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When John Muir arrived in the Sierra Nevada in 1869, he would declare, “No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine.” (8) He was hardly alone in expressing such emotions.
One by one, various corners of the American map came to be designated as sites whose wild beauty was so spectacular that a growing number of citizens had to visit and see them for themselves. government to the state of California in 1864 as the nation’s first wildland park, and Yellowstone became the first true national park in 1872.
And he was there in the wilderness for forty days tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.” (5) The “delicious Paradise” of John Milton’s Eden was surrounded by “a steep wilderness, whose hairy sides /Access denied” to all who sought entry.” When Adam and Eve were driven from that garden, the world they entered was a wilderness that only their labor and pain could redeem.
Wilderness, in short, was a place to which one came only against one’s will, and always in fear and trembling.
Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.
It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization.
That Thoreau in 1862 could declare wildness to be the preservation of the world suggests the sea change that was going on.
To be a wilderness then was to be “deserted,” “savage,” “desolate,” “barren”—in short, a “waste,” the word’s nearest synonym.The wilderness was where Moses had wandered with his people for forty years, and where they had nearly abandoned their God to worship a golden idol.(3) “For Pharaoh will say of the Children of Israel,” we read in Exodus, “They are entangled in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in.” (4) The wilderness was where Christ had struggled with the devil and endured his temptations: “And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.Whatever value it might have arose solely from the possibility that it might be “reclaimed” and turned toward human ends—planted as a garden, say, or a city upon a hill.(7) In its raw state, it had little or nothing to offer civilized men and women.