long . lines and ripples

William Cronon's Short Critique of American Nature

Last night I re-read a 1995 essay by the UW-Madison environmental historian William Cronon: “The Trouble With Wilderness.”1

If you care about rethinking, or even debunking, the particularly American fascination with “unspoiled,” unpeopled landscapes, this is one of the most effective short critiques that I have read. In just about twenty pages, he reviews:

The theme park quality of the modern wilderness experience, where wilderness acts becomes an escape from urban life which is understood to have separated from nature:

Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists, who brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled. For them, wild land was not a site for productive labor and not a permanent home; rather, it was a place of recreation. One went to the wilderness not as a producer but as a consumer, hiring guides and other backcountry residents who could serve as romantic surrogates for the rough riders and hunters of the frontier if one was willing to overlook their new status as employees and servants of the rich. In just this way, wilderness came to embody the national frontier myth, standing for the wild freedom of America’s past and seeming to represent a highly attractive natural alternative to the ugly artificiality of modern civilization. The irony, of course, was that in the process wilderness came to reflect the very civilization its devotees sought to escape. Ever since the nineteenth century, celebrating wilderness has been an activity mainly for well-to-do city folks. Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal. In contrast, elite urban tourists and wealthy sportsmen projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and so created wilderness in their own image.

The problem with using the Endangered Species Act to protect huge swaths of land from development:

The terms of the Endangered Species Act in the United States have often meant that those hoping to defend pristine wilderness have had to rely on a single endangered species like the spotted owl to gain legal standing for their case—thereby making the full power of the sacred land inhere in a single numinous organism whose habitat then becomes the object of intense debate about appropriate management and use. (27) The ease with which anti-environmental forces like the wise-use movement have attacked such single-species preservation efforts suggests the vulnerability of strategies like these.

The self-defeating nature of believing that any wild place could be separated from human activity:

To do so is merely to take to a logical extreme the paradox that was built into wilderness from the beginning: if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves. The absurdity of this proposition flows from the underlying dualism it expresses. Not only does it ascribe greater power to humanity that we in fact possess—physical and biological nature will surely survive in some form or another long after we ourselves have gone the way of all flesh—but in the end it offers us little more than a self-defeating counsel of despair.

And, what I like most about the essay is Cronon’s quite specific recommendation at the essay’s end.

That is why, when I think of the times I myself have come closest to experiencing what I might call the sacred in nature, I often find myself remembering wild places much closer to home. I think, for instance, of a small pond near my house where water bubbles up from limestone springs to feed a series of pools that rarely freeze in winter and so play home to waterfowl that stay here for the protective warmth even on the coldest of winter days, gliding silently through streaming mists as the snow falls from gray February skies. I think of a November evening long ago when I found myself on a Wisconsin hilltop in rain and dense fog, only to have the setting sun break through the clouds to cast an otherworldly golden light on the misty farms and woodlands below, a scene so unexpected and joyous that I lingered past dusk so as not to miss any part of the gift that had come my way. And I think perhaps most especially of the blown-out, bankrupt farm in the sand country of central Wisconsin where Aldo Leopold and his family tried one of the first American experiments in ecological restoration, turning ravaged and infertile soil into carefully tended ground where the human and the nonhuman could exist side by side in relative harmony. What I celebrate about such places is not just their wildness, though that certainly is among their most important qualities; what I celebrate even more is that they remind us of the wildness in our own backyards, of the nature that is all around us if only we have eyes to see it.

This is a version of localism. If all spaces are linked in a global “ecosystem,” then nature exists everywhere. And we needn’t give up the concept of nature, or even the sacredness of nature. Instead our task is to extend the secularized grace of nature to more places. This is an anti-dualist, one might say even anti-Christian argument, in that it rejects any separation between a sacred and fallen world. If there is something that is sinful about the human habitation of nature, then there is no alternative space, no wilderness beyond the fallen space to which we can appeal. The wilderness is just as fallen as the city sidewalk.

The argument has to lot in it to make the right kind of outdoorsy American romantic think. It is a great, condensed attack on so much of what is wrong with how, especially, elites think about nature.

But the argument is also worth comparing to a more current flavor of this debate. This is the problem of the Anthropocene, the necessity of worldwide action on climate change, etc. I would venture that most of the pollution in this world is generated, directly or indirectly, by places that have lost their status as “nature.” But we cannot bend the curve of climate change by making these ordinary places look more like wilderness. People have to live somewhere. As Cronon argues, it might be better if wilderness did not exist, so that it would be clear that there is no nature but the one in front of us right now.

Further reading:

Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene

  1. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69-90). William Cronon. A copy can be found on Cronon’s website[]


William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis. Norton, 1991.