There is no wilderness…

Yosemite National Park: The quintessential ‘wilderness’
October. I step out on to the path, my bag packed, my shoes heavy after a long sleep. Autumn’s first real chill blows around me, echoing in the hollow spaces. Crisp breaths make my lungs feel bigger, cleaner. And on my eastern horizon I see flecks of orange permeating the grey: the phoenix’s first feathers unfolding amidst the ashes…

What is the wilderness we’re so captivated by? And why? Where does it belong? What role does it serve? Whose is it?

The word itself derives from wild in Old English. This in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *welt-, which has also given us words like weald and wold (both referring to woodland). But some form of word describing wilderness probably came to be everywhere the agricultural revolution touched.

Before the agricultural revolution, man lived in the land around him; afterwards, man lived off the land he farmed. Building settlements and cultures around fertile valleys, rivers and meadows — changing the shape of the land as he went.

The agricultural revolution hewed the world into two. The land became everything we owned, and an opposing concept of wild had to be created to encompass everything that was other. Everything that was uncultivated. Untamed. That man had not shaped, or farmed.

For 1000’s of years this binary carried on, but something started to happen around the 1700’s. We started to talk more and more about wilderness.


Google Ngram graph: ‘wilderness’ 1500–2000

Notice the spike that starts in the 1700s — 1800s? This has a name. It was the Romantic period.

The Romantics evolved the meaning to wilderness, adding further layers to it and taking it’s binary logic further. Instead of cultivated vs uncultivated, for them it was pure vs taint.

The hand of man had built cities, rife with disease and decrepitude. He had built machines which belched smoke and ash to win the battle for his existence, and in so doing, destroyed beauty.

Stormy Coast Scene after a Shipwreck Horace Vernet (French, 1789–1863)

The wilderness was the last remaining refuge of the world. Where man’s power was meaningless. Where the great elemental levellers still ruled, and man was small, helpless. The wilderness was desolate, beautiful, restorative; the antidote to our moral, ethical and physical hubris.

Modern civilisation was the anathema to the wilderness, which as result, they believed, must be separate. The definition of wilderness changed from being all that was unshaped by man, to all that was absent of man. Were man to exist in a romantic wilderness — it would stop being wilderness.

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
- Henry David Thoreau, 1845
“How great are the advantages of solitude! How sublime is the silence of nature’s ever-active energies! There is something in the very name of wilderness, which charms the ear and soothes the spirit of man. There is religion in it.”
- Estwick Evans, 1818

Looking back at our Ngram graph though, we see that as the 19th century gives way to the 20th, the usage of wilderness begins to tail off (though to no way near pre-romantic levels). What happened? Did we lose interest?

Not even slightly. The focus merely shifted. As more and more bought into the romantic notions of wilderness, and as the great trundling wheels of industry span faster and faster, Romantics became less interested in celebrating the power of wilderness, and more interested in preserving it. Looking back to our Ngrams we see where they shifted their focus.


Google Ngram graph: ‘conservation’ 1500–2000

Conservation and conservationists were born. People like Madison Grant, John Muir, the first great Roosevelt, and endless charitable organisations still going strong. They were beholden to the notions of Romanticism and the purity of nature. They believed that all should enjoy the wilderness, and importantly, that wild spaces should be kept as they are.

Conservationists created the first national parks in Yellowstone USA. Then quickly exported the model around the world. The national park was a place free of development, of interference by man, where nonetheless the intrepid explorer could go to getaway from modernity.

However, there were sinister undertones in their thinking…


Grant and Roosevelt first became interested in preserving wild spaces as a means to protect the big game they loved to hunt. In true European tradition, hunting, for them, was a noblest thing.

However, what really gave conservation the political force it needed in 19th century America, was when they realised they could use it to justify clearing vast spaces of their indigenous habitants. Indigenous people who were, it so happened, hunting that same game.

These people, they believed, were tampering with and consuming the wildernesses — with their hunting, and fishing and deliberate forest fires. In order to allow (white) men to enjoy the wildernesses they had acquired, these people needed to go.

Indeed Grant published a book , The Passing of the Great Race, which many Nazi’s on trial in Nuremberg would quote and point to — saying they were “simply emulating the United States, where scientific eugenics had long been used to shape society”.

“Native Americans were evicted from almost all the American parks… a few Ahwahneechee people were tolerated inside Yosemite for a few more decades. They were forced to serve tourists and act out humiliating “Indian days” for the visitors. The latter wanted the Indians they saw in the movies, so the Ahwahneechee had to dress and dance as if they were from the Great Plains. If they didn’t serve the park, they were out — and they all did finally die or leave, with their last dwellings deliberately and ignominiously burned down in a fire drill in 1969.”
- The Colonial Origins of Conservation, 2015

The conservationists succeeded in ousting the indigenous peoples and poor settlers who’d created a life in these places. Instead making them tourist destinations for the white, landed classes. The wilderness and all it’s romance was now available to be enjoyed by all men. So long as they were white, educated and wealthy.

There is no wilderness

Herein the essential fallacy, and purpose of a concept of wilderness is revealed.

Each redefining of wilderness still holds on to that same binary logic of human land vs nonhuman land. And this is why each and every definition fails. Because this binary is a lie.

Yosemite had long been an environment shaped by its inhabitants through controlled undergrowth burning (which created its healthy forests with big trees and a rich biodiversity), tree planting for acorns as a food staple, and sustainable predation on its game, which ensured species balance.
- The Colonial Origins of Conservation, 2015

The ‘wildernesses’ of the world had in fact been altered and used by man for many hundreds of thousands of years. Their hunting had been taken into account by nature and was just another force in keeping populations of game healthy. Their forest fires promoted new growth amongst tree species that depended on fire.

“We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild’. Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’… To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.”
- Luther Standing Bear

These spaces were never wild. Man has, like every animal, shaped the land before him to his needs. But in the end it’s all just one land. The same sun rises and sets on the town and the desert. The same wind blows between houses and glens. The separation exists only in our minds. The wild spaces are just another part of the planet, like us. The passage I opened this article with is a description of me leaving my flat to go to work, in London.

But that essential idea of ‘wilderness’ persists: something beyond us. Either fearful or inspirational. Intangible. To touch it, would be to destroy it’s wildness. So we try to keep it pristine, like a collector. Mint condition mountains still in their original packaging.

Or, we lose interest altogether, never able to interact with the land as anything but tourists or farmers. Either take a picture of that tree or you knock it down to plant maize — your choice.

And the idea that somehow wilderness would be better off without us, that we do not now nor ever could have a positive impact on it keeps going.

There shouldn’t be any wilderness

Why bother with something you cannot help? Fighting climate change, habitat destruction, waste…all these are to protect the wilderness, a land that is completely, inherently distinct from me. That I can only destroy or visit…

I believe this is the essential flaw in modern conservation (along with it’s continued fight against the indigenous inhabitants of ‘wildernesses’ who know more about it than a conservationist ever could). People need to get out and run their fingers through the soil; live, work and breath in the forests again.

And most importantly don’t call it wilderness. Call each landscape by its name, rather than some word whose meaning is intrinsically separate. The wilderness is always beyond us, and always valuable only as romance. The forest, the woods, the coppice, the jungle, the timber, the bush…these are words for specific things, specific in how they relate to us as human beings. Each with a value. Each a part of us.

I love the mountains, the forests, the coast. But I do not want to preserve them. Ever dwindling mummies of an alien time. I want them to become a part of our lives again. To grow with us. To accept that we will always impact wherever we go, but that that impact can easily be positive. Only when we accept all the spaces in this world as being an inseparable part of us, and us of them, can we stop merely conserving nature, and start cultivating it.