Is There Such a Thing as Wilderness?

When I first became obsessed with “wilderness” images of untamed wild spaces formed in my mind. At first, the idea of wilderness was that of land no human had ever stepped foot on. A pristine and untouched ecosystem, almost akin to an alien world because of its differences from developed spaces.

“Wilderness”, I had thought, was what the planet was like before humanity spread. It was a window into the past, a landscape that predated civilization.

I have come to realize that wilderness is about much more. It is as much a part of our culture as roads and bridges are.


Boiling mudpots in Yellowstone National Park
Boiling mudpots in Yellowstone National Park

It’s not About Wild vs Humanity

Humans have been to every corner of the planet, having been the apex predator for tens of thousands of years. The idea that wilderness areas are devoid of people is entirely inaccurate. Wilderness is a human creation. It is a natural inclination we have to protect certain areas based on a cultural and perhaps spiritual connection to the land.

The wilderness reminds us of who we actually are. Without wilderness, our cities are not so great. When we conserve wild areas, we are preserving our own humanity. It is rooted inside each of us and is the catalyst of innovation. When mankind faces the unlimited magnitude of wilderness, we become our greatest selves.  


An American Invention

During the settling of the west, the Native Americans were pushed off land that had been occupied for centuries. The Nez Perce tribe is an example of what the landscape was like before European settlers. They would fish as far away as the Pacific Ocean and hunt Buffalo in what is now Montana, returning to their home in present day Idaho. This was not a wilderness but a thriving ecosystem, sustaining the lives of thousands of people, an entire nation of people.

But were there areas where civilization had not explored no? No, the landscape had been mapped for thousands of years.

When the original inhabitants were gone, the land became wild. Areas of the west were quickly cultivated and turned to ranchland but the population density was low enough that areas where traditional agricultural techniques failed, were left alone.

The most mountainous and dangerous regions were spared from the extreme logging and resource extraction that affected much of North America. Remarkably, it is in this time of expansion that the wilderness was born. Entire mountain ranges had become foreboding landscapes where nobody lived, huge swaths of forest now grew. It was during this time Americans began to recognize the wilderness and define it as what we know today. The history of how wilderness came to be is completely dependent on our own expansion and technological improvements. Understanding why we have wilderness makes the argument to protect the the spaces that much greater.

Bison by watering hole, Yellowstone National Park
Bison by watering hole, Yellowstone National Park


America’s Wilderness Ideals

The creation of the wilderness and westward migration changed the world. It gave rise to political identities based around individualism and self-sufficiency. The Louisiana Purchase was Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to make America a land of free farmers, not dependent on the government or anyone else for economic security.

It is the American Dream that to be free, you must conquer the wilderness and make a life for yourself inside its chaos. Because wilderness is really a symbol for freedom.

Our wilderness is the American interpretation of liberty. A place that’s dangerous, a place where it is hard to be comfortable. Because when our back’s against the wall in the wilderness, we can finally reach our potential. Only by being forced into taking responsibility for our lives can we find meaning.

Wilderness is instrumental to the American identity. Without the raw and unknown, we can never find freedom.

Landscapes Conserve More Than Nature

The wilderness ideal was not lost on great men who have come before us. Millions of acres have been conserved and preserved, all to protect a landscape that has shaped us. We are one of the few countries in the world that has fallen in love with our continent so deeply. To this day, her valleys call our name and we dream of bathing in cold mountain lakes. Having the privilege to camp and hike in unspoiled territory is perhaps the greatest experience a human can have.

What is wilderness? It is a blank canvass where your dreams come to fruition. A space in the world where you can truly feel freedom.  

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