This year’s lecture, intended to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act, was given by renowned environmental historian William Cronon. As we ponder revisions to both New York State’s Open Space Conservation Plan and the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP), Cronon’s presentation provides an interesting and useful historical perspective.
William Cronon, for those who are unfamiliar with him, is one of the most important figures in the country in the ongoing debate over the meaning of wilderness. Just this September The Wilderness Society presented him with their highest honor, the Robert Marshall Award, for his contributions to the protection of America’s wild places. This is a fitting honor, as Bob Marshall’s landmark 1930 essay “The Problem of Wilderness,” which played an essential role in spurring America to define and protect wilderness areas, was well bookended at the end of the century by Cronon’s famous and controversial 1995 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” which challenged the conventional thinking about what wilderness really was. I encourage everyone to read both.
Many saw (and still see) Cronon’s essay as an attack on the very values Marshall and others fought for, indeed the very values defined by our own Forever Wild Amendment and SLMP, which instantiated Wilderness as a pristine sanctuary “untrammeled by man – where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” My reading of Cronon’s essay is different. Contrary to the claims of his critics, I think it is clear that he celebrates wilderness as we all do. But he challenges us to see that wilderness is a perspective of our own creation, not an independent fact of nature, and further that this conception, idealized as it is, poses serious problems for our relationship to the natural world. It is a strong argument. Cronon would be no more hasty to remove the protections from Adirondack Wilderness than we would, but his perspective bears consideration when we ponder the values and policies we want reflected in the SLMP and the Open Space Conservation Plan.
It would surprise no one who knows something of the history of wilderness preservation that the Adirondacks were mentioned throughout the evening. Even when Cronon did not refer to the Adirondacks explicitly, virtually every person he talked about, from Teddy Roosevelt to Howard Zahniser, had a direct connection to the Park that helped to define their dedication to the cause. The lecture reinforced the extent to which the Adirondacks play a foundational role in wilderness preservation. Cronon himself made this point, to polite laughter from a Midwestern crowd who clearly had no belief that New York State could ever have had actual wilderness.
Cronon began with the biblical conceptions of wilderness as a savage place carved away both physically and metaphorically by the Puritans as they fashioned an improved version of Christianity in the New World. This was the same wilderness of hostility and danger that was tamed on the frontier by pioneers.
He then traced the historical events, from the French Revolution and William Wordsworth’s reaction to its excesses, to Frederick Jackson Turner’s landmark 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” that began to radically change our relationship to wilderness.
Cronon showed how the romantic predilections of nineteenth century thinkers and artists, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Thomas Cole, fashioned an ideal of wilderness as an untarnished exemplar of the works of God and a fundamental part of the our national identity, of masculine strength and of the American psyche. This evolved into the wilderness of Thoreau, Roosevelt, Leopold and Marshall: as a place both precious, pristine, manly and necessary to our humanity.
This historical narrative, Cronon pointed out, ties into his thesis that wilderness is not a transparent attribute of nature, but instead a perspective about how certain parts of the world are interpreted as worthy of saving, of salvation, of reverence. When thinking about wilderness and fighting for it, Cronon says, representation is as important as the fact of the place itself.
It was in this perspective of wilderness that fear of the automobile and its roads, penetrating the sublime, as it were, launched the modern wilderness movement. Cronon recounted the trip into the Tennessee Valley taken by Bob Marshall, Benton MacKaye, Harvey Broome, and Bernard Frank, where the ugliness of the very road upon which they traveled helped spur the proposal to form the Wilderness Society. He related Aldo Leopold’s impassioned call to keep the Gila National Forest roadless even as roads were being built in virtually all other National Forest areas.
From this developing Twentieth Century land ethic Cronon brought us to Howard Zahniser and the 1964 Wilderness Act which was overwhelmingly approved by a bipartisan coalition that could not be imagined today.
The arc of Cronon’s lecture reminded us of the relevance of wilderness to our American identity, of the importance of the masculine notion of frontier prowess and strength, of the essential importance of the prohibition on roads and mechanisms to protected wilderness, and finally to the romantic power of our perception of wilderness as a place pristine – in other words, wilderness as an aesthetic. Whatever you may think of these ideas, they are important to understand as we assess the creation of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and consider its future.
Photo: Giant Mountain