HOW WILDERNESS NATURALIZES DEMOCRACY
My interest in nature reserves and in the constructed boundary between wilderness and the rest of life is not motivated by a particular vision of how we should think about nature. On the contrary, the point is not to substitute one version of what nature "really" is (divided into wild and domestic, for instance) for another (interconnected and continuous, as holistic positions argue). Rather than showing that national park policy is somehow out of touch with what is really out there, I am interested in how the real itself is produced in the course of the struggle over ideas, particularly ideas about nature. Far from being a realm somehow outside of politics, our contemporary fantasies of nature as wild, authentic, and original result from the struggle over the political concepts I am examining here: home, democracy, otherness, belonging, future. My aim is to follow philosopher Johanna Oksala in "revealing the forgotten political institution of reality," and few things today are presented as less instituted—or more real—than what goes under the name of wilderness.
The first national parks were sometimes presented as playgrounds and spaces of wonder, in the tradition of the World's Fair and other carnivals. At other times they appeared as the land in its truest form, figures of simple transparency and universal human needs. This was one of the binary oppositions governing nineteenth-century American culture after the Civil War, and it structures what geographer and landscape theorist J. B. Jackson calls the "vernacular, urban, contemporary perception of nature" to this day. The word "vernacular" is especially important here, because whatever is vernacular is what is most difficult to view from a critical distance. To step out of our most familiar, vernacular perception of nature in order to scrutinize it is no easy thing, especially because this perception of nature organizes our very ideas about the human and the real.
FROM PARKS TO WILDERNESS
At the same time that the U.S. government created spaces that were supposed to be kept safe from industrial development, the growth of the railroad industry allowed for those same visitors for whom the parks had been laid aside to access them. The process of park development from its earliest days to the Organic Act of 1916 was shaped by the railroad companies, which created the new phenomenon of mass-market tourism by means of an invention: the West as a land of "playgrounds." The Northern Pacific Railroad began its "Wonderland" line in 1885 with an advertisement for "Alice's Adventures in the New Wonderland, the Yellowstone National Park" and "A Romance: Wonderland," cashing in on well-worn fantasy tropes. In 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park organized an elaborate hoax in order to bring the park to national attention, announcing that a twenty-year-old "co-ed" would spend a week in the park wilderness "as a modern Eve," unassisted, barefoot, and dressed in leopard skin. Today, the bookshelves at Panther Junction display serious naturalists' guides like Birds of the Trans-Pecos next to the much-better-selling title Death in Big Bend and numerous Wild West narratives. One of Death Valley's backcountry attractions is called "The Racetrack," where, as the newsletter says, "rocks mysteriously slide across the dry lakebed," although upon closer inspection the mysterious force in question is wind, according to rangers.
Thus, the park idea and commercial development are not exactly opposites of each other in any straightforward way. In 1901, Freud used the American nature reserves as an example of what happens in the formation of fantasy, a realm split off from reality and governed entirely by the pleasure principle. Just as reality needs a fantasy space that is safely demarcated, the naturalists and the developers historically defined themselves in terms of each other, and all projected their particular vocabularies and logics onto the park spaces. It is easy to imagine the park system as always trying to outrun capitalist development in an effort to stay physically and morally uncontaminated, and development, in turn, always encroaching upon it. But the apparent opposites of nature and development function together to create the unified but internally inconsistent park idea.
In what follows I appear to reduce the two ideas, national park and wilderness, to each other, or at least to vacillate between them with some vagueness. This is deliberate. Although they are officially, legally two separate entities, and the National Wilderness Preservation System is not geographically identical to the system of national parks, the contemporary idea of wilderness seems to have emerged from the belly of the park idea as its giant, unruly offspring. They intersect both geographically, with the NPS managing over 40 percent of federal wilderness land, and ideologically. The park idea is the creation of the nature reserve for the sake of human recreation and thus human wellness, and if we extend this thinking of the relationship between nature and humans to its logical conclusion, it becomes necessary to remove the humans from it entirely, precisely for the sake of their own wellness. Wilderness is the park idea taken to its logical conclusion, informed explicitly by the latter's anthrophobia and humanism. Like the park idea, wilderness is a deeply social concept, framed by a host of other discourses about society with which it is in ongoing conversation: geography, urban planning, economics, environmental philosophy, landscape photography, psychiatry, and all of the social sciences. From city parks and national recreation areas like Gateway in New York and Golden Gate in San Francisco, to the most remote and inaccessible wilderness of Alaska, the ideal of human wellness is at the heart of the conversations about parks, especially in arguments which rely on claims that are "anti-urban, antitechnological, antipeople, antihistory." In the first episode of the Burns film, several speakers, like Burns's cowriter, Dayton Duncan, introduce the park idea in these terms.
I think that deep in our DNA is this embedded memory of when we were not separated from the rest of the natural world.... We were part of it. The Bible talks about the Garden of Eden as that experience that we had at the beginnings of our dimmest memories as a species. So when we enter a [national] park we're entering a place that has been ... at least the attempt has been made to keep it like it once was, and we cross that boundary and suddenly we're no longer masters of the natural world, we're part of it. And in that sense it's like we're going home. It doesn't matter where we're from. We've come back to a place that is where we came from.
DNA, memory, Eden, species, mastery, origins, holism, home: all of these ideas are conflated in what is supposed to be the simplest thing in the world, simple precisely because it promises to restore us to our unmediated, unalienated selves. This notion dates back to the writings of Transcendentalist philosophers like Henry David Thoreau, for whom a return to nature meant a return to an original, true human state, a reality uncontaminated by the artifices of development. It is not by accident that the American West was described by explorers in terms of recognition of something we had lost long ago, and especially in terms of the Garden of Eden. Duncan's reference to the boundary crossed when one enters a park is not just about the physical boundary, but the metaphysical one: we enter a space in which we are restored to a time before the Fall, a time of innocence. Writer Gretchen Ehrlich describes the motivations of John Muir, nineteenth-century explorer and passionate developer of the park idea, in similarly spiritual and universalizing terms:
John Muir once said, "By going out into the natural world, I'm really going in." He defined in that sentence what it is to be a human being. Because I think we're born lost and we remain lost until we remove the shell of who we think we are, all the preconceptions of who we think we are, to expose ourselves to the great power of the natural world, and to let that power reshape us the way it's reshaped the rocks of Yosemite Valley.
This ontology is echoed famously in the writings of Edward Abbey, former park ranger and activist for wilderness, most notably in Utah, who bemoans the artifice of the parks. "Arches National Monument, for example, has become a travesty called Arches National Park—a static diorama seen through glass." But the terms in which Abbey talks about wilderness are precisely the same ones in which the Burns documentary describes parks. He writes, "Wilderness.... The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb and earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit ... the only paradise we ever need—if only we had the eyes to see." Likewise, another staunch critic of parks, philosopher and mountaineer Jack Turner, argues that "if anything is endangered in America, it is our experience of wild nature—gross contact." Turner writes about a primeval connection "between the wild in nature and the wild in us" and denounces all attempts at land management. The experience must be unmediated—that is the only way that it can be real "contact." As much as Turner imagines himself to be opposed to the national parks, he in fact repeats the same mystifying gestures as Duncan and Burns do, as when he invites readers to have a real experience of nature by going into a forest alone at night. "Sit quietly for a while. Something very old will return," he announces mysteriously, drawing on the very same trope of genetic memory of some original, true experience deep within, covered over by culture and needing excavation. Throughout his work, Turner calls for solitary experiences of nature, away from the restrictions placed upon park visitors and absolutely away from other people.
If wilderness is the unruly offspring of national parks, mystical positions from Abbey's to Turner's that demand complete solitude are the unruly offspring of wilderness, calling for ever wilder experiences in the name of an original human state, which Turner identifies with our sense of home. "To seriously help homeless humans and animals will require a sense of home that is not commercial. The Eskimo, the Aranda, the Sioux—all belonged to a place. Where is our habitat? Where do I belong?"
One position from which to begin responding to the wilderness idea is that it is grounded in a conception of the natural world that is simply empirically false. Today's environmental ethics and animal ethics literature shows that the wild/domestic binary is inconsistent with the paradigm that underpins all of the natural sciences, namely evolution by natural selection. According to evolutionary theory, the differences between species are differences of degree, not kind, which means that the terms "wild" and "domestic" in reference to plants and animals are cultural projections and do not pick out discrete, real entities in the world. Domesticated species are not as different from wild ones as we assume and there is no boundary, physical or metaphysical, between wild and domesticated environments. There are only interpretations of spaces and beings as one or the other, with this "or," the line between them, taken as a given precisely because the concepts are defined in terms of each other.
The more critical response, which I have begun to outline, is the claim that wilderness policy creates wild spaces. The home to which Duncan repeatedly refers must first be instituted in order to then take on the effect of transcendent, universal home. In other words, the argument that relies on the idea that the wilderness simply is forgets or erases the fact that, historically speaking, it first had to be created by federal wilderness policy. This forgetting is itself an anthrophobic wishful thinking that imagines a time "before" the world was such a violent, disordered, alienating mess. It is remarkable that one of Burns's foregrounded dramatis personae, William Cronon, has penned perhaps the most well-traveled critique of wilderness in precisely these terms. In "The Trouble with Wilderness," he writes,
Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history. It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it's a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made. Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural.
Cronon objects to the anthrophobia inherent in the wilderness idea on the grounds that "it is not a proposition that seems likely to produce very positive or practical results." But this, of course, does not necessarily follow. It could be argued that measures like population control, limiting access to the point of forbidding entry to wild spaces, or even the disappearance of humans altogether will yield quite positive and practical results for ecological health and biodiversity. Cronon describes the position that "if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves" as absurd, but in fact it is entirely logically sound. What makes the fantasy of unpeopled wilderness problematic is not its unsoundness, but the role it plays in the naturalization of democracy. The wilderness idea functions actively to depoliticize not only nature, but politics.
THE NATURE OF POLITICS
As historian Donald Worster has shown, wilderness and democracy have the same late-eighteenth-century ideological origins at the intersection of social equality and individual liberty. But I wish to make a stronger point: nature not only becomes a useful locus for the democratic ideal; it allows us to imagine that democracy is not a form of modern politics, but some original human state. The idea that this kind of original experience, this opportunity to be "found," should be available to everyone and not just the elite creates the effect of a people who can become truly, once and for all, themselves, speaking as themselves in this, the final form of social organization, final because it is original. Directly on the heels of Burns's footage of Ehrlich, the heads of the "founding fathers" carved into Mt. Rushmore become the paradigm of the park idea, in which natural phenomena and democratic ideals are literally one and the same. The faces become the actual "face" of the mountain and the mountain simply has faces in it as if no human intervention had ever taken place. During the footage of the stone heads, the narration continues: "But they are more than a collection of rocks and trees and inspirational scenes from nature. They embody something less tangible, yet equally enduring, an idea, born in the U.S. nearly a century after its creation, as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical."
The parks thus become spaces in which the natural human experience is solitary and atomistic, and in which politics disappears because it simply "is" the transparent truth of what the people—at once collective and absent—want. The mountain is the face of Washington, who in turn is his people, and the forces sculpting the faces of this collective "we" are natural, not political. "Every member or officer of the federal government ought to remind himself, with triumphant pride, that he is on the staff of the Grand Canyon," writes British playwright and Grand Canyon enthusiast J. B. Priestley, as if the government itself were in the service of nature. The landscapes become part of what cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls the "National Symbolic."