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Our Perilous Wilds: Introduction to a Critique of the Received Wilderness Idea

This is Part One! Here is Part Two, ‘Boys’ Clubs and Beta Sprayers’

ilderness: the temple of ancient, wrathful gods; the crucible of rugged American character; a morally freighted benchmark for all that is truly natural and balanced. In the United States, cultural mythology firmly plants its roots in stories of American genesis on the shores of a dark, ferocious, fertile continent. Echoes of these same stories resonate in the musings of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir; the paintings of Thomas Cole; the photography of Ansel Adams. The values represented by wilderness are enshrined in the National Park System, which received over 330 million visits in 2017 (NPS Office of Communications, 2018), truly a testament to wilderness’ hold on the popular imagination. As a political force, the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society have gathered tremendous reserves of financial and political capital to be marshaled om the fight to protect wilderness. Does wilderness reflect a comprehensive environmental narrative though? Who are the heroes, and who are the villains in frontier stories? Who are pioneers and who are slaves? Was North America people-less before European contact? To scratch just below the surface of stories like those about wilderness, one finds that Americans’ perceptions of the natural world and their place in it are as diverse as they are. Further, the perceptions of some Americans are wholly incompatible with the lived histories and experiences of others.

The work presented here began in my first semester at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. That is to say, the courses provided on environmental ethics, environmental justice, environmental attitudes, and beliefs helped me lay the theoretical groundwork and the vocabulary needed to flesh out and operationalize the questions that were developed while working for various non-profits in Kansas City, Missouri. In examining the resonance and dissonance between popular environmental narratives and the lived experiences of frontline communities, the focus of my research was drawn to wilderness, especially the social construction of wilderness in advocacy and recreation circles. This is what environmental historians and philosophers have come to call “the received wilderness idea,” (Callicott 1998; Cronon 1995; Gómez-Pompa & Kaus, 1998; Guha, 1988; Talbot, 1998). This is used to describe what Americans generally think of when they hear the word wilderness: pristine, wild landscapes that are devoid of human presence or impact. This is the timeless and sublime state of nature that supposedly existed in North America prior to European contact.

Critiques of such ideas have thrown into question some of Western culture’s most basic assumptions about the nature of nature, and reveal a bias favoring a white, colonial, upper middle class male historical perspective (Finney, 2014; Deluca & Demo, 2001; McNeil, Harris, & Fondren, 2012; Merchant 2003). This is the substrate from which my questions sprung.

In April 2018 I submitted a formal proposal to investigate whether or not there are social discourses that contribute to and maintain overrepresentation of white, upper middle-class males in wilderness advocacy. Additionally, if these discourses exist, how do individuals navigate them in their lived experience?

That is to say, if nature and wilderness are socially produced (Braun, 2002; Braun & Wainwright, 2001; Castree, 2001) and are produced in such a way as to reflect a relatively narrow band of social experience (Castree, 2001; Cronon 1995; Merchant 2003; Vidon 2016), what are the consequences for groups and communities whose perspectives are not reflected? How are they conceptualized as environmental subjects? How do they navigate advocacy and recreation settings infused with historical environmental narratives that privilege white, masculine experiences and figures while at times erasing or aggressively excluding others?

In April 2018, the project I proposed for answering these questions was submitted for review by the Institutional Review Board at Syracuse University. They determined the project met their ethical standards and I was permitted to proceed with data collection. Additional materials provided the IRB can be found in the appendix, including but not limited to the interview guide (Appendix A), online screening survey (Appendix B), and interview consent form (Appendix C).

Central to my investigation were discourse analyses of online wilderness media and in-depth interviews, sampling for which began in early 2018. The media chosen for this research represents the material published by five wilderness advocacy organizations. Three are local to Northern New York State: Protect the Adirondacks; Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve; and Adirondack Almanack. Two of the organizations are national, and provided a broad reflection of wilderness advocacy in America: the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club. These organizations were all chosen for their visibility in regional and national wilderness discourse, and for referencing wilderness protection in their organizational mission statements.

The interview data came from respondents to an online screening survey distributed on the publicly available social media pages run by these organizations. Participants were self described outdoor recreationists, environmental educators, and professional as well as volunteer wilderness advocates. Their reflections provide valuable insights about how wilderness is thought of and experienced on the ground, whether that’s in the office of the Adirondack Park Agency, or on the John Muir Trail. Discourse analysis was applied to the media content and the interviews, and after multiple rounds of initial coding, focus coding, and thematic consolidation I arrived at what I feel to be compelling answers to my questions. Additionally there is now groundwork laid for future research; important questions emerged in analysis, the investigation of which was beyond the scope of the current project.

The work is presented on this blog in two separate, but complementary parts. The first manuscript is titled “Boys’ Clubs and Beta Sprayers: Masculinized Wilderness and Gendered Disparities in Wilderness Experience.” This paper investigates how perceived wilderness experiences differ between individuals and how those experiences compare to social norms and expectations within wilderness advocacy and recreation settings. It interrogates the notion that a normative masculine bias in wilderness discourse dictates which bodies are welcome in those settings “as is”, and which bodies may be marginalized or held to different standards.

Themes observed to this effect include the overrepresentation of traditional hetero masculinity, or what Joane Nagel (1998) terms, “normative masculinity”, in the historical framing of wilderness, online wilderness media, and personal role models. This paper investigates the entrenchment of normative masculinity in state classification of wilderness to the extent that a masculine frame is imposed upon wilderness advocacy and recreation settings. This is critical considering data suggest a preoccupation on both individual and organizational levels with the state as the primary authenticator, administrator and provider of wilderness experiences.

The second manuscript is titled “Enshrining Normative Masculinity: State Authenticated Wilderness and Normative Gender Roles.” This paper begins where the first leaves off, investigating a narrow, normative masculine frame in wilderness discourse that creates friction and perhaps barriers to participation for marginalized communities. Namely, this means those who are not conceptualized as conventional wilderness subjects according to dominant wilderness discourses. This paper discusses how that frame comes to be formalized in wilderness settings and wilderness experiences through the process of “cool” authentication (Cohen & Cohen, 2012; Vidon, 2018), or the classification of authentic wilderness on the part of the state. Often legislative processes, cool authentication incorporates and cements cultural definitions of wilderness which are otherwise subjective. In this way, state authentication of wilderness codifies normative masculine perspectives on wilderness into wilderness legislation and lends it the title of authenticity. This paper examines ways in which state authenticated wilderness promotes a nationalistic vision of wilderness that serves as an oasis for what Michael Kimmel (2013) terms, “aggrieved male entitlement,” through the production of remote, rugged, homosocial experiences which become highly valued in cultural identity. “In the United States, many see designated wilderness areas as monuments; symbolically enshrining national values,” (Nelson, 1998, 176). What does it mean then to have a national park system whose own data suggests wild disparities in visitorship and employment across race, nationality and gender? (Taylor, Grandjean, and Gramann 2011).

These papers, to be released in coming weeks, investigate how this affects the individual experience and argues that construction of a more inclusive wilderness means divorcing our conceptualizations of wilderness from nationalism, and associated masculinizing discourses.

Drawing on theories of social nature, gender performativity, authenticity, nationalism, and discourse analysis, these manuscripts work together to deconstruct the the normative masculine frame that dominates popular wilderness discourse, and the received wilderness idea. In so doing, I hope to present sites of intervention for use by subordinate discourses like queer ecology. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands (2005) describes queer ecology as a way focusing on dimensions of experience “born in the specific history of a queer community and uses the resulting emotional resonances and conceptual links to live in nature in a way that reflects this queer experience,” (p. 20). The goal here is to supplant the toxic aspects of wilderness ideology that perpetuate colonization, racism, misogyny, and heteronormative bias; to remediate the idea of wilderness so as to become fertile ground for cultivating more complex relations within local and global ecologies.


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A New Yorker in Kansas City. Social scientist, fiction writer, a planter of very fine trees. Follow me on Twitter: @Foster8243 and Instagram: FosterCarpenter346

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