The Why Files The Why Files --

The worth of wilderness; the need for nature


The call of the wild
Q: How many wilderness areas do we need? A: How many Brahms symphonies do we need? (Attributed to Bob Marshall, founder, Wilderness Society)Why are so many people so stuck on nature and wilderness? Why should it matter to us? In answering the question, The Why Files decided to ignore the massive benefits of nature -- in the form of clean air, clean water, biodiversity, flood protection, and oxygen to breathe. Not that these benefits are trivial -- without these so-called "ecosystem services," life on the planet might be limited to bacteria.

Instead, we want to focus on the direct benefits of wilderness to the human soul and psyche. In other words, what can wilderness do for us?

Feel the love: the God imperative

It wasn't always thus: Before 1750 or so, the European and American public culture had a "a horror of the wild, especially mountains, as an awful, or aweful place," says William Cronon, a professor of history and geography at University of Wisconsin-Madison. And then came a 180° switcheroo in attitudes, producing what Cronon calls a "love affair with wild nature." One key to this transformation were the writings of European philosophers Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau, for example, wrote that humans were good by nature, but corrupted by society.

In Europe, Cronon says, landscapes with features like waterfalls, canyons, and mountains were called "sublime," meaning a "romantic place where God is most imminent in the world."

Even in our secular age, or perhaps especially in our secular age, Cronon says, "nature is the place where you go to experience God ... and the search for God is an awfully powerful human motivator." When atheists talk about communing with mother nature, they "might or might not recognize that they are describing a deity with that phrase," Cronon adds.

Sweeping valley with towering snow-covered peaks looming on all sides
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Gone primitive

In 1924, the Gila Wilderness, site of the dramatic rescue described on the previous page, was first protected as a "primitive area." To Cronon, this phrasing highlights the relation between the desire for wilderness and the "national myth of origin of United States. This nation and its democratic institutions, grew with a sense of the self emerging from the wilderness, that there was something uniquely American about the encounter with the primitive, in the sense of being cleaner, less corrupted," and more real. Wilderness allows us to escape the sophisticated and find the authentic self, he says.

Hiking = healing?

Wilderness also serves as a balm in the many programs that send troubled youths into nature as a form of therapy. There is some evidence that these combination-of-ingredients programs are effective. In 2000, a reanalysis of 28 previous studies of wilderness programs for delinquents aged 10 to 18 found a moderate impactRocky cliff face and pine tree dusted in snow (see "1" in the bibliography). Overall, the recidivism rate (the commission of new crimes) was 29 percent among wilderness-experience youths, and 37 percent for the comparison groups without the wilderness experience. "Programs involving relatively intense activities or with therapeutic enhancements produced the greatest reductions in delinquent behavior," the authors wrote. Oddly, they found that longer programs were less effective than shorter ones.

A view of Acadia National Park, Maine. Photo: NPS

However, Jim Pease, assistant professor in the department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University, sees a scarcity of good evaluations of whether these programs work. "There is almost nothing of real substance, it's mostly hearsay," he says. Recently, he and a graduate student tried to interest more than 200 wilderness-experience therapy programs in a solid study of the issue, and got no cooperation. Granted, staff at these programs may be overworked and underpaid, he says, but they may also be thinking, "Why should we bother? We have plenty of clients, they believe it works." The problem, says Pease, who has himself taken part in leading such programs, is "We all know, intuitively, that these are valuable, but I think the issue needs to be studied."

The bliss of biology

Non-human life in the wilderness is another important call to the wild, Cronon says. "Among those who regard biological nature as the wonder of this planet, there is a belief that if we want to understand biological nature as it truly is, without our distorting influence, wilderness is as close as we can get to it. This is one reason why ecologists, especially in the United States, have been drawn to wilderness as a baseline for understanding ecological function and biodiversity. Although the entire planet has been influenced by us, a plausible argument can be made, that if we want to see an ecosystem as it is supposed to be, wilderness is the best place to look. [Ecologist Aldo] Leopold called it the 'baseline, the control' for studying other habitats."

Majestic snow-capped mountains in distance, caribou feeding on tundra in foreground
Caribou on the 1002 Area of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain, with the Brooks Range mountains in the background to the south. Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

To walk, perchance to err

Author and conservation biologist Curt Meine, who wrote Leopold's biography (see "2" in the bibliography), thinks danger is inseparable from wilderness. "Leopold said, 'Too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run,' he observes. "It's tragic when someone enters the landscape without knowledge of the risks, but we go because we want to challenge ourselves in different ways. We go because it's beautiful, because it's a landscape that brings forth different responses. We go because we can do things there that we can't do elsewhere, including take risks." Wilderness is a place "where you can be, do, what you want, as you want," he says.

A lone yellow tent dots the majestic landscape of a national park
What are these campers learning in the Alaskan wilderness? Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

To walk, perchance to learn

We go to wilderness "to meet the more-than-human world," says Clayton Russell, an associate professor of environmental and outdoor education at Northland College in Ashland, Wis. "The reason that people continue to go to wilderness today is that it's a place where they can learn. They are not as interested in learning about themselves as in learning that there are more than human teachers out there. We go to be taught. We are searching for the lost or forgotten parts of our being. ... We are trying to not only understand ourselves, but to better understand ourselves in place. It's a place that gives us time and space to dream, to hope, and to discover who and what we are in the presence of a broader and more inclusive community."

What's the root of this need for wilderness?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2018, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.