The Power of Wilderness

With the semester done, we’ve obviously wrapped up my American Wilderness class. We actually finished our book-based discussions a few weeks ago, on the penultimate Wednesday of instruction. Our final class session was comprised entirely of student presentations–10 minutes drawn from the research papers they had been working on. Part of the goal was, of course, a formal presentation, but I also intended for these presentations to align with our previous readings (and earlier, including via comments on drafts, encouraged students to make those connections explicit in the papers themselves), and reinforce some of the big questions and themes and issues we’d been discussing throughout the semester.

For the final, I asked students to write a short essay at home tying presentation content to the body of literature we’d engaged, and come to the final exam session prepared to discuss their approaches to linking the two sets of content, and organizing their essays. Some organized their essays chronologically to think about changing wilderness ideas, while others organized around major themes, and both approaches lent themselves to what I thought was a productive discussion.

Although I hadn’t written a formal essay myself, I had gone through something of the same process most students had in considering how to organize my reflections on the semester as a whole, and offer something in parting that might further advance our discussion, that drew from what we had learned but also opened up new avenues for inquiry rather than tying everything up neatly. We of course had considered a range of definitions of wilderness, and looked at some of the contests over those definitions. Our first discussion of the semester had raised the likelihood that wilderness is both a real place and a human construct, a notion reinforced by much of our reading, and subsequently in the research papers I read and of which the entire class got at least a glimpse in their peer-reviewing process and through the research presentations.

But we also saw that there was always something at stake in constructing that place, and that often what was at stake was a group’s power to define itself and its relation to the natural world–which it often did in opposition to some foil. Thus I concluded by suggesting that wilderness thus became a proxy for contests over power, conversations about it always involving a set of power relations–people against nature, people against other people (American against European, against Native American or African American, rural against urban, local against distant, working class against middle class/elite, American against international, etc), institutions against individuals. These players defined themselves against others, via their expressed (and often idealized) relationship with the natural world–with wilderness.

The wilderness of Americans, then, is indeed particularly “American,” but perhaps only of a certain cohort of Americans in which inhere a range of select characteristics, a cohort empowered by its victories in these battles for rhetorical and physical control of the spaces it defines as wilderness.

Okay, so I didn’t write a take-home essay for the final exam, but I’m beginning to think I may.


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