Wilderness and the American Mind, by Roderick Nash --

The Many Forms of Anthropocentrism

Mike Vandeman, 1/2/95

Nash's classic is an erudite, encyclopedic account of the evolution of thought and behaviour toward wilderness in America since the first settlement of the New World. Wilderness, like the hero in a nineteenth century novel, progresses from being an embodiment of evil, to being seen as the apotheosis of good, while experiencing every possible adventure along the way.

During its "evil" period, it was seen as amoral, immoral, a Biblical representation of evil, the opposite of Eden, dangerous, threatening, frightening, painful, useless, and all manner of other negative adjectives. Gradually, with many setbacks and countercurrents along the way, it acquired a reputation for being refreshing, inspiring, energizing, awesome, pleasurable, powerful, useful, worthy of respect, a representation of morality, and worthy of worship.

While reading the book, I was excited by the journey, and optimistically looked forward to its end. I felt as if I were watching the sun burning off the fog of superstition. However, now, I am disappointed -- not in Nash, but in mankind: the entire odyssey takes place within an anthropocentric shell that is rarely cracked. Whether wilderness is seen as useless or useful, painful or pleasurable, these concepts are still understood almost entirely from the human point of view. Even the title, "Wilderness and the American Mind", assumes that the only mind worth examining is the human one!

When wilderness was largely unknown, it was seen as dangerous to man, and hence, evil. When we learned how to make use of it, it became useful and pleasurable to man, and hence, good. At no point did we stop "taking it personally", and simply see it as it is -- neither good nor bad. Rarely have we ever been satisfied to look at wilderness from the point of view of its more rightful "owners" and residents -- wildlife. While we have generally ceased considering it our moral obligation to "tame" all wilderness and make it "productive" (i.e., make it serve human ends), I doubt that appealing exclusively to selfish motives (e.g. let's save wilderness as places for humans to rest and recreate) is an effective long-term strategy. (I am reminded of the definition (in 1950's humor) of a gentleman as a man who will protect a woman from every man but himself.) Doesn't the continual appeal to selfish motives simply encourage and perpetuate them?

What impressed me about Nash's story is how easily the obvious (but inconvenient) gets overlooked -- how rarely we humans are able to simply tell the truth. For example, hasn't it always been obvious that we depend on other species, just as they depend on each other? And isn't it just as obvious that these species want (and hence need) to be safe and unmolested in their homes, just as we do? We pride ourselves in our ability to practice empathy, but we don't apply it to wildlife. We make blithe assertions about the use of wilderness, without considering the views of wildlife. Although this country was founded on the slogan "No Taxation Without Representation!", we "tax" and make laws regarding wildlife, without the beings affected being able to vote or even be represented in the negotiations. Of course, we can't know exactly what they think, but if empathy works on humans, why not on other species, with whom we share a surprizing (and embarrassing?) number of genes?

There is no question that wilderness is of tremendous value to humans. Thanks to scientists, we have steadily increased our knowledge of how it is in our self-interest to preserve it. It seems to be inherently, even instinctively (per Edward O. Wilson's Biophilia), attractive to us. Its novelty and complexity stimulate our thinking. Its beauty and power delight and awe us. I feel that wilderness is our best guide to "how things are supposed to be", and that therefore human infants (who learn, according to psychologists, most of what they will ever know by the age of six, and therefore mostly nonverbally) should experience it almost as soon as they are born (lest they, contrariwise, learn to love our artificial, plastic, concrete, "zoo" environment, and foolishly assume, as we do, that we own, and have a right to control, every square inch of the Earth).

Many of Nash's informants stated that wilderness teaches humility. If so, why has mankind in 4 million years of evolution not seen fit to grant the other organisms with which we share the Earth the same rights we insist on for ourselves: the right to live unmolested in our homes, the right to eat whatever we need, the right to pursue any available choice of mates, and the right to travel in pursuit of these foods and mates? Why don't we support and create wildlife preserves and connecting corridors that are, in other words, off-limits to humans? That is true wilderness.

We grant ourselves the right to invade the habitat of any species on Earth, often making continued life there impossible (or unpleasant, which amounts to the same thing) for many of the current inhabitants. We deny other species the right to eat us or our pets or livestock, killing any animal that happens to be suspiciously close to the scene of the crime (and always rationalizing afterward that we have merely brought justice to the "criminal"). And we have constructed an almost impenetrable series of roads, freeways, and other barriers that deny wildlife the ability to travel in search of suitable homes, foods, and mates, with devastating effect on biodiversity. In other words, we treat wildlife just as we do our convicted felons.

One example will illustrate our attitude toward wildlife. Some school children were hiking in Tilden Park, a regional park next to Berkeley, California, and passed a yellowjacket nest which was next to the trail. Several of the children got stung. Even though parks exist only because they preserve wildlife (without which they would be barren rock and not worth visiting), rather than closing that section of trail to protect the insects, and giving the children a valuable lesson in biology, the park rangers simply destroyed the yellowjackets. Even our parks, which above all places should be sanctuaries for wildlife, we consider simply human playgrounds!