The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature

| July 20, 2015

Article Review #1:

The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature

By William Cronon




In his article The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, William Cronon argues that the desire to experience wilderness untouched by humans and the perspective that wilderness is a refuge from the negative effects humans have had on the earth is a desire completely contrived by humans. He explains that human culture and history have created this idea of wilderness yet wilderness is the very thing humans seek out to remove themselves from being human. Cronon claims that our nature is very unnatural because of its invented origins. However, in the conclusion of his article, Cronon describes his idea of human’s place and role in the natural world despite the traditions of human-centered thinking.

William Cronon begins support of his thesis by explaining the transient view of wilderness held by Americans and Europeans living 250 years ago. He describes the negative connotation wilderness conjured birthed by religious beliefs steeped in moral condemnations. Moreover, prevalent ideas of wilderness were that of dangerous barren wastelands where the unrighteous were banished to wander. For those with less religious fervor, their opinions of wilderness are articulated well by Roderick Nash in his book Wilderness and the American Mind. Nash writes that to early Europeans wilderness was “an insecure and uncomfortable environment against which civilization had waged an unceasing struggle” (Nash, 8). But, these undoubtedly antagonistic assessments would not remain the popular attitude. As European Americans expanded westward, their view of wilderness would change dramatically and ultimately result in what Cronon refers to as the contrived wilderness.

Two terms sublime and primitivism are identified and discussed by Cronon as the prevailing philosophy of the early European Americans. National Parks and Forests were established as a direct result of those who searched out the most magnificent and awe-inspiring landscapes in the United States. These landscapes were thought to be sublime, or possess supernatural qualities that could bring one closer to God. The other view, primitivism, was the idea that to counteract the disease of humanity one needed to return to a more primitive way of life devoid of the amenities of western civilized society. Those who subscribed to primitivism had a disdain for modern life and civilization. They longed for a time when nature was untouched by humans and used the wilderness as an escape from modernity.

It was, however, this modernity that Cronon argues created the wilderness they were trying to escape to. The recreational attitude toward wilderness adopted by the wealthy and acted upon by the organization of big game sporting events, the construction of servant-inhabited estates in “wild” country, and the erection of luxury resorts by railroad companies tempting wealthy patrons to scenic landscapes were the very catalysts of this unnatural wilderness view. Cronon argues that those who actually worked the land and labored to harvest its yield knew too much of the land to place it on such a divine pedestal and the wealthy “projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and so created wilderness in their own image” (Cronon, 15).

Ted Steinberg, author of Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History, concurs with Cronon’s appraisal of an invented wilderness. In reference to the establishment of National Parks, the forcible removal of native Indian tribes onto reservations from these lands, and then subsequent draft of Native Americans and bison to help lure wealthy Americans to these preserved lands, he asks, “Could anything be more paradoxical than using contrived groups of animals and people, annihilated in the so-called winning of the West, to lure tourists to supposedly “untouched” wilderness?”(Steinberg, 154). Part of his point which Cronon also espouses in his article is that these lands cannot rightfully be labeled “untouched” as Native Americans have been living off the land and with the land for centuries. Here, Cronon supports his argument with historical facts that bring credence to the idea that this longing for escape to a wilderness free of human influence and civilized responsibilities is a farce.

Cronon’s argument reaches a climax when he points out that we as humans seek to remove the human from the wilderness. He says we want to pretend that our city life and our humanness is a vacation from our real state of being which is primitive and wild; that we desire to “wipe the slate clean” and return to a time before humans imprinted the world (Cronon, 16). But, that to do so would be the eradication of humans which is preposterous. His final exclamation is the need to live harmoniously with nature and be thoughtful about our interaction with wilderness. Cronon’s conclusion is sound; humans are nature and therefore should be included in any ideal of the natural world minus the abuse so well detailed in human history.


Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind: Fifth Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Print.


Steinberg, Ted. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History.New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.


The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. William Cronon. Environmental History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan., 1996), pp. 7-28.

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