Recently, I started a new graduate course for my Master’s degree in Environmental Education and Interpretation. Week one is done. Today, starts week two. There is a paper due each week. The course is Environmental History.
Last week we focused on early America and how wilderness was perceived and used by those already living here – namely, the Native Americans and the Aztecs – to the preconceived notions held by the Spanish Conquistadors, European immigrants – including the pilgrims and colonists – and later Jesuit missionaries, as well as the Westward expansionists. There’s nothing like grad school to cover several hundred years of history in one short week!
We learned that the American Wilderness was altered by all of these groups, including the natives. Terms including conquest, conquer, God-given, superiority, and even culture, were sprinkled liberally throughout our assigned readings. Man alters the wilderness just by being in it.
What I found somewhat alarming is the fact that we are still facing the same problems today that were faced by those that lived hundreds of years before us. The degradation and disappearance of our land – America, The Beautiful. The same mistakes of monoculture, rapid development, greed, and misuse are all still occurring, not just in America, but globally. The problem, it seems, has been exponentially compounded.
The European settlers came with a need to conquer the wilderness and felt that they had been bequeathed the right to own and consume it from their Christian God. They used the bible as a directive that nature was there to serve the needs of mankind – that it had been put there for man to use. They consumed, destroyed, ravaged, and raped the wildness of it bounty, all the while holding on to the belief that the land would replenish itself.
Several hundred years later, we have not come much further. Still, we overdevelop. Still, we build for the sake of greed, expansion, and right of ownership. The beloved places, distant from our homes, the places we want to remain pristine and love to visit, such as the Hawaiian islands or Alaska, are no longer pristine. There is a faint smell of sewage on Maui now. And visitors to Haleakala Volcano trample the protected Silversword plant in order to gawk at the sun rising above the clouds at 10,000 feet. And on the North American continent, a beloved iconic butterfly is in danger of extinction because of a need (partially) to rid the monoculturally planted corn and soybean fields of the noxious milkweed plant. A plant that is on this earth to sustain the entire life cycle of that one species – the Monarch.
Wilderness, although proclaimed to be loved by Americans, showed through their collective quests to camp, hunt, snorkel, hike, and climb, as well as their art such as Ansel Adams and other photographers, painters, novelists, and poets, have altered the wilderness to the point where there is not much left.
So, today, I ask you to think (and share, if you could) what wilderness means to you. Is it important that we have it? Why? If so, how can we make sure it still exists in the future? How can we better learn what the early Americans did not?