Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Philosophy: Thoreau, Wilderness and Wildness

Discussions around the American wilderness story are numerous and they stem largely from the historical narrative established by long-revered visionaries of Wild America including Ralph Waldo Emerson, the subject of my last post, and his neighbor and fellow philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

I often hear Thoreau cited for his 1851 declaration from his essay “Walking” that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” This sentiment is invoked time and again when Adirondack citizens, scholars and officials tell the story of how the cultural and regulatory boundary of the Park evolved and also to underscore why the Preserve is important – why it should be important to all of us.
Indeed, the arc of Thoreau’s essay supports the division between humanity and “nature” in favor of preservationist boundaries. Thoreau even seems prescient when he writes that in order to “preserve wild animals, implies generally the creation of a forest for them to dwell in or resort to.” This is in effect what we sought to do in instituting the forever wild provisions of Article XIV of the NY State Constitution.

So it is not a mistake to equate our common idea of wilderness, with Thoreau’s claims about the value of wildness. In fact in the same essay he writes plainly that:

“Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. When, formerly, I have analyzed my partiality for some farm which I had contemplated purchasing, I have frequently found that I was attracted solely by a few square rods of impermeable and unfathomable bog — a natural sink in one corner of it. That was the jewel which dazzled me.” Life, he asserts, is in “climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest trees.”

As often and as seamlessly as Thoreau joins the ideas of wildness and wilderness together, it is nevertheless important to remember that Thoreau was a political philosopher whose evocation of wilderness and wildness together is complicated by some aspects of his more explicitly political writing.

If the Adirondack situation makes anything clear, it is that we have a good deal of both of these wild realities and not much is simple or consistent about whether and how they coexist. So when I think about the Adirondack wilderness alongside a Thoreauvian style of wildness, I feel compelled also to think about why his declaration is complicated. At the same time, I like to think about why it remains so for us in the Park.

To start us off, consider that Thoreau argued for a style of government that is today broadly analogous to libertarian and, by many interpretations, an anarchist type of small government. Illuminating how easy it is to make this comparative claim, in his essay “Civil Disobedience” he writes “government is best which governs not at all and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” (I’m giving old Henry the benefit of the doubt here in assuming he means to include women as well as men in this statement…)

So taking this political position of anti-regulation together with his desire for wild places, I often wonder how to square Thoreau as a voice for wilderness preservation with his anti-regulation (anti-government oversight) stance in the context of the Adirondack Park?

Do you think that we haven’t yet gotten to the point of being “prepared” for this type of government, and that if we were perhaps evolved enough to self-regulate then Thoreau’s vision of wildness and wilderness might come together more easily? Or would this lesser kind of government mean an end to wilderness?

Photo courtesy

Marianne Patinelli-Dubay is a philosopher, writing and teaching in the Adirondack Park.

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Marianne Patinelli-Dubay leads the Environmental Philosophy Program at SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb Campus on the Huntington Wildlife Forest. In addition to teaching and writing, Marianne chairs the Adirondack Chapter of the Society of American Foresters and is an active member of the Forest Stewards Guild.   Please send comments to

16 Responses

  1. Marianne Patinelli-Dubay says:
  2. Pete Klein says:
  3. Marianne Patinelli-Dubay says:
  4. Pete Klein says:
  5. Marianne Patinelli-Dubay says:
  6. Marianne Patinelli-Dubay says:
  7. Pete Klein says:
  8. Marianne Patinelli-Dubay says:
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  10. Jacob says:

    I question whether regulation and governmental intervention actually does do wild places any good; certainly it does little good to the wild-ness/autonomy of individuals to pursue their own passions/desires/values.

    Forestland out West is an excellent example of how “government” actually hinders the preservation of the environment; vast stretches of forest-land are “owned” by the “government” and then leased to timber companies. If those companies owned the land themselves, they would be incentivied to preserve its long term production of timber, but the leases incentive just the opposite; to take as much from the land as quickly as possible.

    Forestland in California is at stake because small brush fires are immediately extinguishes to “preserve” forestland and yet, this prevents a natural cycle of rejuvenation and sets up conditions under which vast stretches of forestland becomes a swath of tinder for greater, uncontrollable blazes.

    There are regulations preventing people from allowing thier grassy lawns to become what the grassland yearns to be and fine people who let their grass grow too long.

    There are subsidizations waste disposal services that incentivize people to dispose of their organic waste, much of that organic waste goes to a chemically polluted landfill rather than back to soil to create fertility.

    Every law, every regulation, is a kind of coercion, which threatens punishment for failure to obey, preventing people from doing what they would if they were to preserve their own “wild” autonomy; one has to wonder, is coercion the way to preserve the “wild” places?

    • John Warren says:


      Take a drive around the rust belt of America or the megalopolis that has spread from Portsmouth, NH to Norfolk, VA and ask yourself again whether we are capable of retaining any wild place at all without some intervention.

      How is the “wild-ness/autonomy of individuals to pursue their own passions/desires/values” holding up in the industrial wastelands of the rust belt? In Buffalo? Detroit? Cleveland?

      Stringing together a few problems does not offset the much larger problem – lack of wild places in the east. Look at a nighttime image of the Eastern US and the answer will be plain – if some people concerned with having ANY wild places left don’t act – there won’t be any east of the Mississippi. That trend will, over the next couple hundred years, spread to the west coast too.

      The wildest place east of the Mississippi is about 6 miles from a road. We’d be fools to think that isn’t going to be what happens west of the Mississippi too.