What Trouble with Wilderness?

The downside to visiting the Rockies in the low-season with a stack of comps readings on wilderness and conservation is that it is hard to be critical of loaded terms like “wilderness” when it is everywhere! During ski season and high-season (summer) it is easy to be critical of the cultural expectations that label mountains and seemingly undeveloped spaces as wilderness because the tourists brought to the Rockies by that idealization and the infrastructure associated with them are unavoidable. But in the spring and fall it is possible to wander around the Rockies without navigating lost tourists and weekenders on every sidewalk and road way. Even a wander along the path by the Bow River seems less like walk through the middle of a town and more like an escape from the urban when the muck of spring thaw keeps the better heeled weekenders contained to Main Street. Of course it also helps that spring is also the season when the bear notices go out and the very hungry cougars start picking off hapless house cats.
Wilderness has never been a place without people for me. Canmore, Banff, the Rockies in general, have been called wilderness so long that growing up there I never questioned that you need people to have a wilderness or that a place is labeled such because that is how people see it. For this reason Cronon’s “Trouble with Wilderness” has always resonated with me because of the centrality he give people in the reality-imagined dichotomy that is wilderness. SInce first reading Cronon as well as the plethora of other works on the topic there seems to be one thing which scholars are unable to reconcile within the evolution of the wilderness idea – wilderness as home, as a place where people live while recognizing the environment around them as part of a social idealization of pristine nature. Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature (2003) talks about the tensions between conservation and local perceptions of various environments, and Jasen’s Wild Things (1995) unpacks the place of Native inhabitants in a wilderness. Yet, because of the time periods they deal with there is no consideration for what happens in the generations who choose to live in a place because of its perception as wilderness. These people actively participate in the perpetuation of the wilderness ideal while simultaneously being the antithesis of it. In Canada this is an especially important perspective to consider because the oldest institutionalized wilderness has supported and been supported by this exact demographic since 1885.
As a mountain kid I think about this each time I visit Canmore. When I talk to others who were privileged enough to also grow-up in a place as beautiful as the Rockies, they can engage in the wilderness debate without having read the historiography because it is simply part of the lived experience. This demographic has something unique to contribute to a literature dominated by the published words of upper class urban wilderness advocates and institutional histories of conservation areas and institutions. They are not a new phenomenon either, which makes the conscious exclusion of them from the wilderness debate all the more shocking. Then again, the people who live in institutionalized wildernesses for extended periods of time (in Canmore that means 10+ years despite what some might say) are easy to overlook because they tend to be from middle class, educated backgrounds. They are not a marginalized economic group in society, and most of them are white. But these very thing that make them easy to ignore in search of something rarer is what makes them important. Wilderness persists as an ideal because the majority of the population buy into it. What better way to get an understanding of the impact of the wilderness ideal on North American society than to study the relatively small proportion of the population who choose to make their home in it! The historiography on wilderness tells has already pointed out that people are central to it.
Here is a little video local singer/song writer Jamie Carrick (high school friend) did recently that should illustrate why it is so dang hard to be cynical about wilderness when in a place like Canmore in the low-season. Plus it is I like to support local talent – here is his My Space.

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
This entry was posted in Environment, Opinion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What Trouble with Wilderness?

  1. portagepain says:

    Hi Lauren! Engaging article writing (as usual)–especially with respect to the way in which “wilderness” is abstracted as an intellectual exercise by the academy.

    But I wonder: Is the so-called “wilderness debate” forever cursed by just that? Has “wilderness” ever been anything more than a tool to reduce and essentialize the complexities of human-nature interactions, or, more acutely, human-to-human relationships? How can the debate be put down simply to where people are– or are not–if nature and culture are always changing? And why do we frame the debate around such such shifty schemes like high/low/shoulder seasons and the like? The “wilderness debate” is ‘locked in’ (like web 2.0 for example) and quickly losing a fresh perspective.

    “Wilderness”, to me, creates zones of inclusion and exclusion (I won’t even get into the contentious alleged 10+ years it takes to become a real wilderness inhabitant). I’m concerned that the Canmore model, being located next to a National Park, may not necessarily speak to the complexities of why people live in other so-called “wildernesses” and HOW they actually perceive “wilderness”– if at all. Please forgive me but the local Canmore experience of “wilderness” is shaped by its National Park neighbour–for good or bad. Remember–that solitary walk following the Bow River path is neither more or less wilderness than passing a car at 130 km/hr on the Transcanada. It seems, to me, that wilderness is both more and less than what the debate currently signifies.

    Nordegg is an instructive example of the ways in which people living within a community actually have different (and fluid) ways of perceiving “wilderness,” yet frame it in radically different terms–to the point where “wilderness,” regardless of definition, becomes a shell. Nordegg is a place of tree fellers, oil workers, city slickers, entrepreneurs, hunters and ATVers–a much different demographic from Canmore. But is it? People come and go, including the ones who live there (like me). Here the high or low season–much less a shoulder one–is as universal as anywhere else (i.e. relevant to the market). The onus, of course, is on me to ask Nordeggians what their views of “wilderness” are but I can comfortably tell you that anytime I have drawn reference to Canmore, Banff, Fernie, etc.as an interface between town & country–so central to Cronon at least– people display ambivalence, even more when I address Nordegg as “the next Canmore.” of course, it could very well be….

    I guess what I am getting at here is that placing people into the “wilderness” equation is indeed fundamental, and I agree that one should not forget the reasons why people are in these places in the fiirst place: Work and Play. However, this forced placement is also its glaring weakness. One would be remiss in not coming to terms with the essentialist meaning of “wilderness”–which goes back some time: Namely “wilderness,” as an anthropomorphic term, is defined by sime kind of archetypical binary opposition (wilderness/civilization or people/no people), regardless of whether it is cast in a negative or positive light (which HAS changed considerably). “Wilderness” is a heuristic tool to put people in their place, and, I’m afraid to say, still by and large an intellectual exercise, good grist for the journal submission mill.

    Time for a new debate…

  2. Sean, I agree with most of what you say. But the biggest issue I have with wilderness is that is always seen as a part of a post-modern dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion. It doesn’t matter that Canmore is beside a national park or that Nordegg is not, because 25 years ago Canmore was not all that different from Nordegg today.
    Wilderness to me is the ultimate environmental grey area. It transcends all the intellectual structures scholars have tried to construct around it. Anything can be wilderness – the North Saskatchewan River Valley in Edmonton is, Wreck Beach is – and that is why I love and hate all attempts to deconstruct or understand it. For every answer the is a new question, another piece of information that throws a wrench in the neatly laid out definition of wilderness. It is like nailing jello to a wall!
    Maybe instead of debating what is and is not ‘wilderness’ we can each provide our own definition – stop footnoting Cronon et al – and carry on because there is never going to be agreement or even a general consensus on ‘wilderness’.

  3. portagepain says:


    25 years ago, Canmore was still adjacent to a National Park while Nordegg was a low-security correctional facility.

    I will respectfully agree to disagree on your contention that wilderness is some sort of post-modern dichotomy–wasn’t it so central to the Old Testament? I DO agree, however, that it is a grey area and the “nailing jello to a wall” metaphor is as accurate as one could get.

    With respect to “stop footnoting Cronon et al”–yes,yes,yes, but how can we when it continues to be, two decades on, one of the central components of any reading list? I do not see “wilderness” as an archetypical “intellectual structure” that puportedly “transcends” any other idea, like ‘city,’ ‘village’, ‘community,’ nation; I would just as well dispense with the “w” word in its entriety and get on with forging new lines of inquiry, exploring dis/comfort zones and spaces from other fields of thought, like poetry, literature, philosophy, etc. The “wilderness” thing is, frankly, a comfort zone for many.

    If we wish to continue with the “w” word, however, it behoves us to consider how other peoples perceive that word. Indeed, some cultures don’t even have a use for that word to begin with…

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention What Trouble with Wilderness? « Can Enviro Rock? Questions in Canadian History and Environment -- Topsy.com

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