Response to William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”

As we discussed in class, in, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon introduces us to the potential danger in society’s traditional concept of wilderness.  He points out how we separate ourselves from nature merely by idealizing it and thinking of it as something distant and remote; we do not consider ourselves living as members of the natural world.  Instead, we take part in civilized society while at the same time “imagining that our true home is in the wilderness” (Cronon).  Approaching the concept of nature (or wilderness) in this way leads to an ultimate separation of us, as members of society, from what we could consider to be our true home.  Our real lives take place in a civilized realm, yet we fantasize about escaping from the artificial constructs of society and long to enter into a remote wilderness.  The national parks seem to offer such an escape.

The preservation of wilderness that national parks offer is comforting to us; we know that our true home is out there somewhere remaining pure; therefore we may continue living our daily lives with the comfort of knowing that nature is out there somewhere.  However, as Cronon points out, our careful sectioning off of designated wilderness areas may lead to more environmental harm than good by possibly allowing a sense of irresponsibility to develop between people and the natural environment.  If we see the environment as only small sections of our world meant to be visited as if they served the same purpose as museums, then we cut ourselves off from the natural world and no longer feel a true responsibility toward it, or posses a real knowledge of it.  We no longer live as members of the natural world; we live as admirers of it, which makes our ability to protect it crippled and weak.  In Cronon’s words, “Idealizing a distant wilderness often means not idealizing the environment in which we live […] we need an environmental ethic that will tell us as much about using nature as not using it.”

After realizing Cronon’s point I began to realize the urgent truth in his words.  As he discusses finding a middle ground which encompasses civilization and wilderness that we can recognize and call home, I am reminded of the reckless nature in which we generally create new homes or habitats for ourselves.  For example, when riding down the highway in almost any nearby city I find myself confronted with stripped land and a kind of oppressive housing situation.  These suburban areas are stripped of any reference to the natural world besides the names on the street signs that attempt to convince visitors that they are in a beautiful and natural setting; they try to resemble a place one could call home.  I do not mean to assault these communities in any way.  These places are homes to many, and many of these locations are beautiful and have a welcome place in our society.  However, after seeing so many communities that feel nothing more than artificial, I begin to wonder why we continue to construct our society in this way.  Why do we create living spaces that in no way resemble the natural world of which we are members?

Although I do feel that the existence of national parks is worthwhile and beneficial to our society, the concepts of wilderness that have contributed to the establishment of these parks are potentially dangerous to the future development of our natural landscapes.  By viewing wilderness as something set apart from and outside of our everyday lives, we continue to trap ourselves in an artificial world that only allows us to see nature with a stark sense of detachment.  Such a view provides a recipe for neglecting the natural world, and in turn depriving ourselves of its benefits.  In order to adequately protect and live as members of the natural world, we must not only change the way we view wilderness, but must also change the way in which we live in, and interact with it.  This would mean a major shift in how live and think as a society, but if we could begin to think of the natural world as our home of which we are a part, we may begin to interact with it in a much healthier way.


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