The Trouble with Wilderness
I found Cronon’s description of the evolution of the human conception of wilderness to be fascinating. I would never have known that the biblical interpretation of wilderness as a terrifying unknown containing both God and the Devil governed the American experience of the natural world for centuries. Furthermore, as an English student I found Cronon’s discussion of the sublime and romantic in relation to the wilderness deeply interesting. I have personally experienced sublime landscapes that Cronon describes, places to which he attributes feelings of insignificance and the remembrance of one’s own mortality (4). I feel that it is almost impossible not to buy into the romantic myth of “mountain as cathedral” (6) when visiting the “wilderness”. As Cronon’s argument continues to develop, however, I found myself agreeing with his interpretation of the problematic duality that has emerged from this idolization of the natural world. He writes, “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” (17). I found this argument to be extremely compelling though I did wish he offered more concrete solutions for conversations about sustainabilty as opposed to concluding we must simply begin “learning to honor the wild” (20).
As someone who has never taken an environmental studies class, I was unaware of the pervasive misconceptions about wilderness and its preservation that exist in environmentalist circles. In fact, I had never before considered the possibility that the idea of “wilderness” is in itself artificial and contrived. Cronon describes wilderness as a “cultural invention” (2) that has long served as a place where Americans acted as consumers as opposed to producers, thereby “creat[ing] wilderness in their own image” (9). These places, previously romanticized as sublime landscapes or regarded as ideal spots for divine interactions, are home to millions of visitors every year. It is ironic that today this enormous human presence can be extremely damaging to these national parks as they were originally selected to be places of recreation for the few wealthy members of society.
I found these two readings to greatly complement one another, though I feel that Robert Sullivan would not agree with Cronon’s assertion that the conception of wilderness itself is the main problem facing modern environmentalism. Sullivan, who uses the subtitle, “Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City”, clearly has no qualms about the usage of the word or the images it invokes. Sullivan is more concerned with the physical environmental threats to the Meadowlands (i.e. development, garbage dumps, air and water pollution from factories, etc.), but is not overly sentimental in his description of these problems. In some sections he even describes concrete solutions to these issues, though some, such as digging to the bottom of the meadowlands and pulling all of the untouched soil to the top, are fantastical and physically impossible.
As with the Cronon piece, I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of the literary and the scientific within The Meadowlands. I loved that Sullivan was able to craft a book with the elements of a memoir, human interest piece, nature essay, and environmental history. His initial description of the Meadowlands is incredibly beautiful and heavily tinged with the romantic idealization that Cronon scorns. He writes, “America’s first west… already explored land that has become, through negligence, through exploitation, and through its own chaotic persistence, explorable again” (Sullivan 14-15). After reading The Meadowlands, I questioned some of the claims in The Trouble with Wilderness, favoring the romantic and sublime that Sullivan invokes over the strictly logical and rational that Cronon advocates.