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The transcendentalist approach to wilderness in US culture

Par Jean-Daniel Collomb : Professeur des universités - Université Grenoble Alpes
Publié par Marion Coste le 17/04/2020

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This presentation tackles the significance and legacy of the Transcendentalist understanding of wilderness in US culture. It begins with a brief overview of the largely hostile attitudes toward wilderness that pre-dated Transcendentalism. Then it introduces and analyses the ways in which two prominent Transcendentalist thinkers – Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau – conceived of wilderness. The third part of the presentation explores the influence of Transcendentalist thought on successive generations of US environmentalist all the way to the present time. In conclusion, the views of the contemporary critics of the idea of wilderness in environmentalist circles are briefly discussed.

This presentation was given during a training day organized by the IPRs of Lyon and the ENS of Lyon as part of the Plan Académique de Formation. 


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There are around 800 “wilderness areas” in the United States: these are protected federal lands that enjoy the highest level of protection. There are no roads, and almost no trace of human development. These are places that are supposed to be completely protected from human influence, although it is now impossible because of climate change. There are also national parks, in which the construction of roads is permitted: most visitors actually use their cars to get to national parks and usually do not stray far away from their cars. Another example of the prominence of the notion of wilderness in American society is the fact that the most prominent and influential environmental organization in the United States is called the Wilderness Society. It was created in 1934 by, among others, Aldo Leopold, who was a very important environmental philosopher.

The notion of wilderness ((The word “wilderness” has to be pronounced /ˈwɪldərnəs/, although the adjective is /waɪld/.)) is as American as apple pie and is very much front and center in the American culture. But wilderness can mean different things to different people and the meaning of the word has changed throughout American history. For example, British colonists in North America in the 17th and 18th century did use the word “wilderness” on a regular basis, but they did not mean the same thing as 21st century American environmentalists.

This presentation will first of all focus on the meanings of the notion of wilderness in American culture, dealing more specifically with how American transcendentalists transformed the meaning of wilderness in American culture in a way that was decisive and that is still influential today. The second part will define what transcendentalism was: an intellectual, artistic and literary movement that emerged in New England in the 1820s and 1830s among a group of intellectuals and writers. The third part of the presentation will be about the legacy of the transcendentalist understanding of wilderness.

The idea of wilderness before Transcendentalism

1.1 “Howling Wilderness”

From the very beginning of British settlements in North America, Virginia and New England in the early 17th century, the majority of people took a highly hostile, antagonistic and aggressive approach to nature and wilderness. There were of course exceptions, but not many of them. Wilderness was regarded as an aberration, an obstacle, a problem to be solved, which is quite understandable: communities of settlers were very vulnerable at the beginning. They had to develop their communities and they needed to exploit the natural world.

One of the most famous and high profile communities was that of the New England Puritans. They were religious fundamentalists who had to leave Britain because they were seen as politically dangerous to the Crown; they decided to relocate to New England in the hope of setting an example for the rest of the world and later returning to Britain to reform the Church of England. Interestingly enough, when the New England Puritans arrived in the early 17th century, they did use the word “wilderness” on a regular basis to describe the landscapes they were encountering. The fact that most Native Americans had died because of European germs a couple of centuries before helped this impression of being in the wilderness; it is estimated that about 85% of Native Americans had died by the time the settlers had arrived.

John Winthrop, who was the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and who was tasked to develop British settlements in New England, famously described the landscapes that he observed in New England as a “howling wilderness”. The Bible shaped the Puritans’ world-view: they interpreted landscapes, nature, history and social relations through the description of lands in the Bible. They used the word “wilderness” at the time to evoke the world after the Fall from the Garden of Eden, as Adam and Eve found themselves in a wilderness. Wilderness did not compare favorably to the Garden of Eden and it was characterized by chaos, danger, and evil. This imagery was very much in the minds of the New England Puritans.

The Temptation in the Wilderness, John St John Long, 1824.

'The Temptation in the Wilderness', John St John Long (1824)
Source: Tate Modern, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND

The word “wilderness” is also used in the Bible to refer to the place where Jesus had to resist the Devil’s temptation for forty days. Again, the word is used to describe a place with very negative connotations where you can be tempted by the Devil and lose your moral bearings and your way. Many of the Puritans saw it as their mission to civilize the wilderness, to turn it into a place reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. That is how the “first” Americans conceived the natural world around them ((Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash (1967) offers an historical overview of American perceptions of wilderness: there is a chapter about the Puritans and how they conceived the natural world.)).

1.2 Natural rights and private property rights in colonial and revolutionary America

More broadly, if you look at how early American colonists and early American citizens viewed the natural world, there is no doubt that they tended to take a fundamentally instrumental approach to nature and the natural world. It is probably very useful to remember the importance of private property rights from the very beginning of American history. There is an emphasis on the idea that you were going to own a piece of land, individually, without being interfered with by outside forces. This is part of the DNA of American culture.

For example, the United States exploits a lot of shale gas but Europe does not, although we do have some significant reserves: one of the reasons why it is so easy to exploit shale gas in the United States and not here is because it is the only country in the world where the property owner also owns the underground parts of their property. This specificity of American mining laws goes back all the way to the Republic but also to the reason why European people decided to take the very risky trip to North America. Religious and political persecution were of course two of the reasons why Puritans left, but the main driver behind this mass European migration to North America was the appetite for land, this thirst for land. One of the distinguishing features of North America was that there was no land aristocracy – there were Indians of course, but they could be killed and replaced. Most of the land in Europe was owned by a limited number of people and the United States had a lot more land. This was the most prominent reason why Europeans relocated to North America, and it goes a long way to explaining why there is so much emphasis on the private ownership of the land.

The centrality of private property was already in the minds of influential Americans during the revolutionary generation. John Locke’s vision of property, as stated in his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), was popular in colonial and revolutionary America:

“As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labor does, as it were, exclude it from the common. […] God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e., improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labor […] thereby annexed to it something that was his property” ((Of Property, Chapter V, section 32: https://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr05.htm)).

Samuel Adams, a prominent revolutionary leader from Massachusetts, also went on record saying: “It is acknowledged to be an unalterable law of nature, that a man should have the free use and sole disposal of the fruit of his honest industry, subject to no control” ((Letter From John Adams to William Tudor, Sr., 7 March 1819: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-7094)).

1.3 The Age of Wood: early 17th century to mid-19th century

In this context, wilderness was seen an aberration to be erased, an obstacle to be overcome: the only limit to what you could do with the land was the amount of work you were able to put in. People could acquire land easily, but then they had to cultivate it, and most of them were incompetent at exploiting the land – the only exceptions being the Germans. They therefore destroyed the land and then moved on.

A good example that is often given is the fate of New England forests. As I said earlier, when the New England Puritans arrived in New England, they encountered what they saw as a wilderness, partly because the Native American community had collapsed after encountering Europeans. From early 17th century to 1850, it is estimated that 114 million acres (460 million square kilometers) of forest were cleared in the United States. Before English settlements, New England was 95% forested. However, by 1850, New England states like Connecticut and Rhode Island had consumed 70% of their forests. It is also estimated that Massachusetts had cleared about 60% of its forests, Vermont 55%, New Hampshire 50% and Maine 25%.

No one at the time had any problem with this: it was interpreted as a victory of civilization over the wilderness. From the perspective of the 21st century, it sounds irresponsible. But at the same time, it was before the industrial revolution, which came to the United States in the mid-19th century, so this deforestation represented a lot of work. People had imported European practices to New England: forests had to be cleared without machines, which takes a lot of time and energy. People were therefore proud of their work and saw it as a marked improvement on what was there before.

Before transcendentalism, dominant attitudes regarding the natural world and what they called “wilderness” were therefore mostly negative, hostile and confrontational. This next part puts American transcendentalism into historical perspective and underlines the original character of the transcendentalists’ contribution.

2. Wilderness and the Transcendentalists

The main figures of the transcendentalist movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a philosopher and former Minister of the faith in Massachusetts, and, even more prominent, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). The transcendentalists were a group of what we would call today intellectuals, although the word was not used at the time: they were very much interested and invested in literature, philosophy, metaphysics and, broadly speaking, they were dissatisfied with the state of American culture. They were disappointed by the American experiment – the transcendentalists were people born just a few years after the American Revolution and the United States was still a very young Republic. They viewed American culture as too conformist, too materialistic and they also were made uncomfortable by the influence of European art, European philosophy, European poetry, European songs and so forth. They obviously respected all those contributions tremendously and were influenced by them, but they also insisted that the United States and the American society needed to find their own voices, determined by the local context. So far, what they had produced was mostly commercial civilization, with no higher purpose than money-making.

It is probably fair to describe American transcendentalism as a late American version of Romanticism: people were not rejecting the Enlightenment, but they were uncomfortable with this extreme version of the age of reason. They believed that they had to rehabilitate the emotions, the poetic imagination, and that you had to find the right balance between rational thinking and the poetic imagination. One of their contributions was the attempt at rehabilitating wild nature, what they explicitly called “wilderness” in American culture.

2.1 Rehabilitating nature and wilderness

To Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, nature was not only to be valued for commodity exploitation, but also for the message that it conveyed to Americans and humans in general. He was an idealist in philosophy and, according to him, if you contemplated landscapes, you could actually find a reflection of higher truth, of moral truth. The transcendentalists also valued nature as a way to be reborn, to be cured, so there was a therapeutic dimension to contact with nature. They were very much concerned with the possibility that their civilization might be completely cut off from nature, and they believed that this would have debilitating consequences on American culture.

In this regard, the influence of the landscape architects who built the first city parks was enormous: the aim of those parks was to allow urban environments in the United States to be in contact with nature. A very good example is that of Henry David Thoreau, who retreated to Walden Pond, in Massachusetts, for two years: the experience provided the foundation for his work Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). However, one should not overestimate what happened at Walden Pond: Thoreau was still in contact with people on a regular basis during his retreat, and he would go back to his family every now and then to have a proper meal. He was not completely cut off from civilization, and that was not the point anyway: Thoreau wanted to reconnect with nature as he saw it, but he was not anti-civilization. He just believed that you needed to retain a wild dimension to the human experience: the danger was not civilization itself, but civilization without any influence from the wild.

This idea is exemplified by the opening paragraph of his essay Walking, which he wrote towards the end of his life:

“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, −to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school-committee, and every one of you will take care of that” ((Walking was published as an essay in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. http://faculty.washington.edu/timbillo/Readings%20and%20documents/Wilderness/Thoreau%20Walking.pdf)).

2.2 Transcendentalist science

American transcendentalism can be singled out as an American version of Romanticism: however, it should not be seen as an irrational rejection of science and enlightenment thinking. What Thoreau and Emerson were rejecting was what they viewed as the supremacy of instrumental reason that could marginalize aesthetic and spiritual concerns. Thoreau for example notoriously spent three hours every morning rambling the forest near his home to observe the natural world: he was a very skilled and competent amateur naturalist. Transcendentalist science can be described as a blend of reason, empiricism, aesthetic and the poetic imagination: you have to inquire into the natural world, you have to understand and make sense of the natural world using the tools of science, but you should never forget to admire the natural world, marvel at it and be inspired by it.

In The Maine Woods (1864), Thoreau talks about a will-o'-the-wisp, which is a perfectly explainable, natural phenomenon:

“A scientific explanation, as it is called, would have been altogether out of place there… Science with its retorts would have put me to sleep; it was the opportunity to be ignorant that I improved. It suggested to me that there was something to be seen if one had eyes. It made a believer of me more than before. I believed that the woods were not tenantless, but choke-full of honest spirits as good as myself anyday [sic], − not an empty chamber, in which chemistry was left to work alone, but an inhabited house, − and for a few moments I enjoyed fellowship with them. Your so-called wise man goes trying to persuade himself that there is no entity there but himself and his traps, but it is a great deal easier to believe the truth” ((The Maine Woods, Chapter 2 : http://www.online-literature.com/thoreau/canoeing-in-the-wilderness/2/)).

Thoreau is trying to make room for spiritual and aesthetic concerns; he is not trying to discredit the scientific method. Central to his thinking, and also to the thinking of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a recognition of the limits of human knowledge. It is not a rejection of the scientific method, but an ability to accept the limits of human knowledge and to be comfortable with those limits.

2.3 Transcendentalist proto-ecology

It is possible to say there is a proto-ecological dimension to the transcendentalist approach to nature and wilderness. The word “ecology” was coined, after Thoreau had died, by a German biologist, Ernst Eckle, who was an admirer of Darwin. “Ecology” comes from the Greek word oikos, which means that everything is related to everything else. You should not look at natural phenomena in isolation; you should try and see the broader picture and take into consideration the multiple interactions that are going on in the natural world. This is actually front and center in transcendentalist literature: nature is not seen as a mechanical instrument but rather as a living organism. This is a holistic, comprehensive approach to the natural world.

At the time, they emphasized what they called the “harmonious dimension” of the natural world, which was in line with 18th century Enlightenment thinking and also the Romantic approach to nature. The emphasis was therefore laid on nature as a whole, on multiple inter-relations and this idea that nature can work in a harmonious way. However, this idea is now disputed by many natural scientists, because there can also be an element of chaos and rupture in nature.

2.4 Ambivalence toward material progress

The transcendentalists were ambivalent toward material progress. Caution is needed here: those thinkers cannot be identified as anti-progress, as it is more complicated than that. In the Western world, progress was the dominant paradigm of the 19th century, hence the unusually high interest in the study of History in the 19th century. This was before 1914, before Europe committed suicide in the early 20th century, and before the nuclear bomb: it was the golden age of the ideology of progress. This ideology is still with us today, of course, but this was really the moment when faith in progress was probably hardest to challenge.

The industrial revolution in the United States began in the 1840s and 1850s and then accelerated dramatically after the end of the Civil War in the second half of the 19th century. In Thoreau and Emerson’s lifetime, the science of industrialization was very clear for everyone to see: New England was a hotspot for industrialization in the United States. Transcendentalist thinkers did not reject the nascent industrial order altogether: they were fascinated by some aspects of technical innovation at the time, but at the same time, they also tended to distance themselves from the blind faith in progress, mostly in the name of wilderness and the protection of wild nature. The last thing they wanted was to take a purely instrumental approach to nature, land and natural resources, and forget about what nature and the wilderness can contribute to the human experience.

There is a very famous line in Thoreau’s Walking: “In wildness is the preservation of the world”. Not in wilderness – it is very often misquoted as “in wilderness” – but in wildness, which is broader. Wildness is to be found in wilderness, but also in human attitudes and art. As you industrialize, as you go through this very deep transformational process, do not forget what is wild, what is outside human influence that can teach us moral lessons and help us to grow as individuals.

3. The legacy of the Transcendentalist vision of wilderness

American transcendentalists set trends for American preservationists and environmentalists in the late 19th century and in the course of the 20th century. It is therefore possible to argue that the legacy of American transcendentalism is endurable. The transcendentalists are very often credited for kick-starting the American environmental movement. The most important factor behind the emergence of this movement in the late 18th and early 19th century was the industrial revolution, rather than the transcendentalists themselves: the industrial revolution changed everything about the way people behaved, their expectations and how they viewed nature. But the transcendentalists, and especially Henry David Thoreau, are seen as environmentalist heroes in the United States and beyond the borders of the U.S.

The transcendentalist ways of interpreting the natural world that have been outlined in this article (the idea of wilderness, transcendentalist science, ecological thinking and the ambivalence toward economic and material progress) have endured in environmental circles in the United States.

3.1 The importance of the idea of wilderness

The notion of wilderness is still important in environmental advocacy and environmental activism in the United States. There is no question that the protection of wilderness has always been front and center in environmental advocacy – highly valued by many environmentalists, such as John Muir, who was born in Scotland but who achieved fame in the United States as the tireless promoter of the national parks system, but also Aldo Leopold, Dave Foreman, etc.

David Brower (1912-2000) was the leader of the Sierra Club, one of the oldest environmental organizations in the United States, which was created in the late 18th century by John Muir. Brower was instrumental in giving the Sierra Club a national audience and making it very powerful. In his journal, he outlined the importance of wilderness for American environmentalists in the 1950s:

“The concept of wilderness preservation is new‒it is a mark of our maturity, of our realizing that there is much more to human progress than finding new places for concrete and steel and the tangible, visible marks of progress” (Journal, 1955).

For instance, Brower, the Sierra Club and other organizations achieved unprecedented success in the mid-1950s when they managed to secure the cancellation of a dam within a national monument ((A national monument is a reserved area, similar to a national park: it can be created from any land owned by the federal government by proclamation of the President of the United States.)) in Utah. This place was supposed to be flooded as the result of the construction of a dam. Dams were being built all over the United States at the time, but environmentalists took exception to this one and they managed, which was a first, to prevent the construction of the dam in the name of wilderness preservation. Another dam was built somewhere else, but environmentalists, from then on, became prominent players.

Another example is the creation of “wilderness areas”. A wilderness area is a designated area with almost no human interaction – there are often called “roadless areas”. The point is, explicitly, to keep nature wild: in the context of climate change however, this is becoming more and more debatable. The first wilderness area was created in Gila, New Mexico, in 1923 and in 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act which created a network of wilderness areas and a framework to add new wilderness areas on public land. Many members from the forest service resented that Act because they wanted to exploit timber in their forests.

The Wilderness Act states that “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate in landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” (Wilderness Act, 1964)

This Act gives a framework to wilderness preservation in federal land, although states can also preserve federal land. But the level of protection is not the same everywhere: you can build a lot of things in a national park – some people even wanted to organize the Olympic Games in Yosemite Park in 1932.

Wilderness Areas, 1964-2014
Source: Stevens Historical Research Associates, Martin Gamache, NGM. 

3.2 Transcendentalist science

Science and ecological research are often at the heart of environmentalist activism in the United States. A lot of American environmentalists have been uncomfortable with the potential excesses of science, especially of applied sciences in the form of technological innovation. On the one hand, they very much rely on scientific research to make their case for wilderness preservation, but on the other hand, they also worry that the modernity and centrality of modern science can actually be a way for modern humans to further their domination on nature.

This dividing line among American environmentalists is referred to in the novel The Monkeywrench Gang (1975) written by Edward Abbey, a radical environmentalist. It is about a group of environmental radicals in the United States:

“The engineer’s dream is a model of perfect sphericity, the planet Earth with all irregularities removed, highways merely painted on a surface smooth as glass. Of course the engineers still have a long way to go but they are patient tireless little fellows; they keep hustling on, like termites in a termitarium. It’s steady work, and their only natural enemies, they believe, are mechanical breakdown or ‘down time’ for the equipment, and labor troubles and bad weather, sometimes faulty preparation by the geologists and surveyors” ((Edward Abbey, The Monkeywrench Gang, New York, Harper, [1975], 2006.)).

The point here is that science can be embraced and used to rest one’s case for environmental protection; but at the same time, one should not be too cozy with scientists and engineers because they might actually further the human domination and transformation of the wilderness.

3.3 Ecological thinking

In My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), John Muir illustrates the transcendentalist ecological worldview and frame of mind: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” ((My First Summer in Sierra, 1911: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/32540/32540-h/32540-h.htm)).

The emphasis is laid on interconnection, on the fact that everything is related to everything else: you have to be extremely conscious of the way you handle nature because there are unintended consequences. This is becoming even more prominent today with the notion of the Anthropocene, which refers to the new geological area that humankind has entered because of climate change. This has all sorts of ramifications for wilderness, because wilderness is the idea that you can have nature protected from human influence; however, if you accept the idea of the Anthropocene, there is no outside: everything is affected by human activity. That seems to be the message very persuasively conveyed by many climate change scientists, and it has all sorts of repercussions on wilderness. You don’t have to be physically present in a place or build something in a certain place to be affected by human activities. This gives more credit to the ecological way of thinking, but it undermines the case for wilderness as something that either never existed or that can no longer exist.

3.4 Ambivalence toward economic and material progress

Most of my research today is about the political and cultural debate about climate change in the United States. One of the things I am struck by is the tensions between environmentalists who emphasize technological solutions to the problem, and environmentalists who want to prioritize an ethical approach to climate change, through degrowth, for instance. There is a very good book, which was published a little over a year ago, by an American journalist called Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet. He identifies two groups in American environmentalism: the prophets, who want to emphasize ethical change and the idea that we have to adopt a new paradigm to reject the current one that is responsible for our current environmental predicament; and the wizards, who want to use science and technology to further human transformation of nature with a way to mitigating climate change or helping humankind to adapt to climate change. This book is an overview of many debates in environmentalist circles in the United States over history.


It could be interesting to look at the environmentalist critics of the idea of wilderness in class – I’m not talking about people who hate the environmentalists, who think climate policies are a waste of time, but about people who view themselves as environmentalists, who explicitly care about environment, nature, the earth system. What is interesting is that in the early 20th century, it so happened that more and more people who were sympathetic to environmentalism were becoming critical of the idea of wilderness, and this has created a lot of controversy.

On that subject, I would recommend a collection of articles entitled The Great New Wilderness Debate (1998) about what wilderness actually means, whether wilderness is something real or just an idea, whether it is a useful idea or a counterproductive one. A prominent environmentalist, J. Baird Callicott, edited this volume: Callicott went on record explaining that wilderness was now a problem for American environmentalism. According to him, wilderness areas should be given a new name: the fact that they are called “wilderness areas” creates more problems and confusion than it actually helps. The reason why he and others took issue with the idea of wilderness and its importance in environmental advocacy is that as far as they are concerned, the idea of wilderness perpetuates the idea of a clear-cut dichotomy between humans on the one hand and nature on the other, of two radically distinct spheres. As far as Callicott is concerned, this way of approaching nature clashes with the lessons of Darwinism and the lessons of ecology (the idea that everything is related to everything else). Ecology and Darwinism suggest that the human species belongs to nature, is part of nature as indicated by Thoreau. What he is saying is that we should recognize this fact and modify our behavior as a consequence of this, recognizing that we are part of nature, that we have a responsibility and an interest in preserving nature. He doesn’t want to stop protecting wilderness areas but he wants to give them a different name in order for wilderness to stop being an obstacle:

“… faced with the harsh realities of the coming century, the wilderness idea […] is by itself too little too late. And it is too defensive to save the planet and all of us, its people, from ecological collapse. We need to integrate wildlife sanctuaries into a broader philosophy of conservation that generalizes Leopold’s vision of a mutually beneficial and mutually enhancing integration of the human economy with the economy of nature” ((Callicott J. Baird et Nelson Michael P. (dir.), The Great New Wilderness Debate: An Expansive Collection of Writings Defining Wilderness from John Muir to Gary Snyder, Athens, The University of Georgia Press, 1998)).


Pour citer cette ressource :

Jean-Daniel Collomb, "The transcendentalist approach to wilderness in US culture ", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), avril 2020. Consulté le 14/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/the-transcendentalist-approach-to-wilderness-in-us-culture