That Devil, Nature

Was the concept of “wilderness” in Western thought conceived by 19th century Romantics? No, it was not. And yet, it appears that conservation narratives often set this as their philosophical baseline.

Emma Marris’ well-received new book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, in large part, explores the flawed approach of establishing historical baselines–goals of reverting ecosystems to pre-human, pre-European, or pre-industrial conditions–in conservation efforts.  To understand these flaws, ironically, she establishes a pretty firm philosophical baseline.

Her book is as much about language, about figures of thought as it is about conservation. It is about exploring and rethinking our understanding of what is “natural” or “wild,” what constitutes “wilderness,” whether conservationists are supposed to “manage,” “restore,” “design” or “recreate.” Her impressive and well-researched prodding of the modern conservation movement cannot be separated from the philosophy and thought that guided and inspired these efforts. However, she traces an all-too-terse trajectory of thought.

In customary fashion, she draws the lineage of the conservation movement to the 19th century Romantics who exalted “nature” as sublime, awe-inspiring, even spiritually rejuvenating. But, their conception of “wilderness,” was and forever will be as in flux as any ecosystem.  This figure of thought had a history that went much farther back, even on American soil.

For early American Puritans, “wilderness” was far from sublime; it was something to fear. Wilderness was savage, uncivilized; it was a “Wasteland,” somewhere only the devil could find solace. William Bradford wrote in Of Plymouth Plantation, “What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men?”

Even in Europe, the concept of “wilderness” was vastly different in the 17th and 18th centuries. Far from being sublime, mountains were seen as abhorrent deformations of the land. They inspired more fear than awe.  In 1693, English dramatist John Dennis wrote in Miscellanies that his journey crossing the Alps left him “with Horrours [sic], and sometimes almost with despair.”

Understanding a wider, pre-Romantic conception of “wilderness” may shed light onto some of the apathy and even antagonism towards conservation that still exists today.  If Marris wants to figure out “what kind of appeal would make [a nay-sayer] most likely to donate to a conservation organization,” she should have explored all the possible roots of their thought, at the very least, to see where they are coming from.

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