Sunday, May 17, 2009

Reading List: Wilderness & The American Mind

Taking a break from the computer and the endless array of blog posts gives one an opportunity to reconnect with the written word in a different way. (For full disclosure, I hate reading on the computer - so really have to slog through text heavy posts and articles...) A couple of interesting books that I've worked through in the past month couldn't be more different - but somehow, in the very Gaian way, are related. The first - which I picked up after hearing the amazing Paul Stamets speak, is his great book Mycelium Running. Second, which I picked up for a steal in a used bookstore on a recent trip to Mt. Shasta, is 'Wilderness and the American Mind' by Roderick Nash.

:: image via Yale Univ. Press

While my copy was not the much sexier and updated 4th edition seen above, it is sometimes nice to read the original, being able to place the thought in the context of publication - in this case the 1967 version. While not necessarily breaking any new ground, this is one of the most comprehensive studies of the history of our relationship with Wilderness from the uniquely American perspective, and offers insight into our cultural baggage that influences our relationship with nature and the world even today.

Encompassing an arc of history from the early settlers to the 1960s, it's fascinating to see the linear narrative of Wilderness and our shift of ideology from fear, to celebration, to exploitation, and finally to our current state of tension that still exists today. Starting with our European ideas of wilderness expressed by early settlers - the fear of the dark primeval forest and it's dangerous denizens is shaped by an utter lack of true Wilderness that these people had to experience in settled Europe. This is contrasted by Nash in the views of Eastern cultures that had a more subtle and less binary view of wilderness.

The shift from pilgrim fear to pioneering domination shaped the next era, as wilderness was meant to be dominated as an expression of our growth and western expansion. Civilization was countered with a desire for escape to the surrounding pastoral areas. The western push opened up a view of untouched scenery that amazed the viewers with it's rugged beauty and became a defining element of the 'American' wilderness as like none other in the world.

Following such writers and explorers such as the transcendentalits Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the explorer and wilderness fighter John Muir, wildlife watchers such as John James Audubon, and also the defining guidance of Frederick Law Olmsted in his support of the protection of Yosemite in the 1860s. Building on the work of urban parks as places of the respite in cities to restore the health and vigor of residents, the large parks provided a national analog in being able to provide a counterpoint to development and need protection from the mental stress that results from our industrious society. His report on Yosemite in 1865 included the declaration that: "the enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system." (p.106)

:: Yosemite - image via PD Photos

The continual wilderness preservation movement followed Yosemite and included Yellowstone, spawning the National Park movement and a serious approach to significant protection of large areas of land that had both regional and national significance. With Muir at the helm, a rampant public movement was instilled in the American social experiment with a tangible value of the places within our growing country. A duality emerged: "The schism ran between those who defined conservation as the wise us or planned development of resources and those who have been termed preservations, with their rejection of utilitarianism and advocacy of nature unaltered by man." (p.129)

This 'schism' created some of the polarity of wilderness vs. development that persists to this day. While it is inevitable that the pendulum of wilderness protection would swing towards the 'cult-like', this binary approach to wilderness protection, while providing a strong movement for protection, created an equal and vibrant opposition in the form of those who put people and progress above nature in all aspects. Again, Olmsted comes out of the fray as a mediator (like a good landscape architect), straddling both the preservation ethic as well as lobbying for more parks and wilderness areas in and near cities. Olmsted and fellow landscape architect Charles Eliot: "... proposed that in additon city parks patches of 'wild forest' be preserved close to metropolitan areas... Olmsted felt the current surge of interest in natural landscapes was the result of many Americans' perceiving that 'we grow more and more artificial day by day.'" (p.155)

:: Central Park - image via NYC Architecture
The polar struggle came to a head in the early 20th Century in the form of Hetch Hetchy which pitted a wilderness area against the damming of rivers for the water supply and hydroelectric power for the growing San Francisco metropolitan area. In addition to a media debate, this was a strongly fought political one as well - with the US Government grappling with the difficult task of determining which is more important - the wild lands or the services to our urban dwellers. While one side of the debate argued for progress at any cost, others argued that the value of wilderness was incalcuable in monetary terms. Muir, always the hyperbolist - made it a fight of biblical proportions. "Hetch Hetchy became a sanctuary or temple in the eyes of the defenders. John Muir, for one, believed so strongly in the divinity of wild nature that he was convinced he was doing the Lord's battle in resisting the reservoir." (p.167)

:: Before and After - Hetch Hetchy - images via Wikipedia
Hetch Hetchy, and the eventual crushing blow to the wilderness movement by the passage of the bill in 1913 authorizing the dam and effectively destroying the wilderness in the name of progress. While there were a number of lesser battles, such as the preservation of Muir Woods, this provided a deciding battle for the country. Muir died shortly after in 1914 - and his shoes were left to be filled by a new breed of Wilderness advocate. The one to step up to this was Aldo Leopold.


  1. on a related note, i'm reading michael pollan's "second nature: a gardener's education" being that time of year and all...and he sets forth a position that we landscape architects will find rather sympathetic. we need to abolish the old us/them mentality of the "wilderness ethic" and instead develop a "garden ethic". it is in the winter section of the book, toward the end, if you want to dig in.

  2. B. Great book... one of those I gave as a gift for a couple of years before cracking it open and reading it for myself. It's interesting to see this baggage we still have with wilderness - and how the idea of the garden ethic fits into the landscape ideology more fittingly. Definitely worth a post.


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