What is the Wilderness?

Mary McMahon

Land which is unsettled, uncultivated, and left largely alone is often referred to as “wilderness.” Many people place spiritual, economic, or scientific value on these areas, and many nations have engaged in campaigns to keep part of their landscapes natural. The exact nature of the wilderness is a topic for debate, even among scientists, and this debate is often complicated by its romanticization in many cultures.

The term "wilderness" often conjures images of contemplation and solitude.
The term "wilderness" often conjures images of contemplation and solitude.

The word is derived from the Old English word for wild or savage, and it dates to around the 1200s. Many people think of wilderness as untamed, wild territory, like a primeval forest. Others see these places as a desolate wasteland, like the desert. The truth probably lies somewhere in between; wilderness is certainly far from desolate, as it hosts many plant and animal species, along with complex ecologies and interactions.

Forests are considered wilderness.
Forests are considered wilderness.

In fact, many supposed areas seen as wildernesses were actually shaped by thousands of years of human and animal existence. Many forests, for example, have paths and trails established by native animals, but they may also have clearings which were created by early humans, or plants which were imported by various species to satisfy dietary needs. Far from being uncultivated, these areas are actually heavily managed by the animals which call it home, although it may not be cultivated in the traditional human sense.

Hiking trails make it easy to enjoy a trip through wilderness.
Hiking trails make it easy to enjoy a trip through wilderness.

Most of the time a wilderness area is also uninhabited, although permanent human settlements in such areas are becoming increasingly common. Many animals share the space with each other, and wild areas are alive with birds, fish, reptiles, mammals, and unicellular organisms. Many of these animals have complex social structures and interspecies relations may also be very rather complicated. In some ways, wildernesses are huge societies that rival human cities in terms of organization and structure.

Humans have created a romantic image of the wilderness based on solitude and contemplation. Many humans seek out these areas because they feel like it brings them closer to nature. Others are intrigued by the interactions of the animals which live there, or they are captivated by mythology surrounding these areas. Many myths, for example, speak of being lost in a metaphorical wilderness, and this type of area is often associated with the unknown.

In the 20th century, many humans began to recognize a need for preserving natural spaces and locations which had experienced minimal human intervention. Numerous wilderness preservation societies arose, and the trend of creating parks and reserves became more widespread.

Deserts may be considered wilderness.
Deserts may be considered wilderness.

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Discussion Comments

bananas

Wilderness, it is a place to find oneself, that is how I would describe it. Or as Henry David Thoreau wrote over a century ago "...in Wilderness is the preservation of the World."

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