The Book That Launched A Thousand Parks: Wilderness And The American Mind
In part inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act (September 3, 1964), Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash is now being offered in a fifth edition by Yale University Press. Originally published in 1967, and first revised in 1973, no work of history has done more to secure an idea, in this case institutionalized wilderness on our public lands.
For anyone who has not read the book, this essay is to explain why many consider it a classic. Those readers already believing it to be a classic will understand my concerns. Most pressing, think of the critics—including now the historians—who have become increasingly hostile to our public lands. Certainly, wilderness does not sit well with postmodernists and their rejection of American “progress.” How did the United States come into the possession of wilderness? By dispossessing the Indians who were already there. Postmodernists believe they know better what should have happened. For starters, Columbus should not have sailed.
To sit through a history course like that is to know why our educational system is such a mess. The point is that Columbus did sail. As Nash describes, Europe then carried forward to the New World its ancient fears of wilderness. Whether turned into masts for the British Navy or cleared to make farms and settlements, wilderness must step aside.
Following independence, the United States did not complete the conquest of wilderness for reasons eloquently detailed in Nash’s book. “Appreciation of wilderness began in the cities,” he notes. “The literary gentleman wielding a pen, not the pioneer with his axe, made the first gestures of resistance against the strong currents of antipathy.” [p. 42] Fortunately, America had enough literary gentlemen—and artists—recording what the country stood to lose. At this, postmodernists renew another complaint. What? Nash could find no literary women worth mentioning? Off with his chauvinist head!
But of course, he wrote that definition 50 years ago. If he were revisiting the core of his book today, he would undoubtedly include Marjory Stoneman Douglas (the Everglades) and the indefatigable Rosalie Edge (Olympic National Park). The point is that he would include them because they protected wilderness, not simply because they upheld “diversity.” Otherwise, even though their work preceded the 1960s, their relative obscurity among historians at the time is understandable. Especially daunting, most of their papers were still privately held. Only recently have practitioners of women’s history themselves “discovered” Douglas and Edge. The records of the literary people Nash referred to were the ones conspicuously bulging at the seams.
Among others, those records belong to Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson, Howard Zahniser, and David Brower. Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold are featured in separate chapters. Across 200 years of American history, Nash demonstrates how each proved important—indeed pivotal—in securing the wilderness legacy we have today.
The limits of that legacy are still sobering. To be sure, just what are the critics of wilderness so indignant about? Outside of Alaska, protected wilderness constitutes barely 2 percent of the nation—one square mile out of every 50. Including parks and wilderness in Alaska, it is only 4 percent. As much to the point, public wilderness was early identified as the “expendable” portion of our territory. Beginning with Yosemite and Yellowstone, the founders of the national park idea commonly justified parks on the basis of what they did not contain.
Yosemite was a “cleft or gorge” deep in the Sierra; Yellowstone was all volcanic rock. No one was likely to find gold in either park; as for agriculture, Yellowstone was much too high. The timber was windblown, thin, and stunted. There was freezing cold every month of the year. “[Even] the Indians,” Congressman Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts assured his colleagues in 1872, “can no more live there than they can upon the precipitous sides of the Yosemite Valley.”
Was he right? He was for the 19th century. And if Congress had not believed him, there would be no Yellowstone National Park. Obviously, the Indians had seen Yellowstone and had occasionally lived there, if only in the summer months. Ten thousand years is a very long time. But that is a far cry from saying that wilderness restricts either them or the country now. Given modern technology (and yes, Indians today also have it) we demand that government wilderness—protected wilderness—threaten little more than “worthless” land.
My thesis of course rankles anyone who wishes to portray wilderness as a taking. The more valuable the land appears, the more egregious the taking sounds. To its credit, Wilderness and the American Mind paints a broader picture of a country undergoing rapid change. But change it was—and still is. Natives obviously lost the continent, but so has every citizen of the United States lost its original beauty. What should have happened solves not a thing.
In a world of seven billion people, everyone original to the land has been dispossessed at some point. As serfs, we Runtes (the old German for mud) were dispossessed of our overworked fields in the Rhineland. Eventually, we came here. Should we have “sailed?” I had nothing to do with it. For that matter, since when have humans asked permission of the plants and animals? Can we not save a little room for them?
Face it. Marginalizing wilderness in the name of human diversity is just the latest ploy for destroying what is left of wilderness. North America’s original prairies and plains are virtually gone. Most of our lowland forests followed right behind. In those rare instances when slivers of rain forest (the Olympic Peninsula) or potential dam sites (Grand Canyon) found their way into a national park, the park immediately became a target. What happens now if we accept the argument that no park should deprive anyone of a resource—ever?
This is to explain the enduring greatness of Nash’s book. In clarifying how protected wilderness originated, Wilderness and the American Mind reminds us why only government could secure the legacy. Internationally, as well, few books have done more to convince other nations to expand and sustain their legacies. Ten years ago, speaking at an international parks conference in Brazil, I looked across an audience of 1800. During the four days of discussions following, I realized that many had read “the book” by Roderick Nash.
I personally arrived at his doorstep, the University of California, Santa Barbara, in September 1971. An associate professor in the Department of History, he had championed my acceptance into the doctoral program, and then had encouraged my coming west. “Where there is a will, there is a way,” he wrote, responding to my request for financial support. I decided to take the chance without it. In the wake of the infamous Santa Barbara oil spill (1969) and Earth Day (1970), the campus was abuzz. A new program in Environmental Studies (one of the first in the U.S.) had just been launched with Roderick Nash as co-chair. Would I be willing to serve as one of its teaching assistants, he asked? “I want renaissance men and women in the introductory classes,” he explained, “as comfortable in biology or economics as they are in history.” Of course, he would supervise my Ph.D. within the History Department. However, Environmental Studies would be my “home.”
It was just the support I needed. As I struggled to keep ahead of my students, I watched them grow, as well. Soon Wilderness and the American Mind was the most talked-about book on campus and Nash a favorite teacher. His student evaluations were emphatic: No one gave more insightful lectures, as beautifully delivered as they were coherent. History 173C, American Environmental History, annually closed its doors at 300 students. It had to; the lecture hall always filled. Enrollments in Environmental Studies also soared, led by its three introductory courses in the social, physical, and biological environments. Scores of campuses nationwide had soon copied all of it. Environmental Studies, especially as illuminated by Wilderness and the American Mind, was everywhere a proverbial hit.
In academe, the swiftest penalty for popularity is jealousy. Fortunately, UC Santa Barbara was not that way. Still a large number of its senior professors had served in World War II. Many had seen combat; several had witnessed the Holocaust. Others had walked the obliterated streets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If Nash could improve the world by teaching wilderness, more power to him and his book. Most important, the UC system awarded tenure strictly on achievement. His few detractors were neutralized from the start.
The first students to graduate from Environmental Studies departed campus in 1972. Six years later, I myself needed another research trip to Washington, D.C., this time to gather the photographs for National Parks: The American Experience. Then still paying off my graduate studies, I hoped to save money on meals and hotels. Fortunately, a couple of my former students agreed to put me up. They were part of a vanguard, both volunteers and paid associates, working for the Wilderness Society, Audubon, the Sierra Club, and NPCA. Their mission: Expand parks and wilderness in Alaska.
As I rummaged through photographs at the Interior Department, they attended congressional mark-ups—fighting off repeated attempts to restrict the parks. Natural boundaries were the critical issue; consequently, the battleground changed from day to day. Back at the apartment, every dinner conversation seemed to begin on a depressing note. Would true wilderness in Alaska survive?
Then someone would cite Wilderness and the American Mind. What would Aldo Leopold have recommended? How would Howard Zahniser have framed the argument? Refortified by those discussions, back to the Hill they would go. Alaska deserved to remain spacious and special, they testified, with wilderness worthy of the name. Their campaign would not conclude until December 1980 and passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. In a single instant, protected wilderness in the United States was effectively doubled. Surely, Wilderness and the American Mind had done its part.
My digression from its contents is again to underscore the difference between higher education then and now. Today, the prescriptive metaphor is ubiquitous: Columbus should not have sailed. In short, the United States has written for itself an elitist history, embedded with claims of “enlightened” progress. Obviously, those teaching wilderness are part of that wrongheaded narrative. Wilderness is just another taking, too.
Eventually, even UC Santa Barbara became infected. On his retirement in 1995, Roderick Nash was not replaced. The university’s best years seemed to be behind it, he lamented, although he was delighted the Department of History had invited me back to teach. It had, but just for two quarters as a visiting professor. After that, environmental history was reduced to adjunct status and only taught part-time.
Is that now to be the fate of wilderness—a few more quarters of adjunct status? Indeed, imagination my amazement on finding that Wilderness and the American Mind itself now opens with a dutiful bow to its harshest critics. Char Miller, professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, begins the foreword innocently enough. “Wilderness is contested ground,” he notes, appearing to side with Nash’s thesis.
Then Miller goes postmodern, i.e., adds “the poor and disempowered.” The narrative continues to bob and weave, as if Miller still wants to end by praising the book. The point is that he has already created a minefield where only a postmodernist would dare to tread. No doubt, wilderness is a “principled cause” and Wilderness and the American Mind “a trusted guide.” However, only the descendants of Europe want either the cause or the guidebook. The rest see wilderness as “privileged conceit.” In Africa, North America, and South America, he asserts, “it is no surprise that [native peoples] reject the privileged conceit of untrod wildlands that led to their expulsion.” [pp. xii-xiii]
With all due respect to Professor Miller, if he believed that he should have passed on the foreword. Certainly, the term “privileged conceit” invites a host of subliminal negatives that no foreword alone can fairly address. So does his sentence ending with this observation: “[Consider] the gendered differences and discrimination that women encounter within the domestic environment, the workplace, or the Great Outdoors.” [p. xii]
Why is Miller bent on stealing the stage from Nash? Again, the answer is Miller’s stage. That is exactly how the postmodern university works. Its research is tag-along, done in the mirror. Across the humanities, one may ignore the archives and feign the research, now that diversity’s smokescreen is secure.
Miller then enlists William Cronon, as professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, to complete the “deconstruction” of “romantic” wilderness. “In his provocative 1995 essay The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, Cronon argues that our embrace of wilderness as the antidote to civilization is flawed,” Miller notes. “My principal objection to wilderness is that it may teach us to be dismissive or even contemptuous of . . . humble places and experiences,” Cronon asserts. [p. xiii]
Just how did the supporters of wilderness become contemptuous? “By “devaluing” urban America, Miller agrees. Ultimately, environmentalists failed “to take these landscapes seriously, to nurture their naturalness.” He then passes the mirror back to Cronon. “Without our quite realizing it, wilderness tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others.” (Note the word "privilege" again.) “If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world.” [pp. xiii-xiv]
I am all for living “rightly in the world”; I simply doubt that Mr. Cronon wants wilderness to be any part of it. In either case, his is a total misreading of history, let alone this magnificent book. Nash’s literary gentlemen, and yes, literary women, never saw wilderness as an antidote to anything. They rather despaired that the world was losing its naturalness, and yes, identified “civilization” as a primary cause. The question they faced—and we face—remains a simple one. Is there not good reason for despair?
My academic training disallows my calling Cronon’s essay hogwash, but there, I finally got it off my chest. From Central Park to the Golden Gate, wilderness advocates have always joined the fight for livable and healthful cities, and indeed, often came to wilderness causes through urban ones. Miller and Cronon cannot know that because they keep looking in the mirror, ignoring the anti-billboard crusades, city park crusades, garden crusades, greenbelt crusades, wildlife sanctuary crusades, and yes, crusades against tenement squalor and urban poverty. The civil rights movement itself later benefited from the organizing prowess of them all.
“Out there” was part of it, yes, but the total campaign—America the Beautiful—was that and so much more. It no less valued “imperfect” wildness, tarnished wildness. Beauty should be snatched from ugliness wherever possible. As for Miller’s term “privileged conceit,” that, too, is total bunk. I know what he means, but this is what means Nash means. “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
In 1959, recently widowed and unemployed, my mother risked everything on that sentence. She took my brother and me to the national parks where all of us could heal. When we got back, she turned her “privileged” status into finishing high school, “conceited” with the thought she might become a secretary and earn enough to raise her sons. What did wilderness do for her? Everything. That is what Nash is saying.
Indeed, let us focus for a moment on the women allegedly discriminated against as they “encountered” the Great Outdoors. Again, no postmodernist dares to use the right verb: They eagerly defended the Great Outdoors. As a prelude, they did just what Cronon and Miller have accused everyone of not doing—spoke up for the “disempowered.” Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Rosalie Edge began their careers as suffragists. As did Mary Roberts Rinehart, another literary giant and a champion of Glacier National Park.
After winning the vote for women, yes, all three hoped to strike a better deal for wilderness. In that, they honored Native Americans as the original conservationists who had lived within their means. Adding a unique voice to the fight for child labor laws, they supported organized camps and scouting. Simply, every child should have a childhood. Traveling by train (as most people did in those days), they tipped the porters and red caps well. The upshot of those railroad jobs largely held by African-Americans was to boost their middle class. They then sent their kids to camp—and college. It all started with the generosity of those tips—a practice that few but Americans value. That is the story of empowerment the archives tell. Trading a mirror back and forth is the lazy way out.
Now to accuse wilderness of holding America—or Americans back—is the greatest conceit of all. For them, as still for us, the world seemed pummeled by constant change. What should we do? What could they do? Ignore reality and lose all wilderness? Certainly, the alleged “inhumanity” of wilderness would have been news to them.
In history, interpreting events requires an honest appraisal of what was possible and what was not. For wilderness, it requires the integrity found in Roderick Nash’s book—the same integrity his students, in the fight for Alaska, carried with them to Washington, D.C. And lest Professors Miller and Cronon complain they “stole” Alaska, again, the archives tell a different story. To be sure, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, as supported by those same wilderness enthusiasts, helped revolutionize native rights.
Undeterred by his critics, indeed energized by them, Nash now offers a multidisciplinary, multicultural vision for the future—a future he calls Island Civilization. [pp. 379-85] “One way into the idea is to remember wilderness as the unrecognized and unnamed environmental norm for most of Earth’s history.” As the norm, it is not expendable.
“There are some certainties out there,” he observes. “Unless humanity changes its course, its growth in numbers, consumption, and unrestrained technological power will continue to modify the planet.” Must wilderness always be the casualty, he asks? If not, our thinking needs to be reversed.
Today we put wilderness inside a boundary. Perhaps it is time we draw the boundary around ourselves. “Think about the best of our urban environments today and extrapolate way beyond that. There would be no need to hog the geography of the temperate latitudes and push wild creatures to and off the edges of the world. The civilized islands of the future might be on the poles, in and around mountains, floating in air or water. Urban planners will remember that at one time our species lived well in island-like pueblos, monasteries, and villages in the wilderness, encircled by walls. We could go back to that model with the aid of high technology, to a way of occupying this planet that worked for us, and other creatures, for many centuries.”
Nash must know that his idea sounds far-fetched. Then again, it is no more far-fetched than ideas environmentalists entertained in the 1970s, from cities orbiting above the Earth in space to planting colonies on the Moon. Perhaps Nash is right. If we don’t want to end up like the dinosaurs, we should give Island Civilization serious thought.
Meanwhile, we have Roderick Frazier Nash in the original—in the timeless pages of Wilderness and the American Mind. However, if you buy the fifth edition, read the foreword last. Its argument is best ignored until you understand what the original argument was all about. Simply, it is the postmodernists that have it wrong. Wilderness is not on trial; rather our commitment to have a country is on trial. Without wilderness we would be a lesser country. Confident of that, our forebears indeed made the right choice, however imperfect it may be.
A frequent contributor to the Traveler, Alfred Runte is the author of National Parks: The American Experience and Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks. He is currently working on a revised edition of his Yosemite history, Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness.