Excerpts from a Conversation with Ron Mader, Amy Krause, Tim
Burford, Gerhard Buttner and John Shores
The wilderness of the Sierra will disappear
unless little pieces of nonwilderness become intensely loved
by lots of people In other words, Harlem and Saint Louis and
Iowa and Kansas and the rest of the world where wilderness has
been destroyed must come to be loved by enough of us, or wilderness
too is doomed.
- Wilderness Notebook
Planeta.com hosted a discussion on the role
that 'wilderness' plays in the minds of locals around the world.
Is there a standard definition or is wilderness a cultural construct?
uses the following from the fourth edition of the American Heritage
1. An unsettled, uncultivated region left in its natural condition,
a. A large wild tract of land covered with dense vegetation
b. An extensive area, such as a desert or ocean, that is barren
or empty; a waste.
c. A piece of land set aside to grow wild.
Another definition from
the USA Wilderness
The Wilderness Act of 1964 (in the USA) defines Wilderness as
...lands designated for preservation and protection in their
...an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled
...an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval
character and influence, without permanent improvement or human
...generally appears to have been affected primarily by the
forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially
...has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive
and unconfined type of recreation.
...shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreation, scenic,
scientific, educational, conservation and historic use.
In my experience, the idea of wilderness has become culturally
iconic in parts of Canada and the United States. I won't speak
so much for other places as my experience is limited, but I
can say that in my travels overseas, I have never been to a
place that held "uninhabited" and uncultivated lands
in such high esteem.
Wilderness, or the idea of it, may be largely constructed -
especially if you take into account the experiences of Native
Americans, First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples - but it
occupies an important role in the minds of people here.
I recall distinctly having a conversation with a retired couple
on a train in Britain about ten years ago. When they discovered
I was from Canada, he said to me, "I was in Canada years
ago. I remember riding the train from Toronto to Vancouver and
all across the country there were just vast tracts of nothing...
Nothing at all. How can you call it a country when there is
In his mind, the history of the people who live in a place make
the country. In my mind, the fact there were places where people
weren't, made the country... Somehow, I don't think the idea
of wilderness - or at least it cultural importance - was the
same in his mind as it was in mine.
Regarding the idea of wilderness as "a place… that
people believe to be unaltered by a human presence" - I
spend a lot of time in the mountains of Eastern Europe which
most local people and visitors probably believe to be wild and
unaltered by human influence - yet the forests through which
one approaches are shaped by centuries of forestry, and the
alpine meadows, and the treeline itself which defines them,
are entirely the product of sheep spending the summers there
for even longer.
The same is true of the Scottish Highlands, once covered with
Caledonian forest but now bare thanks to sheep and deer - paradoxically,
the key human intervention was the removal of the bulk of the
human population to Canada and elsewhere. Yet this is some of
the most majestic wilderness scenery on earth.
The point is not that the wilderness is unaltered by humans,
but that it is *believed* to be unaltered. It's the sense of
a human presence that matters, not the actuality. Much of Nepal
is densely populated, but it still offers an intense wilderness
experience - although perhaps the point here is the contrast
between the busy trails and villages, and the pure whiteness
of the peaks that seem so deceptively close.
First stop for discussion of wilderness should be the John
Muir Trust who are very active in Scotland. In October 2004
they held a major conference on Sustaining Wild Land and produced
a 'Declaration for the Wild' and a working paper on Wild Land
Policy - available on the website under 'policies'.
In my home country South Africa we have a similar classification
of wilderness areas from a recreation perspective. There are
many National Parks and State Forests with day and overnight
visitor facilities and then some so-called "WILDERNESS
AREAS" for the real wilderness experience.
These are often – just as Tim Burford points out for Eastern
Europe - only "believed" to be unaltered, as there
are paths and basic shelters used by shepherds in the past,
clearly not completely unaltered. One attraction is sleeping
in caves. Also nothing new nor unaltered: This has been done
for centuries by the "San" (Bushmen) people who
have left their graffiti ("Rock Paintings") all
over them, adding another visitor attraction.
For many the importance of WILDERNESS is more about the EXPERIENCE
than the ecological history of the PLACE. The "Wilderness
experience" requires vast, impressive or majestic landscapes,
and a very limited number of other visitors, rather than a completely
This implies a limited "carrying capacity", not
only in an ecological sustainability sense of not further altering
the area for future generations, but also sustaining the "wilderness
experience" for the present visitor.
Though if you ask the rural poor in Africa (or Asia or Latin
America): "What is wilderness?", this leisure /
tourism approach is meaningless. Possible responses might be:
…potential agricultural land for my children,
…the land we should invade before anybody else does,
…the land the government has stolen from our ancestors,
…the land we can use for firewood / hunting etc.
…the useless / waterless / inaccessible land where the
dangerous animals roam etc.
This is exactly why a "wilderness area" with impoverished
people in the vicinity can only be a sustainable tourist option
if these people are part of the process.
"Wilderness" is a cultural construct: it can be
paradise, hell, history, the future, a "close to nature"
feeling, a resource opportunity, a wasteland, a political issue
Another way to frame the "wilderness" concept is
to adopt the approach we use with wildlands, i.e., "lands
where natural capital predominates." One can also use the
lack of human infrastructure -- an approach we use in the US
by identifying roadless areas (lands removed at least 10 miles
from any roads).
But I like the idea of places we *imagine* to be wild.
One of the tests of any definition is how well it applies at
the extremes. Does it work on top of Sagarmatha? Does it apply
in the Antarctic? How about in the middle of the ocean south
of Australia? Imagining you in wild places.