Readings & Discussion Questions: Cronon & Sullivan

Readings: Cronon: “The Trouble with Wilderness” from Uncommon Ground (here); Sullivan: The Meadowlands.

Spring 2018

Presenter: John Krygier

William Cronon “The Trouble with Wilderness

  • Cronon: time to rethink the concept of wilderness
  • Cronon: history of wilderness concept: sublime/romanticism and frontier

Sublime: based on emotional experience of place: joyous terror, awe, dismay, fear

Albert Bierstadt

Frontier/Primitivism: antidote for the ills of civilization: return to simpler, primitive living (F. J. Turner: Frontier Thesis)

U.S. Population Density, 1890 Census

The Trouble with Wilderness: requires a flight from history and thought!

1. We don’t see how human (cultural) wilderness is

2. We don’t see that nature is around us and our impact on it

  • “…people should always be conscious that they are part of the natural world, inextricably tied to the ecological systems that sustain their lives. Any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from nature – as wilderness tends to do- is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior.” (87)
  • It’s about geography: wilderness is somewhere other than where we are, separate from us in space. By supporting the preservation of some far off wilderness, we feel as if we have done our part for the environment.

…on the other hand…

  • “Any way of looking at nature that helps us remember – as wilderness also tends to do – that the interests of people are not necessarily identical to those of every other creature or of the earth itself is likely to foster responsible behavior.”
  • “Wilderness gets us into trouble only if we imagine that the experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit.” (88)
  • “we need to embrace the full continuum of a natural landscape that is also cultural, in which the city, the suburb, the pastoral, and the wild each has its proper place, which we permit ourselves to celebrate without needlessly denigrating the others.” (89)
  • “If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world – not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.” (90)

Other Wildernesses


  • derelict, abandoned, wasted places: mix of discarded human stuff with ‘nature’
  • Marginal Pennsylvania
  • frontier and sublime characteristics
  • “other wildernesses”: what is the truth that comes out of such experiences?

Meadowlands as Frontier


  • resistance to development; inaccessible (train crash); strange people

Meadowlands as Sublime


  • p. 18: marvels: “a swampy, mosquito infested jungle…where rusting auto bodies, demolition rubble, industrial oil slicks and cattails merge in unholy, stinking union” lots of ‘nature’, stink, swamp gas fires, Martians and the War of the Worlds, Mob bodies, liquified animal remains, cargoes of swill from NYC, for pig farms, wild birds, butterflies, odd-tasting ice water, dangerous abandoned RR tunnel, “lonely six foot stepladder’; fording busy highways with canoe; schools of giant plastic soda bottles, migration patterns of cars, cancerous football players, toxic garbage lechate springs
  • “The very idea of being in a canoe in the waters off the NJ Turnpike was viscerally thrilling, but this thrill was counterbalanced by a gnawing consideration of the toxicity of the environment, the end result being a kind of nervous tension that gripped us as we paddled through the marshes.” (80)
  • “A big piece of plastic blew across the road like a tumbleweed. Eventually, the road dead-ended in the swamp. I got out of my car and walked into the tall grass, pressing it behind me with great effort, and arrived at a couch that was purple and looked new and turned out to be very comfortable’” (60)

Green Garbage

Pix of Marginal Pennsylania

Some truths about how our culture relates to nature from such ‘other wildernesses’

  • pollution of all sorts: either the result of transforming ‘natural’ objects into things we want, or our discards
  • failed environmental modifications: when nature does not please us we attempt to change it – drain wetlands, remove hills, fill valleys, etc.: failures make our impact on the environment more evident than successes
  • necessity for negative wildernesses like the Meadowlands: life and business in the NY City area impossible without the Meadowlands as a dump; illegal dumping necessary to sustain our way of life.
  • the otherness of the place: reveals how detached we are from the consequences of our life on earth and its relation to nature; ‘real’ wilderness not that much of an ‘other’ anymore – we believe it represents how well we are living on earth
  • the resilience of non-human nature: even in the midst of the Meadowlands
  • the fuzzy (maybe even non-existent?) distinction between wilderness and civilization, nature and culture, humans and everything else: “posthumanism.”

Questions to discuss…

  1. is ‘stereotypical’ wilderness artificial and escapist – helping us to avoid confronting our actual relationship to nature?
  2. are we culturally conditioned to avert our attention from ‘other wildernesses’ to avoid confronting the consequences of our lifestyles?
  3. if seekers of the sublime in traditional wilderness were seeking to grasp some of the power and might of God, what are we seeking (and glimpsing) in places like the Meadowlands?
  4. can we experience the sublime and the frontier better in places like the Meadowlands?
  5. can we think in such a way that we do not segregate nature and culture?
  6. might the truths we learn by exploring places like the Meadowlands do more to make us “live rightly in the world” than whatever it is we get from traditional wilderness areas?
  7. are places like the Meadowlands wilderness?

2 Responses to Readings & Discussion Questions: Cronon & Sullivan

  1. Vasya says:

    preved ot slesarya Vasi

  2. I’m glad ideas about the natural landscape are being studied. I think we are talking about places under natural control and processes vs human management. The two do not mix.

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