I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology

Max Oelschlaeger

The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology is a book that combines philosophical, historical, and ecological research into an attempt to provide a universal history of the constantly changing and evolving relationship between mankind and nature. Max Oelschlaeger begins his narrative in the Paleolithic era, a time during which man viewed himself as a part of nature, and consequently culture was also organically linked to the environment. This harmonious balance was broken by the onslaught of “agri-culture,” which inevitably led to man thinking of himself as separate from nature. The development of Western Thought and Christianity deepened this divide as modernism started to take hold of the Western World. Comparing modernism to alchemy, Oelschlaeger demonstrates that the new prerogative, led largely by the teachings of the Church, of western peoples during the Middle Ages was to turn wilderness into civilization, something worthless into something valuable. Modernism truly blossomed during the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions when the forces of science, technology, politics, and economics combined into one metaphorical machine. During this time, nature was no longer considered an organism, but a machine in its own right with parts that could be taken apart, thus fully separating nature from the compassions of humanity. Oelschlaeger then discusses various individuals that challenge this scientific, resource-based view of nature, such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, who inevitably were able to shake the fundamental basis of modernism, the alienation of nature, and awaken the consciousness of much of the public. Their legacy lives on in the form of several groups most simply categorized into utilitarian conservationists, who believe in resourcism or the reduction of nature to an environmental stockpile of resources, and preservationists, who believe that nature is an organic phenomenon that can be permanently destroyed by man’s irresponsibility.

The problem with both the resourcism and the preservationist viewpoints, according to Oelschlaeger, is that they are both anthropocentric, and here lies the foundation of his personal viewpoint. The Idea of Wilderness is a postmodernist work. Oelschlaeger, according to his definition, most closely aligns himself with the contemporary movement of deep ecology, which asserts that humankind is a part of a larger system and openly challenges the institutions of modernism. A postmodern view of wilderness, he states, is one that moves beyond modernism to embrace ecological and evolutionary points of view. Oelschlaeger preaches the concept of a new ideology that leads man away from the anthropocentric and into a cosmic wilderness, the processes of which are much bigger and more consequential than our own earthly procedures. In true postmodernist fashion, Oelschlaeger does not purport that this cosmic viewpoint be considered reality, but rather openly admits that this would be a new myth, a new step in the metaphorical evolution of human thought, that would allow for the continued survival of humanity. Oelschlaeger believes that reason influences cultural outcomes; however, reason is derived from thought, and thoughts are not produced by human cognizance, but rather occur as the result of the situation in which an individual finds himself. An example of this principle at work in Oelschlaeger’s writing is his treatment of the transition from Paleolithic to agri-culture. He is quick to report that this switch did not occur because these individuals had independently developed a longing for civilization or an abhorrence of nature, but rather the switch occurred due to chance. The changes occurring in their environment caused these individuals to think differently in order to survive. Either they were going to farm or they were going to starve.

Traveling along the same highway as Henry Nash Smith and Roderick Nash, Oelschlaeger also subscribes to the importance of ideas over realities; however Oelschlaeger takes this concept one step further by throwing postmodernism into the mix. Oelschlaeger claims that Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind only affected his research indirectly However, the organization of his narrative in addition to the fact that he highlights almost the exact same individuals seems to challenge this claim. The difference between the two works lies in the author’s differing perceptions of reality. Although Nash focuses on the idea of wilderness rather than trying to define the term, one still gets a sense of what Nash believes wilderness to be. Wilderness is land that is untouched, or mostly untouched, by man, the result of which causes both negative and positive feelings within different individuals. The image of wilderness in Oelschlaeger’s work is much less defined and he more readily substitutes terms such as nature and environment. For the postmodernist all words and ideas are socially constructed, Oelschlaeger offers no clear definition of wilderness because one does not exist. For Nash, future generations must balance their beliefs of what wilderness is with reality in order to survive. For Oelschlaeger, there is no true reality, just a tired myth that must be kicked away so that a new myth, one that is more suitable for today’s condition, can come into fruition.

Feature Photo: “Major-General Wadsworth fighting in the Wilderness,” Alfred R. Waud, 1864, Library of Congress.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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