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.
Music to my ears" 'Cause though the truth may vary, this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore." - Of Monsters & Men, "Little Talks"