Conflicted: The Changing Place of Wilderness in American Culture

As I sit to write, I’m looking at a frozen world. It is hardly the weather we expect this time of year and a palpable reminder that the natural world can be a hard and unpredictable place at times. April gave us a time, in the days surrounding Earth Day, to pay attention to this natural world, to heighten awareness of our current responsibility to this place of which we, as people of God, are called to be stewards. And without going too far into the theology of caring for God’s creation, I wanted to briefly express a view of how our American culture has approached that responsibility over time.

Our American view of the natural world is bound to an early Judeo-Christian perspective that saw wilderness, unaltered by human hands, as an unforgiving place and beyond control. This perspective of wilderness as a hard and undesireable place is seeded in our Old and New Testament stories. Adam and Eve were expelled from a pristine garden to a place filled with thorns and thistles, where survival was envisioned as a struggle against the land. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness as a means of punishment for their unbelief. Wilderness became known as a place of punishment, of lesser morality, of spiritual trial.

For centuries, this perspective crept through literary tradition, both secular and sacred. Many Western stories and fables set untamed land as the dwelling place of monsters, beasts, and unsavory humans. “Out of the woods” meant safety and predictability. It is no great wonder that European settlers of the “new world” saw before them a world that needed to be conquered, tamed, controlled. To their credit, survival was a real task, in which there was no great room for creating an ethic of conservation. The early pioneers, many of whom were rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview, took to heart God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to subdue the world. And for centuries since, we scarcely stopped to think of the consequences. This ethic of consumption, driven by many other contributing factors, is at least partially founded on a Protestant work ethic that drove the settling of the American wilderness.

As the American frontier grew smaller and its threat to human survival diminished, however, many people started looking at wilderness with a different lens. In the late 1700’s, a period of Romanticism began to cultivate an appreciative view of the American wilderness. Some began to see beauty in the unspoiled hills and forests and so laid a foundation of development that led to more positive view of wilderness. In the 1800’s, America’s wildness became a drumbeat for national identity. It was something that had been largely lost in the European landscape, where most habitable land had been cultivated and controlled into a pastoral setting. Not so in the United States. Here, the wilderness was still vast.

Despite these Romantic and Nationalistic views of the American wilderness, as time progressed, the undercurrent of consumption continued to run alongside appreciation for it. Even as the National Parks were created and became available, there existed a disregard for how individual and corporate actions impacted those places and many like it. In the mid to late 1960’s and 70’s, efforts were made to legislate a regard for human impact on the natural world. This is where many of our own stories begin to join the greater narrative. There is a continual back and forth here. A drive to control and consume, or just make ends meet, paired with an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. The gap between the two is the understanding that one impacts the other. Somehow we need to understand and make personal the reality that our personal use of and consumption of resources impacts the natural world that we appreciate. And an appreciation for the natural world helps scaffold the desire to act responsibly toward it.

These are the goals of the Caring for Creation committee, that we might help foster personal experiences in the natural world and provide education and resources to enable care. If you would like to look further into this history of American perceptions of wilderness, why it is a sacred responsibility, and/or how to take practical steps toward caring for the natural world, join us at either of our two adult education offerings in May.

Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 5th ed. (New Haven: Yale, 2014)

~Josh Bochniak, Caring for Creation Co-coordinator