Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Lecture on Wilderness by William Cronon

Giant from Amy's Lookout.  Many new Irene slides.This week I attended the Third Annual Jordahl Lecture, established by the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies in Madison, Wisconsin.

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

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

4 Responses

  1. Pete Nelson says:

    Here’s a postscript. Cronon’s lecture was entitled American Wilderness, Past, Present, and Future: A Historical Meditation. At the end of his lecture, when he arrived at the future of wilderness, he raised but one issue. Time was short and no doubt he could have discussed a hundred future issues if he had been able. But what one issue did he highlight? Climate change? Our on-line, social media culture? Resource contention? Technology?

    Nope. It was Diversity. And he posed the question of its importance just about exactly as we have here in the Adirondacks.

  2. Dave Gibson says:

    Pete, well written and interpreted. Cronon’s writing about the wild in America has touched me off a few times, but he remains an important landscape historian and your account of his lecture is appreciated, as is your postscript on the future of wilderness.

  3. Maura Adams says:

    Thanks for this reflection!

    I took one of Bill Cronon’s courses as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin; he and his writing strongly influenced my development as an environmentalist. What I took from him first is that cultivating a sense of connection to and respect for nature ‘close to home’ is as critical as protecting vast tracts of land – and without the former, you won’t have people connected enough to the land to understand the importance of the latter. The other lesson I’ve taken from Cronon is that landscapes are created by humans, whether by direct or indirect impact or by choosing not to impact (e.g. via wilderness designation) – there is no such thing as “wild nature.” I think it’s strange when people try to hide the human history associated with places that are now protected – we’re denying our past in an effort to create a false impression of wildness.
    Just some rambling on one of my favorite philosophical topics: what is natural? what is restoration? to what conditions should restoration ecologists be attempting to restore landscapes?
    Thanks again and enjoy Madison!

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Good questions all, very much relevant today as we look at amending the SLMP.

      I think, as Cronon does, that a more perspective-oriented idea of wilderness does not preclude strong measures to preserve it and work to make it ecologically whole. To the contrary.

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