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What is wilderness? It’s natural to wonder
What does the term “wilderness” conger up for you? Is it some remote area far from human habitation? Or is it a little piece of nature you could escape to in your own backyard?
In the 1990s, environmental historian William Cronon shocked wilderness advocates by declaring that wilderness is but a human invention. Cronon’s point was that naturalists like John Muir had over-romanticized wilderness as places “untrammeled by man.”
Are there such “pristine” places on Earth today?
We would like to think so. Even if we ourselves never make it to the Canadian Arctic, just to know it is there and “unspoiled” would be comforting.
However, human pollutants can be found all over the planet’s surface, even in arctic ice. And the arctic ice itself is getting thinner and thinner due to the apparent impacts of our industrial activities to the south on arctic climate.
Still, reading Cronon’s work makes one want to cry out “no!” and slam the book shut yelling “It can’t be! — There must be some wilderness still out there! It’s only natural.”
Oops — there’s another loaded term — what’s natural? More and more we are seeing synthetic ecosystems made up of a concoction of native and non-native species. Is any place truly “natural”?
Truth be told, Cronon himself is a wilderness advocate but wants us to think carefully about how we think about it.
I recently visited the alpine meadows on Blackwall Mountain in Manning Park.
Alpine meadows are one of my favourite habitats, and I reveled in the wildflowers, their pollinator insects, the birds and mammals that day. At the same time part of me longed to be deeper in the mountains.
There were elements there on Blackwall that weren’t so wild. Ground squirrels, gray jays and Clark’s nutcrackers that are happy to eat out of a human hand.
The fact the road goes right to the top of the mountain. And the ever-present weeds — as a weed scientist I couldn’t help but notice those.
But does it matter that it is not unspoiled, pristine wilderness? It’s a beautiful spot full of “natural” beauty, and it was great to see so many people enjoying it. A few weeds here and there didn’t ruin things.
Speaking of weeds, I just went picking non-native Himalayan blackberries today. Our “wilderness” here in Langley is festooned with blackberries. The picking was actually not that good as we were too late in the season. But this non-native, invasive alien species gave me and two of my sons a good excuse to get out and enjoy nature. Naturally.
David Clements is a professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at Trinity Western University.