Rewilding nature and the classroom

Yeah yeah, I’ve been remiss in my postings, and haven’t lately posted much on what we’re reading for American Wilderness. But here we are: two more.

We’ve talked quite a bit throughout the semester about the fact that nowhere is wilderness really untouched by human influences, and about its constructedness, but it’s been in James Feldman’s Rewilding the Apostle Islands in which we’ve seen the fascinating process by which a distinctly human landscape–marked by mining, fishing, logging, tourism, settlement, farming, etc.–has, through neglect by people no longer drawing on its resources, or deliberate efforts by entities such as the National Parks Service, been “rewilded.” Feldman chooses the term instead of “recovery” to combat the perception that all human impacts mark a decline, in no small part because that “rewilding” process has also been the product of human choices and impacts in which a landscape deemed unsuitable for wilderness or national park designation in 1930 was, by 1970s, an acceptable venue for preserving allegedly natural resources and landscapes.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the 1970s also saw the implementation of the Eastern Wilderness Act, follow-up legislation to the 1964 Wilderness Act on which James Morton Turner’s The Promise of Wilderness turns. The former allowed for more flexible definitions of wild spaces, particularly important for identifying areas to protect in the eastern United States, where a longer history of Euroamerican inhabitation had left fewer large areas that appeared to have escaped human exploitation. The debates surrounding those areas, including a swamp in New Jersey, were just some of those that characterized the environmental politics that developed in the wake of the 1964 act, and which Turner comprehensively details.

Class discussions have been illuminating, in part because of the varied responses of students, and I want to take a moment to celebrate my students, who have been fantastic. Some are more outspoken than others about their politics, and the commitments of some are more clear than others–including in regards to their positions on wilderness and environments. But they’ve been universally thoughtful, and open to discussion, debate, and disagreement.

I’ve been struck in part by the ways in which individual students’ particular specialties have positioned them as characters in the class–the student painted as a Thoreau lover, the one hung up on Maine, the pair with experience in Historic Preservation and National Parks who can weigh in thoughtfully on administering spaces and forming narratives about those places, the student carefully aware of class issues surrounding access and use and idealization of wilderness, the student who reminds us that gender is everywhere in these discussions even when it’s ignored, the student who consciously enjoys limited/controlled nature/wilderness that isn’t isolated or dangerous, and the one who consistently seizes on biblical references to remind us of the Christian roots of much of American wilderness thinking. (And yes, while I try not to impose my own feelings too much, I assume from the the knowing nods and chuckles when they mock environmentalists and liberals in California that I’m that character in the cast.)

I’m particularly gratified as well by those students whose politics seem to represent the intersections of positions I wouldn’t assume would align in a single individual–socially liberal (perhaps libertarian) and environmentally conscious but determinedly fiscally conservative, socially conservative but environmentally progressive and fascinated by (though not necessarily supportive of) ecoterrorism and monkey-wrenching. I feel like (and hope) this indicates a fluidity of thought, an openness to ideas and arguments that stands in contrast to some of the political polarization that often characterizes the public arena, a reassuring indication that students understand and consider the issues that concern them.

Much of what we’ve read from participants in these historical debates has understood wilderness as the raw material out of which civilization is built, and the foil by which civilization defines itself. But as we’ve broken down the assumptions of those processes (that they’re natural, or universal), and considered scholarly critiques of wilderness as simultaneously a concept and a place, I like to think we’ve cast some doubt on the boundaries that we often imagine as definitive and complete, detached terms from their definitional moorings, and in a sense “rewilded” thinking that while not necessarily incorrect, was perhaps artificially and unconsciously bounded in limiting ways.

This entry was posted in What I'm reading and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *