The time has come to rethink wilderness.This will seem a heretical claim to many environmentalists, since the idea of wilderness has for decadesbeen a fundamental tenet—indeed, a passion—of the environmental movement. For many Americanswilderness stands as the last remaining place where civilization, that all too human disease, has not fully
infected the earth. Seen in this way, wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves,
a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet.
And yet: go back 250 years in American and European history, and you do not find so many people
wandering around remote corners of the planet looking for what today we would call “the wilderness
experience.” As late as the eighteenth century, the most common usage of the word “wilderness” in the
English language referred to landscapes that generally carried adjectives far different from the ones
they attract today. To be a wilderness then was to be “deserted,” “savage,” “desolate,” “barren”—in short,
a “waste,” the word’s nearest synonym. Its connotations were anything but positive, and the emotion one
was most likely to feel in its presence was “bewilderment” or terror.
But by the end of the nineteenth century, all this had changed. Wilderness had once been the antithesis of
all that was orderly and good—it had been the darkness, one might say, on the far side of the garden wall—
and yet now it was frequently likened to Eden itself. To gain such remarkable influence, the concept of
wilderness had to become sacred. Wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization
that has lost its soul. Most of all, it is the ultimate landscape of authenticity.
The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never
themselves had to work the land to make a living—urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket
or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently
have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die. Only people whose relation
to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the
romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living
from the land.
If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature
represents its fall. If this is so, then also by definition it can offer no solution to the environmental and
other problems that confront us. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical,
sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like. Worse: to the extent that we live
in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in
the wilderness, to just that extent we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we
actually lead. By imagining that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves the homes we
How can we take the positive values we associate with wilderness and bring them closer to home? In
reminding us of the world we did not make, wilderness can teach profound feelings of humility and respect
as we confront our fellow beings and the earth itself. Feelings like these argue for the importance of self-
awareness and self criticism as we exercise our own ability to transform the world around us, helping us
set responsible limits to human mastery—which without such limits too easily becomes human hubris.
Wilderness is the place where, symbolically at least, we try to withhold our power to dominate.
Learning to honor the wild—learning to remember and acknowledge the autonomy of the other—means
striving for critical self-consciousness in all of our actions. It means never imagining that we can flee into
a mythical wilderness to escape history and the obligation to take responsibility for our own actions that
history inescapably entails. Most of all, it means practicing remembrance and gratitude, for thanksgiving is
the simplest and most basic of ways for us to recollect the nature, the culture, and the history
that have come together to make the world as we know it. If wildness can stop being (just)
out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then
perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world—not just
in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.
Chapter 1: Relationship with Nature
Program B: Drawing Nature – Jewish Sources
Gary Snyder, The New York Times
“A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness
anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness. The planet is a wild
place and always will be.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walking
“In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named,
spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage
one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 1976
“Human beings have indeed become primarily tool-making animals, and the world
is now a gigantic tool box for the satisfaction of their needs.... Nature is a tool box
in a world that does not point beyond itself. It is when nature is sensed as mystery
and grandeur that it calls upon us to look beyond it.”
Jewish Folk Tale
Two men were fighting over a piece of land. Each claimed ownership and
bolstered his claim with proof. To resolve their differences, they agreed to put
the case before the Rabbi. The Rabbi listened but could not come to a decision
because both seemed to be right. Finally he said, “Since I cannot decide to whom
this land belongs, let us ask the land.” He put his ear to the ground, and after a
moment straightened up. “Gentlemen, the land says that it belongs to neither of
you – but that you belong to it.”
Rabbi David Nieto
“My beloved brethren, listen to me clearly, and know that what I am going to say is
a fundamental belief of our people, as it has been since we were founded. There
is no such thing as nature. The word simply does not exist in the Hebrew language.
About 500 years ago or so, some people took the word teva and decided to use it
to describe what they called the laws of nature. But in truth, no such thing exists.”
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Honey from the Rock
“The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years.
It is a way of being. A place that demands being honest with yourself without
regard to the cost in personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with
all of yourself. In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your
preconceptions cannot protect you.... You see the world as if for the first time.”
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