This essay first appeared on the Dark Mountain Project blog.
Backpacking in the Marble Mountain Wilderness of California last summer I had a revelation. I stood looking up at a glowing, ancient peak over a small, clear lake a dozen miles from any road with no sign of any human presence but my campsite anywhere in view. And for the first time in such a situation I seemed to feel the contingent, circumscribed nature of the place I was in compared to the vastness of the human-built and intervened-with world that bounded it on all sides. I also understood that its official designation, “wilderness area,” was an unredeemable oxymoron. I knew that I was in a park, not the wild. Even more: I knew that wilderness in any meaningful sense no longer existed anywhere on earth. In that moment, at that place, I had cognitively entered what scientists have named the Anthropocene.
The end of the wild as a separate thing, a thing that surrounded civilization and was never fully penetrable by it, always a threat to its sense of order, to its sense of power – that end was not near – it had come. I was living in it. Now, here and anywhere on the planet’s surface, it was the wild places that were surrounded, besieged. When, ever before in history, had mountains or forests been called “fragile?” Our so-called wilderness areas were bounded and gated off, but they were utterly porous too.
Legions of backpackers (sustained, as I was, by factory-made gear and industrial food grown and packaged by somebody else) marched up the Pacific Crest Trail every year through this one, making the trail a dust-stream an inch thick. Planes flew overhead almost hourly. Cattle and sheep grazed at the verges, and frequently managed to stray inside. Firefighting crews helicoptered over or plunged in to fight ever more-frequent wildfires. Cellphone signals were retrievable from all the high places; GPS coordinates had mapped every square foot. And principally, and likewise invisibly, as Bill McKibben had written decades before in The End of Nature – the effects of civilization were warming the air, drying out the summers, seeping into every molecule of the wild. No atom of “wilderness” on land, sea or air was untouched by civilization anymore.
But then again, the existence of the wild as a separate thing was itself historical. Before civilizations began to emerge it wasn’t a separate thing; it was our home. Once they had emerged, they rose and fell, and the wild returned where the cities fell, even if it was a desert wild, no longer a forest or a marsh. The people who continued to live closest to the unbuilt (I use this term for lack of a better one to replace “natural,” which has fatally slippery definition problems) ecosystems on which they depended directly for survival had no concept of wilderness.
Wilderness was never an intrinsic condition; it was a concept that depended for its existence on its opposite, civilization. It was always the construct of a worldview whose mechanism for understanding and operating on the world was essentially binary. Environmental historian William Cronon, writing about the peculiar history of US wilderness areas says unequivocally “There is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness.”