The Trouble with Wilderness:
This also happened to be my first reading for Environmental Politics and Policy with Dr. Kay last fall and I enjoyed reading it for the second time for this class. I remember the first time I read it, it really shook my worldview and re-framed how I thought about wilderness… or so I thought. On the first day of Environmental Geography, a whole year later, the word “wilderness” still stubbornly conjured up images of pristine, green, beautiful landscapes. Clearly I need a prescribed dose of Cronon on a recurring basis to fight my deeply ingrained stereotypes.
The idea of wilderness as a “wasteland” or a place to be shunned to against your will still just seems foreign to me. Logically, I understand that even my current conception of wilderness entails fear, desolation, and chaos so it can’t be that absurd to think that not too long ago those stereotypes were at the forefront of people’s minds.
As Cronon points out, the major shift in perspective becomes apparent in the nineteenth century, overlapping with the Industrial Revolutions and the abolishing of slavery (i.e. the prominent, albeit insufficient, expansion of individual liberties), and following the Age of Enlightenment.
My main question is why did we develop romantic notions about wilderness and the concept of “the frontier” to begin with? What sparked that change? I know that Romanticism is well-documented as a reaction to the Enlightenment era and Industrialization, that it was seen as a “return” to something, but as Cronon suggests about the idealization of wilderness, it may have been the creation of something new altogether. Personally, I think that as people began moving from farms to factories, as their daily busying tasks began to be automated away, as they suddenly had more time to focus on themselves as individuals, and as their societies grew increasingly secular, a psychological void was created. And in order to fill that space or bridge that gap, they/we felt the need to create a space for transcendence and “wilderness” fulfilled that purpose. Religion just didn’t cut it anymore.
As for the Western frontier concept, I still can’t fully comprehend what it is and where it comes from. The desire to dominate? challenge oneself? self-actualize through blood, sweat, and tears? Maybe only the mythic masculine individualist can answer that.
A general thing I really liked about this book was the human or storytelling element, it made it a much easier and digestible read. I think the author’s undying interest in the “urban wilderness” that is the Meadowlands is fascinating because it is an area that is so often overlooked or looked down upon by those passing through or living there. He almost carves out something intriguing from an inconspicuous and unsightly slab of concrete through this book. The book took so many random twists and turns that I’ll only focus on a few of the things that struck me.
First, the idea of “progress” on page 19-20 interested me. I think, akin to the concept of wilderness, “progress” culturally has positive connotations and Sullivan challenges that (maybe unintentionally?). His whole journey is almost an illustration of where our progress will lead us – digging in dumps for our forgotten past. New York City is considered one of the most progressive states in the nation and it stands on the shoulders of mutated meadows, toxic wetlands, generations of dumps, and literal corpses. The Meadowlands could easily be confused for a dystopian novel.
Another thing that interested me towards the end, in the Trapper and the Fisherman, was the antinomy between Don Smith and “Captain Bill” Sheehan. I found myself jumping between their different perspectives as they refuted each other’s arguments. I agreed with Smith when he said, “we broke it so we should fix it” but I didn’t agree with his idea of perhaps “improving” it as humans see fit or aiding the “image” of it. And I agreed with Sheehan in that we shouldn’t impose human values on the nonhuman world, and that it possesses inherent value, a deep ecological point of view; however, I couldn’t align myself with his almost “frontier-ist” attitude and his perspective on “land stewardship.” One thing I liked about both of them was their willingness to share their knowledge with others so more people could come to respect the Hackensack river, even if their idea of “environmentalism” doesn’t match up with mine.