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What is Wilderness?

Definition & discussion of wilderness as a human construction

James Neill
Last updated:
18 Oct 2003

In practical terms, the USA's Wilderness Act of 1964, defined wilderness as:

an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

But there is much more to the concept of wilderness than this definition.  This is because "wilderness" is a human construction.  The wilderness concept only exists in the minds of humans.

Wilderness is a human construction?  This may sound like a paradox because mostly we tend to think of wilderness as places where there is a relative absence of human influence.  Whilst this may be so, ironically, in order for their to be wilderness, there needs to be some humans in non-wilderness places defining what is wilderness and what isn't!

Nash talks famously about the origins of the concept of the wilderness in "Wilderness and The American Mind".  Nash's book has been rated in the top 100 most influential books in America.  It helped people to understand that the wilderness is a cultural construct.  Read a summary and book review of Roderick Nash's "Wilderness and the American Mind".

Historically, the word has derived from the notion of wildness or that which is not uncontrollable by humans.  The word's etymology is from the Old English wildeornes, which derives from wildeor wild beast (from wild + deor beast, deer) (The Collins English Dictionary, 2000).  As Carl Jung (1934) put it:

Instead of being at the mercy of wild beasts, earthquakes, landslides and inundations, modern man is battered by the elemental forces of his own psyche.

So,  wilderness has come to refer to "states" of wilderness as experienced/defined by human beings.  Interestingly this means that we now also refer to emotional and psychological wilderness, the wilderness of space, political wilderness, and so on.  In a related link, "The Wilderness of Neural Possibility", I explore the idea that the human mind itself can be conceived of a wilderness, however we tend to stick to the well-trodden paths of thinking.

The more common conception of wilderness, at least in the Western and industrialized societies, is of wilderness as physical places where the forces of nature have evolved relatively uninfluenced by humans (e.g., see the USA's Wilderness Act of 1964).  To get more of an overview of this kind of practical, Western conception of wilderness, see this 2 page pdf file from the Alberta Wilderness Association: "Wilderness Definition".

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