Wilderness & Wildness

I’m not sure if it’s just the time of year… but I’ve recently been thinking a lot about nature. What is nature? Is my gravel-filled back yard/parking lot nature? Am I?

In a course last semester, I learned about social constructionism. Today, I think about how that idea connects to nature.


Henry David Thoreau has a quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

This quote is often misquoted to read “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” A telling mistake—that wilderness and wildness are exchangeable in meaning.

To me, wilderness is that which is separate from human existence. It is what existed and what exists in those spaces “untouched” by us. It is idealized and romanticized to be something we are striving to find, and some of us are trying to preserve for no other reason than to know that there are places on this planet that will exist in spite of us, and yet in some ways for our aesthetic benefit.

But wildness, the original word used by Thoreau, means something more elusive to me. Wildness is a quality that can be possessed by many things. Trees and animals and spaces can be wild, but so can we. Humans are not as distinct from the idea of “wild” as they seem to be from the wilderness.

And this is why the mistaken quote fascinates me. Wilderness fits better with our social construction than does wildness in Thoreau’s quote—so we replace it! Basically re(socially)constructing Thoreau as we go.

But one part of the idea of the social construction of nature that I grapple with is the inkling that in some mystical way nature exists outside of our perception of it. Wilderness is socially constructed, sure. In this way, we could say that a space like the Redwood Forest is the same exact nature that I could find in the tree growing in the middle of the well-manicured MU campus. And I believe this idea. But people do have different experiences in the Redwood Forest than they do on MU campus—and spaces like that are more likely to inspire a sense of awe and humility and motivate those people to change the way they think and live. Is this due to the way that we social parameters we create around these locations? Or is there something to the idea that an encounter with wilderness can change us?

I think I fall closer to the latter and that there can be what many people have described as essentially religious experiences—think John Muir or Hafiz. When we talk about the power of wilderness we’re actually talking about coming in direct contact with something that has its own purpose in being entirely apart from our own reality and that this encounter is what forms the basis of experiences that we lump under the terms mystic/religious. Maybe that is what is at the core of our social construction of wilderness, despite everything extraneous we add around it. There is a kernel of truth of awe in the rhetoric we have to describe wilderness.