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Wilderness: A Place Apart

by William Major

On Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, a law whose purpose was to "establish a National Wilderness Preservation System for the permanent good of the whole people, and for other purposes." Years in the making, this law was intended to recognize not so much a place, but an idea.

This idea is by no means a new one, coming as a result of the industrialization and mechanization of the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries. The act beautifully encompasses many features of the Romantic Movement permeating society in the mid-20th century in its emphasis on places "untrammeled by man" whose primary characteristic is "primeval" nature, where a "natural" world reigns.

In other words, wilderness is valuable because it is the place where humans are not. It is also valuable, as historian Michael Lewis reminds us, in its scope -- it dwarfs us geographically and conceptually.

And yet, Congress also chose to recognize the redeeming qualities of wilderness for humans, a place where we can go to find "solitude," a state most sought after in a world where culture seems to be everywhere.

There are now roughly 107 million acres of land designated as wilderness, up from the original 9.1 million set aside in 1964. Western states such as California, Alaska and Idaho have the most, while Connecticut, Rhode Island and four other states have no federally recognized wilderness areas as defined by the act.

I am sure that many of us would agree that the Wilderness Act of 1964 has been a boon to the nation, if not the world. But why do we value wilderness?

In 1964, we were arguably a nation becoming ill at ease with our postwar economic expansion, the growth of our suburbs, our population explosion -- our inability to escape each other. We were beginning to ask then, as we still ask now, how best to care for what we as a country thought we had a surfeit: land.

Nowhere was our attempt to understand our relationship to the land demonstrated as aptly as it was in 1962 when Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring," which inaugurated the modern environmental movement. Among Carson's insights, she noted that we were not only poisoning ourselves with herbicides and insecticides, we were also being poisoned by those with good intentions.

Carson's lasting legacy was her demonstration -- still relevant today -- that even in the United States we often have little control over our communities; that state, local and federal agencies -- peopled by experts trained at our universities, often at public expense -- often determine the fate of human and ecological health.

Thus, as Congress considered the Wilderness Act, Carson was documenting our treatment of the Earth far closer to home. This paradox is important.

The Romantic sentiment prevailed. Thanks to the federal government, there would always be a mountain or a lake or a vista where we could not screw things up, where we might be assured of finding God, or ourselves, or some charismatic fauna. The effects of our thoughtlessness and rapine elsewhere would be mitigated by our non-presence in this magnificent wilderness.

But as environmental historians remind us, that pristine place has always been difficult to find. And this is why wilderness is so profoundly important as an idea, because it reflects our own changing attitudes about nature; what it is for, and what it means.

For instance, we no longer recognize the "hideous and desolate wilderness" that William Bradford noted as he decamped the Mayflower. Nor, however, is wilderness the romantic salve for industrial capitalism. To go into the wilderness today is unhappily to meet with any number of examples of culture: the planes overhead, the SUVs driven by Sierra Club members, the fast-food chains ringing its edges.

Perhaps we need to start seeing wilderness differently, more holistically, as a part of our urban and suburban worlds. It makes me ask, along with environmental historian William Cronon, whether our drive to preserve wilderness areas has had one very detrimental effect: allowing us to despoil those places where we live, where our daily choices are most keenly felt.

William Major is an associate professor of English at the University of Hartford.

Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant

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