I want to say, before we continue, I am in no way a foe of Glacier Bay. It is truly a remarkable landscape and I have a deep affection for the place. This project is to start a conversation about wilderness, and the commodification of it. Those rare places that can be wild, are places that truly should be valued and revered, but with always respect to those peoples whose ancestors walked that land.
“Rarely are the wild, untamable forces of nature more strikingly evident than in Glacier Bay’s wilderness. Glaciers ponderously grind through the valleys all the way to tidewater, and massive ice shards calve into the water below. At first glance, the margin of a glacier appears to be an austere relic of the Little Ice Age, locked in ice and frozen in time. Instead, it is a tumultuous din, as icebergs scrape and groan against each other. Hulking bergs spontaneously roll over with a roar, bobbing and exposing their blue underbellies as they fragment and find new equilibrium. In the distance, sonorous rumbling signals an avalanche thundering down a mountainside, quelling everything in its path. Even the earth’s crust heaves and lurches on its own accord as a network of fault lines generates frequent earthquakes. Powerful storms and the occasional tsunami batter the coast. Those at sea are at the mercy of capricious weather and strong tides. Here, the earth seems to flaunt its independence”. This is a passage from the Glacier Bay Character Narrative. A Character Narrative is document that expresses the uniqueness of Glacier Bay wilderness.
There are seven qualities listed in the Character Narrative: natural, untrammeled, undeveloped, solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, marine wilderness, and natural change as a foundation for scientific inquiry. Each of these qualities can be critiqued with Cronon’s The Trouble with Wilderness.
Let’s look at just two of them, solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation and undeveloped. Solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation is an idea Cronon talks about this in his essay. “The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living— urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die” (Cronon 11). We have in the past 200 years or so, started this romanticization with the solitude that being outside can bring us. For those who work the land and live off the land, being in extreme solitude or taking part in primitive recreation doesn’t seem all to appealing. This idea is one for those who have removed themselves entirely from nature; they live in order and structure and are seeking the chaos and freedom of “wild” places. It’s an idea for the urbanite, not the those living/working the land.
“Worse: to the extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness, to just that extent we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead. We inhabit civilization while holding some part of ourselves—what we imagine to be the most precious part—aloof from its entanglements. We work our nine-to-five jobs in its institutions, we eat its food, we drive its cars (not least to reach the wilderness), we benefit from the intricate and all too invisible networks with which it shelters us, all the while pretending that these things are not an essential part of who we are. By imagining that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves the homes we actually inhabit” (Cronon 11).
The idea of an undeveloped wild place is extremely appealing to those who live in the throes of urban industrialization. But showcasing a tract of land as undeveloped is incorrect and irresponsible. It speaks to the idea that humans started destroying the earth when agriculture was invented. “In this view the farm becomes the first and most important battlefield in the long war against wild nature, and all else follows in its wake. From such a starting place, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the only way human beings can hope to live naturally on earth is to follow the hunter-gatherers back into a wilderness Eden and abandon virtually everything that civilization has given us” (Cronon 14). Undeveloped land is that pristine space where no human hands have toiled and worked. It creates a chasm a mile wide between those who work the land in rural places, and those who live in the Urban centers far removed from that land.
I hope you are starting to see that the “wilderness experience” is really only experienced by those who can afford it, they also set unrealistic expectation on what a wilderness is. As Cronon puts it. “Why, for instance, is the “wilderness experience” so often conceived as a form of recreation best enjoyed by those whose class privileges give them the time and resources to leave their jobs behind and “get away from it all?” Why does the protection of wilderness so often seem to pit urban recreationists against rural people who actually earn their living from the land (excepting those who sell goods and services to the tourists themselves)? Why in the debates about pristine natural areas are “primitive” peoples idealized, even sentimentalized, until the moment they do something unprimitive, modern, and unnatural, and thereby fall from environmental grace? What are the consequences of a wilderness ideology that devalues productive labor and the very concrete knowledge that comes from working the land with one’s own hands” (Cronon 15)?
The National Park System isn’t inherently bad, there are some policies and issues that are wrong, but the people who work these Parks are there because they love the land. They want to see it through to the next generation. But we, as a civilization, have to stop idealizing a very specific idea about how wilderness ought to be, we have to stop deciding who can enjoy wilderness, and we have to let Native People’s utilize the land.
Experiencing wilderness can be a pond in your back yard, or a city park, or any tract of land near your home. We cannot otherize faraway lands. “The special power of the tree in the wilderness is to remind us of this fact. It can teach us to recognize the wildness we did not see in the tree we planted in our own backyard. By seeing the otherness in that which is most unfamiliar, we can learn to see it too in that which at first seemed merely ordinary. If wilderness can do this—if it can help us perceive and respect a nature we had forgotten to recognize as natural—then it will become part of the solution to our environmental dilemmas rather than part of the problem” (Cronon 19).
I want to end this segment with a passage from the Character Narrative speaking in regard to the Tlingit people: “The Tlingit come to Glacier Bay wilderness not to be alone, or to explore a previously unvisited place, but rather to be in communion with ancestral spirits and to retrace the footsteps and actions of all those who have visited before them. In a place that is now called wilderness, the Tlingit people are never alone, but always in the company of their living and non-living relatives; the bear people, the ice people, and all the spirits of the homeland. While many visitors come to Glacier Bay to witness the spectacle of a whale breaching or a glacier calving, and are understandably awed by nature’s exhibitions, the Tlingit would perhaps experience the whale’s breach and the crumbling ice as communication between the leviathan, the glacier, and their human clan relatives” (Character Narrative). I don’t want to romanticize the Tlingit connection with their ancestral lands, I have no place to speak for an entire community of people. But this passage shows just how different perspectives can about the “wilderness”, and it also shows how important utilizing the land is for Native peoples.
Wilderness, as we know it today, is a word with very little soulful meaning. It’s a place used for human enlightenment or escapism. There is a lot to be learned about how we experience nature, for instance valuing the nature closest to us, valuing the rights of Native peoples to use the land, and valuing agriculture and those who work the land. Wilderness is everywhere, we may remove ourselves, but if you look around I know we will all experience the wilderness in our everyday lives. It’s the tree, the creek, the flower plant in your pot, the birds flying by, or anything that reminds you that nature is there.