The Canadian Wilderness


In his literary work “The trouble with wilderness”, William Cronon suggests that wilderness is a human construct. To many readers this contention would seem irrational, as so many of our fondest memories of wilderness are based on personal experiences from days past at the family cottage or summer camping trips. The notion that these experiences could be tainted by some misconception we all hold about the wilderness seems personally offensive. Many nature enthusiasts cherish the childhood memories we have of Canoe trips, campfires and tales of disfigured axe-men hiding in the woods, waiting to get us in our sleep. To his credit, Cronon does realize that “…the nonhuman world we encounter in wilderness is far from being merely our own invention.” He goes on to say “…I celebrate with others who love wilderness the beauty and power of things it contains”. (Cronon, 70) It seems Cronon does not discredit the vast beauty contained in the wilderness, he merely wishes to demonstrate that “…what historically brought us to these places was entirely a cultural invention”. (Cronon, 70) At first glance, it was hard for me to acknowledge this argument, being a self-proclaimed nature enthusiast at heart, but upon deeper examination of his article it became clear that our perceptions of wilderness are based on cultural constructions; that have been historically etched into our Canadian ethos.


The basis for his argument is historical, as Cronon describes the transformation of connotations held about wilderness in the past two centuries. Traditionally, the word ‘wilderness’ had a very different set of adjectives by which it was described. Cronon explains that wilderness was seen as “deserted,” “savage,” “desolate,” “barren”—in short, a “wasteland”. (Cronon, 70) This description is the antithesis of the quiet, pristine, uninhabited description one associates with wilderness today. “The sources of this transformation” as Cronon describes, “…were many, but the purpose of this essay… the frontier and the sublime”. (Cronon, 71)


These two headings describe different and equally important contributions to our present day notion of wilderness. The sublime is the much older cultural construct, based on the notion of romanticism brought across the Atlantic from European migrants, the frontier more an American construct based on conquering the vast open spaces that surrounded the journeymen explorers at that time. Cronon goes on to explain that the combination of the two “…remade wilderness in their own image, freighting it with moral values and cultural symbols that it carries to this day.” (Cronon, 72) In fact, Cronon argues that today’s environmental movements are the product of romanticism and post-frontier ideology, which themselves created the wilderness these movements aim to protect. In order for wilderness to gain such significant influence, the connection between humans and wilderness had to change. As Cronon puts it “…the concept of wilderness had to be loaded with some of the deepest core values of the culture that created it; it had to become sacred.” (Cronon, 72)


At the turn of the century, many religious connotations towards the wilderness began to emerge. People believed they were more likely to see god in the vast open spaces than at home in the urban sprawl. Humans were beginning to see wilderness as a place they could escape to, a place where everything stopped; especially the civilization they were forced to take part in every other day of their life. This escapist ideology is clearly visible today, in our cottage expeditions, our canoe trips and our ever growing desire to escape the city even if it’s only for the weekend. As Cronon described it, not only could a man escape the city, but a man could be a “real man” in the wilderness; he could be “…the rugged individual he was meant to be before civilization sapped his energy and threatened his masculinity.” (Cronon, 78)


Throughout the article Cronon asserts that wilderness is a human construct, but his argument is best illustrated when he states “The removal of Indians to create an ‘uninhabited wilderness’—uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, how constructed, the American wilderness really is”. (Cronon, 79) At this point, I was compelled to concur with his argument, no matter how badly I wanted to disagree. Cronon’s original argument that ‘there is