The Problem of the Wilderness

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The Problem of the Wilderness  (1930) 
by Robert Marshall

"The Problem of the Wilderness" was originally published in The Scientific Monthly (1930, February), pp. 141–148.


It is appalling to reflect how much useless energy has been expended in arguments which would have been inconceivable had the terminology been defined. In order to avoid such futile controversy I shall undertake at the start to delimit the meaning of the principal term with which this paper is concerned. According to Dr. Johnson a wilderness is “a tract of solitude and savegeness,” a definition more poetic than explicit. Modern lexicographers do better with “a tract of land, whether a forest or a wide barren plain, uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings.”[1] This definition gives a rather good foundation, but it still leaves a penumbra of partially shaded connotation.

For the ensuing discussion I shall use the word wilderness to denote a region which contains no permanent inhabitants, possesses no possibility of conveyance by any mechanical means and is sufficiently spacious that a person in crossing it must have the experience of sleeping out. The dominant attributes of such an area are: first, that it requires any one who exists in it to depend exclusively on his own effort for survival; and second, that it preserves as nearly as possible the primitive environment. This means that all roads, power transportation and settlements are barred. But trails, temporary shelters, which were common long before the advent of the white race, are entirely permissible.

When Columbus effected his immortal debarkation, he touched upon a wilderness which embraced virtually a hemisphere. The philosophy that progress is proportional to the amount of alteration imposed upon nature never seemed to have occurred to the Indians. Even such tribes as the Incas, Aztecs and Pueblos made few changes in the environment in which they were born. “The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it.”[2] Consequently, over billions of acres the aboriginal wanderers still spun out their peripatetic careers, the wild animals still browsed in unmolested meadows and the forests still grew and moldered and grew again precisely as they had done for undeterminable centuries.

It was not until the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 that there appeared the germ for that unabated disruption of natural conditions which has characterized all subsequent American history. At first expansion was very slow. The most intrepid seldom advanced further from their neighbors than the next drainage. At the time of the Revolution the zone of civilization was still practically confined to a narrow belt lying between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian valleys. But a quarter of a century later, when the Louisiana Purchase was consummated, the outposts of civilization had reached the Mississippi, and there were foci of colonization in half a dozen localities west of the Appalachians, though the unbroken line of the frontier was east of the mountians.[3]

It was yet possible as recently as 1804 and 1805 for the Lewis and Clark Expedition to cross two thirds of a continent without seeing any culture more advanced than that of the Middle Stone Age. The only routes of travel were the uncharted rivers and the almost impassable Indian trails. And continually the expedition was breaking upon some “truly magnificent and sublimely grand object, which has from the commencement of time been concealed from the view of civilized man.”[4]

This exploration inaugurated a century of constantly accelerating emigration such as the world had never known. Throughout this frenzied period the only serious thought ever devoted to the wilderness was how it might be demolished. To the pioneers pushing westward it was an enemy of diabolical cruelty and danger, standing as the great obstacle to industry and development. Since these seemed to constitute the essentials for felicity, the obvious step was to excoriate the devil which interfered. And so the path of empire proceeded to substitute for the undisturbed seclusion of nature the conquering accomplishments of man. Highways wound up valleys which had known only the footsteps of the wild animals; neatly planted gardens and orchards replaced the tangled confusion of the primeval forest; factories belched up great clouds of smoke where for centuries trees had transpired toward the sky, and the ground-cover of fresh sorrel and twinflower was transformed to asphalt spotted with chewinggum, coal dust and gasoline.

To-day there remain less than twenty wilderness areas of a million acres, and annually even these shrunken remnants of an undefiled continent are being despoiled. Aldo Leopold has truly said:

“The day is almost upon us when canoe travel will consist in paddling up the noisy wake of a motor launch and portaging through the back yard of a summer cottage. When that day comes canoe travel will be dead, and dead too will be a part of our Americanism . . . . The day is almost upon us when a pack train must wind its way up a graveled highway and turn out its bell mare in the pasture of a summer hotel. When that day comes the pack train will be dead, the diamond hitch will be merely a rope and Kit Carson and Jim Bridger will be names in a history lesson.”[5]

Within the next few years the fate of the wilderness must be decided. This is a problem to be settled by deliberate rationality and not by personal prejudice. Fundamentally, the question is one of balancing the total happiness which will be obtainable if the few undesecrated areas are perpetuated against that which will prevail if they are destroyed. For this purpose it will be necessary: first, to consider the extra-ordinary benefits of the wilderness; second, to enumerate the drawbacks to undeveloped areas; third, to evaluate the relative importance of these conflicting factors, and finally, to formulate a plan of action.


The benefits which accrue from the wilderness may be separated into three broad divisions: the physical, the mental and the esthetic.

Most obvious in the first category is the contribution which the wilderness makes to health. This involves something more than pure air and quiet, which are also attainable in almost any rural situation. But toting a fifty-pound pack over an abominable trail, snowshoeing across a blizzard-swept plateau or scaling some jagged pinnacle which juts far above timber all develop a body distinguished by a soundness, stamina and élan unknown amid normal surroundings.

More than mere heartiness is the character of physical independence which can be nurtured only away from the coddling of civilization. In a true wilderness if a person is not qualified to satisfy all the requirements of existence, then he is bound to perish. As long as we prize individuality and competence it is imperative to provide the opportunity for complete selfsufficiency. This is inconceivable under the effete superstructure of urbanity; it demands the harsh environment of untrammeled expanses.

Closely allied is the longing for physical exploration which bursts through all the chains with which society fetters it. Thus we find Lindbergh, Amundsen, Byrd gaily daring the unknown, partly to increase knowledge, but largely to satisfy the craving for adventure. Adventure, whether physical or mental, implies breaking into unpenetrated ground, venturing beyond the boundary of normal aptitude, extending oneself to the limit of capacity, courageously facing peril. Life without the chance for such exertions would be for many persons a dreary game, scarcely bearable in its horrible banality.

It is true that certain people of great erudition “come inevitably to feel that if life has any value at all, then that value comes in thought,”[6] and so they regard mere physical pleasures as puerile inconsequences. But there are others, perfectly capable of comprehending relativity and the quantum theory, who find equal ecstasy in non-intellectual adventure. It is entirely irrelevant which view-point is correct; each is applicable to whoever entertains it. The important consideration is that both groups are entitled to indulge their penchant, and in the second instance this is scarcely possible without the freedom of the wilderness.


One of the greatest advantages of the wilderness is its incentive to independent cogitation. This is partly a reflection of physical stimulation, but more inherently due to the fact that original ideas require an objectivity and perspective seldom possible in the distracting propinquity of one’s fellow men. It is necessary to “have gone behind the world of humanity, seen its institutions like toadstools by the waydside.”[7] This theorizing is justified empirically by the number of America’s most virile minds, including Thomas Jefferson, Henry Thoreau, Louis Agassiz, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, John Muir and William James, who have felt the compulsion of periodical retirements into the solitudes. Withdrawn from the contaminating notions of their neighbors, these thinkers have been able to meditate, unprejudiced by the immuring civilization.

Another mental value of an opposite sort is concerned not with incitement but with repose. In a civilization which requires most lives to be passed amid inordinate dissonance, pressure and intrusion, the chance of retiring now and then to the quietude and privacy of sylvan haunts becomes for some people a psychic necessity. It is only the possibility of convalescing in the wilderness which saves them from being destroyed by the terrible neural tension of modern existence.

There is also a psychological bearing of the wilderness which affects, in contrast to the minority who find it indispensable for relaxation, the whole of human kind. One of the most profound discoveries of psychology has been the demonstration of the terrific harm caused by suppressed desires. To most of mankind a very powerful desire is the appetite for adventure. But in an age of machinery only the extremely fortunate have any occasion to satiate this hankering, except vicariously. As a result people become so choked by the monotony of their lives that they are readily amenable to the suggestion of any lurid diversion. Especially in battle, they imagine, will be found the glorious romance of futile dreams. And so they endorse war with enthusiasm and march away to stirring music, only to find their adventure a chimera, and the whole world miserable. It is all tragically ridiculous, and yet there is a passion there which can not be dismissed with a contemptuous reference to childish quixotism. William James has said that “militarism is the great preserver of ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible.”[8] The problem, as he points, out, is to find a “moral equivalent of war,” a peaceful stimulation for the hardihood and competence instigated in bloodshed. This equivalent may be realized if we make available to every one the harmless excitement of the wilderness. Bertrand Russell has skillfully amplified this idea in his essay on “Machines and the Emotions.” He expresses the significant conclusion that “many men would cease to desire war if they had opportunities to risk their lives in Alpine climbing.”[9]


In examining the esthetic importance of the wilderness I will not engage in the unprofitable task of evaluating the preciousness of different sorts of beauty, as, for instance, whether an acronical view over the Grand Canyon is worth more than the Apollo of Praxiteles. For such a rating would always have to be based on a subjective standard, whereas the essential for any measure is impersonality. Instead of such useless metaphysics I shall call attention to several respects in which the undisputed beauty of the primeval, whatever its relative merit, is distinctly unique.

Of the myriad manifestations of beauty, only natural phenomena like the wilderness are detached from all temporal relationship. All the beauties in the creation of alteration of which man has played even the slightest role are firmly anchored in the historic stream. They are temples of Egypt, oratory of Rome, painting of the Renaissance or music of the Classicists. But in the wild places nothing is moored more closely than to geologic ages. The silent wanderer crawling up the rocky shore of the turbulent river could be a savage from some prehistoricepoch or a fugitive from twentieth century mechanization.

The sheer stupendousness of the wilderness gives it a quality of intangibility which is unknown in ordinary manifestations of ocular beauty. These are always very definite two- or threedimensional objects which can be physically grasped and circumscribed in a few moments. But “the beauty that shimmers in the yellow afternoons of October, who ever could clutch it.”[10] Any one who has looked across a ghostly valley at midnight, when moonlight makes a formless silver unity out of the drifting fog, knows how impossible it often is in nature to distinguish mass from hallucination. Any one who has stood upon a lofty summit and gazed over an inchoate tangle of deep canyons and cragged mountains, of sunlit lakelets and black expanses of forest, has become aware of a certain giddy sensation that there are no distances, no measures, simply unrelated matter rising and falling without any analogy to the banal geometry of breadth, thickness and height. A fourth dimension of immensity is added which makes the location of some dim elevation outlined against the sunset as incommensurable to the figures of the topographer as life itself is to the quantitative table of elements which the analytic chemist proclaims to constitute vitality.

Because of its size the wilderness also has a physical ambiency about it which most forms of beauty lack. One looks from outside at works of art and architecture, listens from outside to music or poetry. But when one looks at and listens to the wilderness he is encompassed by his experience of beauty, lives in the midst of his esthetic universe.

A fourth peculiarity about the wilderness is that it exhibits a dynamic beauty. A Beethoven symphony or a Shakespearean drama, a landscape by Corot or a Gothic cathedral, once they are finished become virtually static. But the wilderness is in constant flux. A seed germinates, and a stunted seedling battles for decades against the dense shade of the virgin forest. Then some ancient tree blows down and the long-suppressed plant suddenly enters into the full vigor of delayed youth, grows rapidly from sapling to maturity, declines into the conky senility of many centuries, dropping millions of seed to start a new forest upon the rotting debris of its own ancestors, and eventually topples over to admit the sunlight which ripens another woodland generation.

Another singular aspect of the wilderness is that it gratifies every one of the senses. There is unanimity in venerating the sights and sounds of the forest. But what are generally esteemed to be the minor senses should not be slighted. No one who has ever strolled in springtime through seas of blooming violets, or lain at night on boughs of fresh balsam, or walked across dank holms in early morning can omit odor from the joys of the primordial environment. No one who has felt the stiff wind of mountaintops or the softness of untrodden sphagnum will forget the exhilaration experienced through touch. “Nothing ever tastes as good as when it’s cooked in the woods” is a trite tribute to another sense. Even equilibrium causes a blithe exultation during many a river crossing on tenuous foot log and many a perilous conquest of precipice.

Finally, it is well to reflect that the wilderness furnishes perhaps the best opportunity for pure esthetic enjoyment. This requires that beauty be observed as a unity, and that for the brief duration of any pure esthetic experience the cognition of the observed object must completely fill the spectator’s cosmos. There can be no extraneous thoughts—no question about the creator of the phenomenon, its structure, what it resembles or what vanity in the beholder it gratifies. “The purely esthetic observer has for the moment forgotten his own soul”;[11] he has only one sensation left and that is exquisiteness. In the wilderness, with its entire freedom from the manifestations of human will, that perfect objectivity which is essential for pure esthetic rapture can probably be achieved more readily than among any other forms of beauty.


But the problem is not all one-sided. Having discussed the tremendous benefits of the wilderness, it is now proper to ponder upon the disadvantages which uninhabited territory entails.

In the first place, there is the immoderate danger that a wilderness without developments for fire protection will sooner or later go up in smoke and down in ashes.

A second drawback is concerned with the direct economic loss. By locking up wilderness areas we as much as remove from the earth all the lumber, minerals, range land, water-power and agricultural possibilities which they contain. In the face of the tremendous demand for these resources it seems unpardonable to many to render nugatory this potential material wealth.

A third difficulty inherent in undeveloped districts is that they automatically preclude the bulk of the population from enjoying them. For it is admitted that at present only a minority of the genus Homo cares for wilderness recreation, and only a fraction of this minority possesses the requisite virility for the indulgence of this desire. Far more people can enjoy the woods by automobile. Far more would prefer to spend their vacations in luxurious summer hotels set on well-groomed lawns than in leaky, fly-infested shelters bundled away in the brush. Why then should this majority have to give up its rights?


As a result of these last considerations the irreplaceable values of the wilderness are generally ignored, and a fatalistic attitude is adopted in regard to the ultimate disappearance of all unmolested localities. It is my contention that this outlook is entirely unjustified, and that almost all the disadvantages of the wilderness can be minimized by forethought and some compromise.

The problem of protection dictates the elimination of undeveloped areas of great fire hazard. Furthermore, certain infringements on the concept of an unsullied wilderness will be unavoidable in almost all instance. Trails, telephone lines and lookout cabins will have to be constructed, for without such precaution most forests in the west would be gutted. But even with these improvements the basic primitive quality still exists: dependence on personal effort for survival.

Economic loss could be greatly reduced by reserving inaccessible and unproductive terrain. Inasmuch as most of the highly valuable lands have already been exploited, it should be easy to confine a great share of the wilderness tracts to those lofty mountain regions where the possibility of material profit is unimportant. Under these circumstances it seems like the grossest illogicality for any one to object to the withdrawal of a few million acres of low-grade timber for recreational purposes when one hundred million acres of potential forest lie devastated.[12] If one tenth portion of this denuded land were put to its maximum productivity, it could grow more wood than all the proposed wilderness areas put together. Or if our forests, instead of attaining only 22 per cent of their possible production,[13] were made to yield up to capacity, we could refrain from using three quarters of the timber in the country and still be better off than we are to-day. The way to meet our commercial demands is not to thwart legitimate divertisement, but to eliminate the unmitigated evils of fire and destructive logging. It is time we appreciated that the real economic problem is to see how little land need be employed for timber production, so that the remainder of the forest may be devoted to those other vital uses incompatible with industrial exploitation.

Even if there should be an underproduction of timber, it is well to recall that it is much cheaper to import lumber for industry than to export people for pastime. The freight rate from Siberia is not nearly as high as the passenger rate to Switzerland.

What small financial loss ultimately results from the establishment of wilderness areas must be accepted as a fair price to pay for their unaccessible preciousness. We spend about twenty-one billion dollars a year for entertainment of all sorts.[14] Compared with this there is no significance to the forfeiture of a couple of million dollars of annual income, which is all that our maximum wilderness requirements would involve. Think what an enormously greater sum New York city alone sacrifices in the maintenance of Central Park.

But the automobilists argue that a wilderness domain precludes the huge majority of recreation-seekers from deriving any amusement whatever from it. This is almost as irrational as contending that because more people enjoy bathing than art exhibits therefore we should change our picture galleries into swimming pools. It is undeniable that the automobilist has more roads than he can cover in a lifetime. There are upward of 3,000,000[15] miles of public highways in the United States, traversing many of the finest scenic features in the nation. Nor would the votaries of the wilderness object to the construction of as many more miles in the vicinity of the old roads, where they would not be molesting the few remaining vestiges of the primeval. But when the motorists also demand for their particular diversion the insignificant wilderness residue, it makes even a Midas appear philanthropic.

Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral and esthetic stature of which their nature is capable. Why then should tolerance extend only to tastes and modes of life which extort acquiescence by the multitude of their adherents?[16]

It is of the utmost importance to concede the right of happiness also to people who find their delight in unaccustomed ways. This prerogative is valid even though its exercise may encroach slightly on the fun of the majority, for there is a point where an increase in the joy of the many causes a decrease in the joy of the few out of all proportion to the gain of the former. This has been fully recognized not only by such philosophers of democracy as Paine, Jefferson and Mill, but also in the practical administration of governments which spend prodigious sums of money to satisfy the expensive wants of only a fragment of the community. Public funds which could bring small additional happiness to the majority are diverted to support museums, art galleries, concerts, botanical gardens, menageries and golf-links. While these, like wilderness areas, are open to the use of every one, they are vital to only a fraction of the entire population. Nevertheless, they are almost universally approved, and the appropriations to maintain them are growing phenomenally.


These steps of reasoning lead up to the conclusion that the preservation of a few samples of undeveloped territory is one of the most clamant issues before us today. Just a few years more of hesitation and the only trace of that wilderness which has exerted such a fundamental influence in molding American character will lie in the musty pages of pioneer books and the mumbled memories of tottering antiquarians. To avoid this catastrophe demands immediate action.

A step in the right direction has already been initiated by the National Conference on Outdoor Recreation,[17] which has proposed twenty-one possible wilderness areas. Several of these have already been set aside in a tentative way by the Forest Service; others are undergoing more careful scrutiny. But this only represents the incipiency of what ought to be done.

A thorough study should forthwith be undertaken to determine the probable wilderness needs of the country. Of course, no precise reckoning could be attempted, but a radical calculation would be feasible. It ought to be radical for three reasons: because it is easy to convert a natural area to industrial or motor usage, impossible to do the reverse; because the population which covets wilderness recreation is rapidly enlarging and because the higher standard of living which may be anticipated should give millions the economic power to gratify what is today merely a pathetic yearning. Once the estimate is formulated, immediate steps should be taken to establish enough tracts to insure every one who hungers for it a generous opportunity of enjoying wilderness isolation.

To carry out this program it is exigent that all friends of the wilderness ideal should unite. If they do not present the urgency of their view-point the other side will certainly capture popular support. Then it will only be a few years until the last escape from society will be barricaded. If that day arrives there will be countless souls born to live in strangulation, countless human beings who will be crushed under the artificial edifice raised by man. There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.


  1. Webster’s New International Dictionary.
  2. Willa Cather, “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”
  3. Frederic L. Paxson, “History of the American Frontier.”
  4. Reuben G. Thwaites, “Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806,” June 13, 1805.
  5. Aldo Leopold, “The Last Stand of the Wilderness,” American Forests and Forest Life, October, 1925.
  6. Joseph Wood Krutch, “The Modern Temper.”
  7. Henry David Thoreau, “Journals,” April 2, 1852.
  8. William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War.”
  9. Bertrand Russell, “Essays in Scepticism.”
  10. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature.”
  11. Irwin Edman, “The World, the Arts and the Artist.”
  12. George P. Ahern, “Deforested America,” Washington, D.C.
  13. U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Timber, Mine or Crop?”
  14. Stuart Chase, “Whither Mankind?”
  15. “The World Almanac,” 1929.
  16. John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty.”
  17. National Conference on Outdoor Recreation, “Recreation Resources of Federal Lands,” Washington, D.C.

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