chapter  4
27 Pages

Wilderness

The idea of wilderness, signifying nature in a state uncontaminated by civilisation, is the most potent construction of nature available to New World environmentalism. It is a construction mobilised to protect particular habitats and species, and is seen as a place for the reinvigoration of those tired of the moral and material pollution of the city. Wilderness has an almost sacramental value: it holds out the promise of a renewed, authentic relation of humanity and the earth, a post-Christian covenant, found in a space of purity, founded in an attitude of reverence and humility. The wilderness question is also central to ecocriticism’s challenge to the status quo of literary and cultural studies, insofar as it rejects the exclusively social concerns of the traditional humanities. Unlike pastoral, the concept of wilderness only came to cultural prominence in the eighteenth century, and the ‘wilderness texts’ discussed by ecocritics are mainly non-fictional nature writing, almost entirely neglected by other critics. Much work in this area might easily count as intellectual history or philosophy, thus stretching the bounds of traditional literary criticism. Wilderness narratives share the motif of escape and return with

the typical pastoral narrative, but the construction of nature they

propose and reinforce is fundamentally different. If pastoral is the distinctive Old World construction of nature, suited to long-settled and domesticated landscapes, wilderness fits the settler experience in the New Worlds – particularly the United States, Canada and Australia – with their apparently untamed landscapes and the sharp distinction between the forces of culture and nature. Yet settler cultures crossed the oceans with their preconceptions intact, so the ‘nature’ they encountered was inevitably shaped by the histories they often sought to leave behind. To understand current conceptions of wilderness, then, we must explore the Old World history of ‘wilderness’. Nor can we take for granted the politics of the wild: for many critics, after all, the ‘wildness’ we should seek is epitomised in the American West, which was assumed to be an untrammelled realm to which the Euro-American has a manifest right.