequeathed to every American, whether wanted or not—nature is the opposite of human culture; it is the world “untouched” by humans. And that is true whether you want to plunder nature for natural resources you intend to convert to human uses or you go to nature for spiritual renewal because it is not contaminated by the pollution of civilization: overcrowded cities, trash, foul odors, noise pollution, light pollution. Wilderness, in turn, is more or less the apotheosis of nature, the face of nature not as familiar, rustic, providential, and bounteous, but as wild, inhuman, remote, and vaguely perilous.

This idea of wilderness is so ubiquitous, so entangled in the history and mythology of the frontier, so deeply embedded in the American psyche, that for most people, calling it into question would make as much sense as asking whether the United States is a democracy. However, as with democracy, freedom, self-reliance, and other core elements of the American ethos, it turns out that there are good reasons for taking a second look. Critics of the wilderness idea raise several common concerns, although each frames things slightly differently and some make assessments that are not endorsed by all the others. However, the main thrust of the criticism runs like this:

First, while we tend to think of wilderness as an objective, physical thing in the world, it is in fact an idea, one that is not universal, but rather the product of a particular culture with a particular history. It is simply not the case that the Euro-American view of wilderness is uniformly shared by, for example, farmers in Tamil Nandu or nomadic herders on the Mongolian steppe. Our idea of wilderness took shape in the wake of Romanticism, Transcendentalism, and the European settlement of North America. And these schools of thought and historical experiences did not occur in a vacuum, but in a messy, complicated, ambiguous world of things and ideas. Romanticism was a reaction to Enlightenment rationalism and changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Transcendentalism was a product of the Unitarian challenge to Calvinism, Kantian idealism, Hume’s empiricism, and more. And it’s glaringly obvious that the European settlement of North America was experienced from a perspective that was far from universal. In short, the wilderness idea is not some Platonic Form, a universal, unchanging, and eternal truth. It is, rather, an idea that came to be in a particular time and place, and which evolved over its history.

Two relevant examples illustrate the point. First, “American” culture is diverse, and individuals from different groups—for example, African Americans and WASPs—often think about and experience wilderness in quite different ways. Second, even within the Euro-American cultural tradition, the dominant view of wilderness has changed so much that “evolution” hardly captures it. “Metamorphosis” is more accurate. What were once viewed as grotesque landscapes in need of redemption are today thought of in terms of beauty, goodness, and purity.

A second problem with wilderness as a concept is that it peddles a dangerous falsehood: a nature/culture dualism that suggests that humans are, in essence, unnatural. If that sounds counterintuitive to you, you are not alone. But it is embedded in the claim that nature or wildness is the world “untouched” by humans, that going into nature means going away from humanity. But such dualism is generally going to require one of two things, even if the people endorsing dualism don’t always recognize it. Either one needs to assert, dogmatically, that humans possess some kind of ontological watermark that makes them uniquely unnatural among all the beings among which they coevolved on this planet, or one needs to identify and justify a point at which, magically or tragically, humans were ejected from or transcended nature—the Fall, the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, or something like that—which proves exceptionally difficult. That is because humans are not radically separate from nature but contiguous with it, part of it.

Finally, because the received wilderness idea developed in the historical context of the colonization of North America, it was profoundly shaped by the way in which European Americans experienced that history. And this colonial experience was shaped by both a significant misunderstanding and a monstrous mischaracterization of the continent. The dualism nascent in the wilderness idea was validated by the experience of North America as largely uninhabited. This misunderstanding is rooted in the fact that pathogens traveled faster than pilgrims. Smallpox, influenza, plague, and other diseases—introduced at, or shortly after, first contact—raced across the continent much more quickly than European settlers, devastating pre-Columbian populations. Some indigenous communities were reduced by 90 percent or more, virtually wiped off the face of the earth.33xMatthew Patrick Rowley, “How Plague Reshaped Colonial New England Before the Mayflower Even Arrived,” The Conversation, November 13, 2020, https://theconversation.com/how-plague-reshaped-colonial-new-england-before-the-mayflower-even-arrived-137570. Given that many of these cultures did not leave large-scale, durable monuments or artifacts, colonists spreading across North America found many places that appeared and felt “empty” to them—places that scarcely a generation earlier would have contained a notable human presence. This gave credence to the idea that wilderness or primeval nature was nature without humans.

But if the infectiousness and virulence of pathogens led to a misunderstanding of wilderness on the part of the colonists, it was magnified by an appalling and willful mischaracterization of the people and cultures that did survive the plagues. North America’s indigenous people were too often depicted as transient “savages” who had not “improved” the land through their labor (and so, according to the Lockean theory of ownership, did not own the land). They were said to exist in a “state of nature” lacking “real” civilization—a prejudice that is evident whether the colonist in question characterized that condition in terms of subhuman bestiality or noble savagery. If misunderstanding the role of pathogens reinforced the idea that wilderness was nature absent human presence, the racist mischaracterization of indigenous cultures reinforced the idea that nature was the opposite of culture. Of course, this allowed the colonists to justify the active elimination or effacement of indigenous people who did survive the plagues, especially if they occupied land considered economically or aesthetically valuable. In order to protect areas designated as “wilderness,” native people were removed and relocated. For example, in Yosemite, the local Miwok were removed at the very same time the valley was being developed for settler tourists seeking a “wilderness” experience, and, indeed, in service to creating that experience for settlers by removing the indigenous human presence.44xBenjamin Madley, American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 193–194.

Since this traditional idea of wilderness informed Doug and Kristine Tompkins’s efforts in Patagonia, it should come as no surprise that versions of these criticisms were leveled at them as well. In the 1990s, they faced tremendous suspicion and even hostility. By all accounts, Doug Tompkins did himself no favors. For all his idealism, he was known to be very businesslike and controlling, someone who, as an outsider, did not have the patience or cultural sensitivity to navigate social and political relationships without alienating some Chileans. (Kristine Tompkins, by contrast, seems to be a natural collaborator and diplomat.) Perhaps it seemed obvious to American-style environmentalists that Doug Tompkins was pursuing an admirable goal. To many Chileans, though, there was something shady about a rich norteamericano buying up the land and telling them what to do with it. The New York Times reported that Antonio Horvath, a member of the Chilean Senate who represented a region that encompassed much of Patagonia, characterized Tompkins as part of a “long line of foreign adventurers with extravagant designs,” and said that his plans raised “legitimate issues of sovereignty and development.”55xLarry Rohter, “An American in Chile Finds Conservation a Hard Slog.” New York Times, August 7, 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/07/world/americas/an-american-in-chile-finds-conservation-a-hard-slog.html. Other critics went all the way down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory. Tompkins was going to monopolize the water. He was going to establish a second Jewish State. He was going to use the land to store nuclear waste.

This is not to suggest that anyone who loves or wants to protect the wilderness is automatically engaged in a colonial project. Yet those of us who do value wilderness have to grapple with its complex and painful history. Tompkins had earlier established the nonprofit Foundation for Deep Ecology, the name of which links him to a philosophical wing of the environmental movement that has been accused not only of misanthropy but of a “frankly imperialist agenda.”66xRamachandra Guha, “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique,” Environmental Ethics 11, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 71–83. Historian Ramachandra Guha argues that Deep Ecology and American-style environmentalism, with their emphasis on wilderness preservation, are positive harms to the “Third World.”77xIbid. Americans, by virtue of wealth, power, and geography, are able to live and perhaps flourish alongside “unspoilt” wilderness; but take that model and apply it to densely populated and under-resourced regions—which, to be fair, would not include Patagonia—and you have a recipe for locking people into poverty, or worse.

Add to this postcolonial critique the optics of the whole thing. Kristine Tompkins criticizes “stampeding economic growth” for destroying the environment.88xKristine Tompkins, “Let’s Make the World Wild Again.” TED Talk, May 2020, https://www.ted.com/speakers/kristine_tompkins. Surely, she is correct about that. However, it is difficult not to feel that sharp critiques of the global economic system are issued from a somewhat compromised position when they are made after one has become a multimillionaire through enthusiastic participation in that system.

The Wilderness Idea Reaffirmed

Some critics, such as environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott, argue that we should preserve the places we think of as “wilderness” but that we need to get over the wilderness idea. Others go further. Another environmental philosopher, Steven Vogel, thinks we should stop talking about “nature” as well. Despite the concerns of such critics, I maintain that we need not give up on nature or wilderness, either as physical realities or as words and concepts. Nature and wilderness still help us to identify and discuss parts of the world we want to distinguish from other parts of the world, and while these terms are not perfect, they do so with a precision, clarity, and facility that no other terms possess. Without them, we lose the ability to explain how and why something could be “unnatural,” and we forfeit both the practical and emotional resonances that wilderness has for certain environments or experiences. Fortunately, we can save these ideas by scrubbing nature of its dualism and by first acknowledging and then excising the colonialism of wilderness.

First, let us concede the point that, in an important sense, nature is everything that is. It is the laptop on which I’m typing this essay and the water lapping against the shore where I sit, the rose window of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and roses blooming on a college campus. All are just so many combinations of the same stardust. Here on earth, all life came from the same “primordial soup” and evolved under the same kinds of environmental pressures. Nor can we to point to some inflection point at which homo transcended natura. Even if consciousness or rationality were uniquely human rather than broadly shared among different beings, albeit in different degrees and modes, how does something produced by evolution, by nature, become un-natural? However, if everything is nature and nothing is unnatural, we’ve got a distinction without a difference, and we might as well retire the word. Perhaps, then, we need to think about things differently.

To most readers, it will not be surprising that there are cultures that do not posit an unbridgeable chasm between humans and nature. The indigenous people who were displaced by settlers under the influence of the wilderness idea often had much more “animist” views of the natural world. Botanist and academic Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, has recently given a succinct account of one such view, describing how the Potawatomi language construes most of the world as animate, describing it in verbal rather than nominal terms. Not “a bay” (noun, object), but “being a bay” (verb, subject—or at least agent). In Potawatomi, Kimmerer learns, “rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places.” In contrast, “the list of the inanimate seems to be smaller, filled with objects that are made by people.”99xRobin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed, 2013), 55.

However, it would be misleading to suggest that only indigenous (i.e., non-Western, or non-European) cultures have traditions of animacy. Pythagoras famously advised against consuming animate beings, perhaps on the basis of his belief in the transmigration of souls. One might read Aristotle’s distinction between physis (things arising spontaneously, according to their own nature) and techne (artificial things that are made or produced) as a recognition of the same difference Kimmerer sees in Potawatomi grammar. Pseudo-Dionysius and other Neoplatonic philosophers reject a strict dichotomy between humans and nature, positing a “personhood” of things. Christianity—often the target of aggressive criticism for its apparent anthropocentrism—produced thinkers like Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry expressed a more inclusive view of all forms of being:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.1010xGerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” Poetry and Prose: Gerard Manley Hopkins (Rutland, VT: Everyman, 1998), 70. Written 1877.

Hopkins seems to suggest that all things are “selves,” including nonhuman beings. He called this selving inscape, a coinage that names the way in which each being expresses its unique self. He speaks, for example, of trees—his beloved Binsey Poplars—being “unselved” by their felling.1111xGerard Manley Hopkins, “Binsey Poplars” in Poetry and Prose: Gerard Manley Hopkins (London, England: Everyman’s Library, 1998), 57.

Here, then, in the wake of both an indigenous botanist getting in touch with (no pun intended) her roots and a Jesuit priest stretching language to express his experience of a living world, we have uncovered a way of speaking about nature that both acknowledges the fact that all things are natural—what else would they be?—and enables us to describe or critique some things as unnatural. Things are natural when they are properly being themselves—being evoking the animacy of Kimmerer’s “being a bay” and themselves evoking Hopkins’s claim that each being is a unique “self.”

However, things can be “unselved” not simply by being slain (as Hopkins observes of the Binsey Poplars) but—at least in some cases and in a way much more germane to the present reflection on the “naturalness” of human activity—when they are prevented from being themselves or are forced, often by human techne, to be something else. When we take entities that are largely free or independent, beings that are spontaneously expressing their own inscape, and make them behave or function according to our desires or preferences, we have distorted their natural selving. This does not lead us back to a nature/culture dualism or suggest that humans are unnatural. When something is unselved in this way, the issue is not that humans made it, but that humans made it into something else.

Paradoxically, because we live in a world of viciously interlocking teleologies, some degree of unselving is itself natural. There is nothing unnatural when a lion kills an antelope, though the antelope has been unselved in being transformed from a living being with its own goods and ends into a carcass that serves only the ends of the lion. Likewise, when a human builds a home, unselving trees and soil communities, the resulting structure might be a perfectly natural expression of the human inscape. All animals make homes. However, beings, especially humans, can overstep the bounds of propriety (i.e., what is natural) in cases of excessive or particularly inappropriate manipulation of other beings. This is precisely what we mean when we say building golf courses in the desert outside Las Vegas or holding orcas captive in small aquarium tanks is “unnatural.”

What about wilderness? Too often, even very smart people fail to rigorously and consistently maintain the difference between nature and wilderness. It is not uncommon to find critics who elide the two terms in the same paragraph, sometimes the same sentence. It is suggested, for example, that when someone says that wilderness is a landscape largely unpopulated by humans, they have thereby said that humans are unnatural, which is a bit like saying that when I claim that a university fraternity is an organization with no women members, I have somehow implied that no women are university students.

Let us begin by reaffirming that human presence does not make something unnatural, although humans can make or do things that are unnatural. There is something similar, though distinct, happening with wilderness. Like nature, wilderness can easily tolerate human presence; wilderness, however, is degraded by human dwelling or inhabitation. This is because human inhabitation is de facto domestication, and the human domus (home)—to the degree that it depends on extensive deployment of techne—is antithetical to wildness. When we domesticate, we take things that are expressing their own particular inscape and appropriate them to express ends we have established to suit our desires. We make them less free, less wild. The human making necessary for domestication only rises to the level of “unnatural” in extreme cases; however, the human making necessary for domestication almost always results in “de-wilding” of a place.

When he embarks on his experiment farming beans, Thoreau wonders by what authority or right he is justified in forcing the Earth to “say beans” rather than millet grass, cinquefoil, blackberry, Saint John’s wort, or all the rest of its ancient, native herb garden.1212xHenry David Thoreau, Walden (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). First published 1854 as Walden; or, Life in the Woods. His concern is not that he has made an acre or two of Walden Woods unnatural. Beans express their inscape just as blackberries express theirs, especially when cultivated by Thoreau’s laissez-faire style of farming. Rather, Thoreau’s worry is that he has made Walden Woods less wild—that he has inhibited its freedom, dominated it, bent it to his own ends, domesticated it. And his concern is justified. Now take that concern and magnify it with the power of modern techne. Like every other natural being, humans interact with and modify their environment, which is fine in appropriate ways, appropriate amounts, and appropriate places. But what is happening when we take the lowlands abutting the Minnesota River and force them to say “Mall of America”? What’s happening when we take corn and force it to say “Blazin’ Buffalo and Ranch Doritos,” “Mountain Dew,” or “Twinkies”?

In a little book called Malfeasance, French philosopher Michel Serres reflects on the way in which pollution and appropriation are part of establishing a home (i.e., domestication). He observes that animals mark their territory with urine, feces, or other signs. These bodily deposits are not merely notifications, declaring “I was here”; they are appropriations, asserting “this is mine.”1313xMichel Serres, Malfeasance: Approproation Through Pollution?, trans. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 2010. The surest way to ensure possession is to pollute. Spit in a common dish at a reception and it’s all yours. However, if appropriation by pollution is a common animal trait, humans have taken this practice to another level. We have polluted the Earth itself, changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere and, by doing so, the climate of the planet and the pH of the ocean. Microplastics are omnipresent in the soil and sea. They fall from the sky in raindrops. They circulate in our blood, in placentas, and in breast milk. Humans have, in varying degrees, spread their pollution across the entire Earth, with the result that there is no place that is not under the threat of explicit or implicit human appropriation. We inhabit the Anthropocene: a new epoch in which human impact dominates everything.

This is precisely why the concept of wilderness is so essential. Wildernesses are places that have not been domesticated (i.e., appropriated and converted to the domus). That is to say, they are places largely unmodified by humans or their techne. These areas are generally free of human pollution, unappropriated by humans, whether intentionally or unintentionally. They are areas in which other beings still operate for the most part in the service of their own ends, rather than being bent to serve human ends. It is not that human cultures are bad or unnatural. On the contrary, human cultures, at their best, represent a distinct good in the world. It is good that the world contains the treasures of Paris, Rome, Istanbul, Beijing, Kyoto. However, it does not follow from the claim “Paris is good” that a world that was “all Paris” would also be good. The human domus, built appropriately within appropriate limits, is natural. So is human culture. But the domus is not wild. And a world fully domesticated is not simply unwild; it is unnatural.

This way of thinking of wildness—as the natural world insofar as it has not been appropriated, domesticated, and bent to human ends—allows us to avoid the colonial errors that shaped the wilderness idea and the injustices it abetted. On this account, it is entirely consistent to say (a) that diverse human cultures inhabited North America prior to European colonization, and, simultaneously, (b) that there were large tracts of North America that were wilderness. The first claim is a historical fact, although experts haggle over the precise population of pre-Columbian civilizations. The second claim does not contradict the first because wilderness is not nature absent humans; it is nature largely free of human appropriation, manipulation, and domination, and pre-Columbian cultures—both because of a different worldview and because of less destructive techne—did not domesticate or pollute in the way in which modern industrial cultures do.

This presents a challenge when one is thinking about restorative justice for indigenous communities or, indeed, evaluating the efforts of Doug and Kristine Tompkins in Chile. Indigenous cultures modified their environments in sophisticated ways, but those modifications were neither as extensive nor as enduring as those of modern industrial culture. Today, however, most indigenous cultures in the Americas inhabit the world in a thoroughly modern and industrial way. When indigenous communities embrace the modern project and its industrial techne, the footprint of their domestication becomes modern as well, and their inhabitation also degrades wild environments. A swamp drained and paved over for an indigenously owned shopping center is de-wilded just as surely as one owned by a European immigrant. Modernity has brought us many goods, but modern techne, deployed by modern numbers of humans, is incompatible with wilderness. This is not to say that the preservation of wilderness trumps the need for restorative justice, only that we are sometimes faced with complicated and competing ethical demands, and that any pursuit of restorative justice must also take into account the need to preserve environments largely unmodified and unappropriated by humans.

Back to Patagonia

While I support what Tompkins Conservation accomplished in partnership with the government of Chile, the process was not above reproach. Few things in the world are. Yet during the years of strongest critical backlash against the project, Doug Tompkins’s supporters claimed that even his detractors would eventually come around to support the fruits of his labors. In large measure, that has proven to be the case. Many Chileans are proud to have saved these ecosystems and their nonhuman inhabitants.

There is a certain kind of mind that seeks simple answers to complex questions, which demands clear, univocal definitions for ambiguous terms. On this point, Aristotle, not Plato, is a better guide, because he reminds us that we can demand the degree of clarity and specificity appropriate only to a given field of inquiry. That is not an excuse to give up the quest for clarity; rather, it is to recognize that some topics allow more precision than others. Ethics is not mathematics. Nature and wilderness are not clear and univocal terms. They admit of degrees. In many cases, it would be better to speak in terms of things being more or less natural, more or less wild, rather than speaking as if naturalness or wildness were an all-or-nothing affair. Nevertheless, at a certain point, a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind, and we are justified in saying something is or is not natural or wild.

Nature and wilderness belong to that class of words that is important but difficult. Beauty, love, justice, forgiveness, and similar terms are part of this group. Shall we jettison those words too, simply because they are equivocal, because they fall short of mathematical precision? That seems both absurd and unlikely. Why should wilderness be different? If we value the being and independence of nonhuman nature, then we need to have concepts that point to it—and that help us articulate just how and why it is valuable, both in itself and for us.