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Roderick Nash's 'Wilderness and the American Mind'

Understanding our past so we can better navigate our future.

By: Cameron Catanzano + Save to a List

In many regards, the movement to fight climate change has come out of and is bound to the traditions and political coalitions of environmentalists. So, it is vital that we understand these roots, learn from the mistakes of history, and make our decisions with a wide-angle view of the cultural and political forces that have come before us.

I must confess that I have complicated feelings about this book, but I stand by recommending it to anyone serious enough to finish this 385-page history of the United States’ dominant cultural, philosophical, and political perceptions of wilderness going back to our European routes.

This book sparked the modern discipline of Environmental History and it’s a part of Nash’s larger influence on spearheading the development of the Environmental Studies. Some people even call Wilderness and the American Mind the “Book of Genesis for conservationists.”

I don’t see eye-to-eye with Nash on many things. For instance, his future vision for “Island Civilization” mentioned in the 5th edition epilogue makes me cringe, but the pros of reading this book far outweigh the cons.

If you’ve read some of my other posts you may know that I am a big annotator when I’m reading something dense and/or interesting. This book evoked a ton of annotations and, somehow, it became this weirdly perfect balance of moments where I loved what he had to say and moments when I all out challenged Nash in the margins.

My scribbles aren’t all that legible, but you get the point.

Generally, there is one large criticism that I can blanket over Nash and this book specifically:

It is overwhelmingly written from a perspective that privileges well-off highly-educated white males and has a general disregard for religion. So if you read this, remember that some people outside of cities probably loved the wilderness. Wilderness appreciation doesn’t just come in the form of highly educated dudes who wrote romantic poems and essays.

Nash briefly goes against this larger urban lean by mentioning Daniel Boone as a “pioneer wilderness lover”, but this slight push early on doesn’t do much to counter his theory that urbanites were the ones that forged wilderness appreciation. I just can’t imagine that other surveyors, trappers, and “woodsmen” like Boone didn’t choose that profession because of some appreciation for wilderness.

Ultimately, this lean towards the highly-educated male just represents a larger bias of history. Nash briefly expresses this, but it doesn’t account to much.

To be sure, most of the response of ordinary American’s to wilderness went unrecorded (any pioneer who wrote down his impressions was, by that fact, exceptional) …
Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind

History draws on a small sample of written works, but the lack of written evidence for non-urban wilderness appreciation IS NOT evidence for a lack of non-urban wilderness appreciation.

George Washington is another example of a young man who lived in the wild country during his years of working as a surveyor, but we can’t say he hated the wilderness just because he didn’t write poetry about it. If anything, the simple act of choosing a profession that places you in such wild country may even be a testament of some appreciation.

In addition, the eurocentrism of this book largely ignores Native American history of land use and perceptions of nature except for a small reference in the “Alaska” chapter clarifying the difference between the indigenous concept of “land” compared to the European concepts of “wilderness” which drive this book.

Furthermore, this difference between “land” and “wilderness” is something that I think we need to address within Judeo-Christian roots as well. Early on Nash considers Jewish influence to be one of negative disdain for the wilderness. It seems to Nash that if Jews and Christians thought wilderness was good for one thing it was only for the challenge that it presented to us. However, I believe this is an oversimplification.

Nash mentions Saint Francis of Assisi early on as an example of a Christian with what he views as a uniquely positive view of wilderness, but I believe there is much more to this tradition than one person.

I’m reminded of a section from Mercy Amba Oduyoye’s Beads and Strands. This is a much more contemporary source than what Nash was describing, but she does a great job at articulating the frame for a “land-ethic” and I think it speaks to the larger tradition which she’s pulling from. The section is titled, “The earth, a neighborhood” and it is taken from an essay titled The People Next Door.

As earth dwellers, our lives are in constant relationship with the sun, the moon and the atmosphere around us. On earth, other beings are our neighbours – plants, animals – some too small for eyes to behold and others much larger than we are.
Mountains and rivers are so imposing that we sometimes feel them as the habitation of being that is different and more potent than we are. Minerals, solid, liquid and gaseous, are all our neighbours.
… Our environment is full of unacknowledged neighbours, all who are in need of survival, healing, or affirmation and call for our understanding and practice. We know who our neighbour is. The challenge is how to live as neighbours …

That short rant aside: I really enjoyed this book and I’m leaving it having learned a lot. If there’s one thing that Wilderness and the American Mind does best it is introducing you to the bounty of wilderness thinkers from our history and maps out their relationship to each other.

Even by occasionally arguing with Nash, I’ve been able to refine my own beliefs and challenge myself to articulate the shape of my own “wilderness philosophy” and “land ethic”.

In addition, I am incredibly grateful that I read this book along with a larger class that introduced me to other influential thinkers such as William Henry Dana, Herman Melville, and Alexander Von Humboldt.

Some of my favorite chapters include John Muir: Publicizer, Aldo Leopold: Prophet, A Wilderness Philosophy, and Alaska. In addition, although I’ve spent many a time discussing Thoreau in past classes and read both Walden and Civil Disobedience, I got a couple of important things to take away from his chapter as well.

For instance, Thoreau’s view of a balanced life between civilization and wilderness not through the middle ground of a rural agrarian lifestyle, but through a sort of straddling the extremes achieved by fully immersing oneself into the polar ends of both “the most civilized” and “the most wild”. On top of that, Thoreau is often misunderstood as saying “wilderness” is the preservation of the world, but he actually uses the broader term “wildness” which can help us understand the core difference between debates of ecological “wilderness management” and the more philosophical concept of a “pure” wilderness “untouched” by humans.

Of all the new people introduced to me through this book, however, Aldo Leopold is the one that I’ve resonated with most. I’ve already added Leopold’s Sand County Almanac to my reading list. So, keep an eye out for a review on his Land Ethic essay.

The 5th edition chapter titles include:

  1. Old World Roots of Opinion
  2. A Wilderness Condition
  3. The Romantic Wilderness
  4. Henry David Thoreau: Philosopher
  5. Preserve the Wilderness!
  6. Wilderness Preserved
  7. John Muir: Publicizer
  8. The Wilderness Cult
  9. Hetch Hetchy
  10. Aldo Leopold: Prophet
  11. Decisions for Permanence
  12. Toward a Philosophy of Wilderness
  13. Alaska
  14. The Irony of Victory
  15. The International Perspective
  16. 5th Edition Epilogue – Island Civilization

My Big Takeaway.

When facing massive issues such as environmental degradation and climate change we CANNOT ignore history. Navigating the complex world set in front of us requires a wide-angle historical vision of how we got where we are and what forces are in play.

Public conceptions of wilderness contain a large amount of diversity resulting in a broad range of sometimes conflicting goals and convictions, but ANY major victory for environmentalism depends on working across philosophical boundaries and unifying a diverse environmental political coalition.

Wilderness in the American Mind does a fantastic job at painting the development of our current systems of wilderness and the political and cultural coalitions that have shaped it, and I can’t stress enough how important that information is.

(This story was originally published on cameroncatanzano.com).

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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