And he was there in the wilderness for forty days tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.” (5) The “delicious Paradise” of John Milton’s Eden was surrounded by “a steep wilderness, whose hairy sides /Access denied” to all who sought entry.” When Adam and Eve were driven from that garden, the world they entered was a wilderness that only their labor and pain could redeem.
Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.
It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization.
Each of us who has spent time there can conjure images and sensations that seem all the more hauntingly real for having engraved themselves so indelibly on our memories.
Such memories may be uniquely our own, but they are also familiar enough be to be instantly recognizable to others. The torrents of mist shoot out from the base of a great waterfall in the depths of a Sierra canyon, the tiny droplets cooling your face as you listen to the roar of the water and gaze up toward the sky through a rainbow that hovers just out of reach.
Whatever value it might have arose solely from the possibility that it might be “reclaimed” and turned toward human ends—planted as a garden, say, or a city upon a hill.
(7) In its raw state, it had little or nothing to offer civilized men and women.To assert the unnaturalness of so natural a place will no doubt seem absurd or even perverse to many readers, so let me hasten to add that the nonhuman world we encounter in wilderness is far from being merely our own invention.I celebrate with others who love wilderness the beauty and power of the things it contains.Its connotations were anything but positive, and the emotion one was most likely to feel in its presence was “bewilderment” or terror.(2) Many of the word’s strongest associations then were biblical, for it is used over and over again in the King James Version to refer to places on the margins of civilization where it is all too easy to lose oneself in moral confusion and despair. Seen in this way, wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves, a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet. It is an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness.Remember this too: looking out across a desert canyon in the evening air, the only sound a lone raven calling in the distance, the rock walls dropping away into a chasm so deep that its bottom all but vanishes as you squint into the amber light of the setting sun.And this: the moment beside the trail as you sit on a sandstone ledge, your boots damp with the morning dew while you take in the rich smell of the pines, and the small red fox—or maybe for you it was a raccoon or a coyote or a deer—that suddenly ambles across your path, stopping for a long moment to gaze in your direction with cautious indifference before continuing on its way.But by the end of the nineteenth century, all this had changed.The wastelands that had once seemed worthless had for some people come to seem almost beyond price.