The Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement
J. Baird Callicott, University of North Texas
Priscilla Solis Ybarra, Rice University
©National Humanities Center
(part 4 of 4)
Guiding Student Discussion (continued)
In A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen, Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada describes his first
Thanksgiving with his American in-laws. "'Daddy's family has been here in the Connecticut Valley since
1680,' Mother said. 'There were Indians here once, but they left.'" Espada perfectly captures the
contemporary American tendency to "erase" the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas from the
landscape and what really happened to them from mind. The Indians didn't leave New England; many
of them died from Old World diseases against which their immune systems were entirely defenseless.
The bereft survivors of the epidemics were dispossessed or murdered.
The wilderness idea plays a
crucial role in masking colonial American genocide and ethnic cleansing. For if, through the lens of the
contemporary wilderness idea, the New World was "untrammeled by man, where man himself is a
visitor who does not remain," it was a welcoming void waiting to be pleasantly populated by pilgrims
from northwestern Europe. But have it either waythe early Puritan hideous and howling wilderness
or the neoPuritan edenic and divine wildernessthe wilderness idea is a powerful conceptual tool of
|Celebration of 300th anniversary of Plymouth landing|
Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1921
|Library of Congress|
Albeit ultimately a legacy of colonial, Puritan America, the system of designated wilderness areas in the
national forests and parks is vital to contemporary conservation efforts. In the last decade of his life,
Aldo Leopold's thinking about the importance of wilderness areas evolved and matured. In the
tradition of Edwards, Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir, Leopold at first envisioned wilderness,
anthropocentrically, as a resource for recreation, aesthetic experience, solitude, and spiritual renewal.
Later he came to think of it, nonanthropocentrically, as habitat for such animalswolves, mountain
lions, grizzly bears, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelopethat do not well survive and flourish with
the way nature is practically everywhere else trammelled by industrialized Homo sapiens. He also came
to think of it as a "base datum" (or control) for the scientific study of the "health" of ecosystems that
have been humanly altered or variously trammelled by tree-cutting, grazing, plowing, and paving. A
carefully managed forest, for example, may remain healthy despite the selective removal of some of its
trees, but we have no way of measuring its condition unless similar forests remain inviolate. Some
contemporary conservationists argue that, because of its historical baggage, the wilderness idea should
be replaced by the concept of "biodiversity reserves." But others think that because it represents a
political bastion against the forces of greed, despite its colonial origins, the wilderness idea remains a
powerful and on the whole positive myth in the contemporary American psyche, and that to abandon it
now in favor of some less deeply resonant alternative, would be to abandon the most impregnable
redoubt for the defense of nature.
|Library of Congress|
|"the wilderness idea remains a
powerful and on the whole positive myth in the|
contemporary American psyche"
J. Baird Callicott is professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas. He
is author of In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy (1989), Beyond the
Land Ethic: More Essays in Environmental Philosophy (1999), and Earth's Insights: A Multicultural
Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback (1994), and more
than a hundred book chapters, journal articles, encyclopedia entries, and reviews. He is editor of
Companion to "A Sand County Almanac": Interpretive and Critical Essays (1987) and co-editor of
Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought: Essays in Environmental Philosophy (1989) and several other
books. From 1997-2000 he served the International Society for Environmental Ethics as president.
Priscilla Solis Ybarra is a doctoral student and teaching assistant at the English Department, Rice
University in Houston, Texas. She completed M.A. work at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Address comments or questions to Professor Callicott and Ms. Ybarra through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."
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