Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Wild at Heart

Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Wild at Heart

Article excerpt

"The idea of wilderness needs no defense," Edward Abbey once declared, "it only needs defenders." It's a good line and a brave one, but, like so many things, it might not hold up as it once did.

September 3 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, one of the landmark accomplishments of the modern American environmental movement. We should be celebrating the occasion with champagne and high-fives. Instead, many longtime conservationists have found themselves in something of a defensive crouch. The wilderness ideal--which once seemed so self-evident to so many people--is facing harsh new attacks.

In this special edition of Earth Island Journal celebrating wildness Brooke Williams writes (page 33): "Wilderness has insidious new opponents who mask their opposition with compelling verbiage about humans' role as masters of the planet." Supposedly, in a world of unchecked human authority we have to dump the hope of leaving some places beyond the reach of civilization's intentions and embrace our role as gardeners of all of Earth.

Not so fast. The fresh doubts about the value of wilderness come, in part, from the academics' usual overthinking. Some of it comes from the desire of "serious people" to parrot what passes for conventional wisdom. Much of it is just plain wrong.

But some of the second-guessing springs from a natural confusion about how wilderness makes us feel. As Williams points out, wilderness is often ineffable: We struggle to translate our experiences into words. Wilderness as a place and wildness as a quality defy easy definition. …

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