Myth 2: Wilderness is a cultural creation or cultural landscape, a ‘human artifact’

Myth: Wilderness is a cultural creation or cultural landscape, a human artifact (Gomez-Pampa and Kaus 1992, Rose 1998, Langton 1996, Flannery 2003, Adams 1996)

Truth: Wilderness – defined by IUCN as a large natural area - was here before humans were, it is not an ‘artifact’ made by humans. In fact one might say that in evolutionary terms humans are a wilderness artifact – as we evolved from wilderness. People confuse human influence on landscapes with ‘creation’ of them. To modify natural vegetation by fire is not to ‘create’ it, only to influence it. The rocks and gorges were not made by humans, nor did we evolve the native species. We influenced community composition to some extent. This is very different from ‘creating’ something. Wilderness defined as a ‘large natural area’ in fact does not deny that humans have influenced most of these areas. In response to this myth it has been pointed out that the claim humans ‘invented the forest’ ignores the species geographical distributions determined largely by ecological tolerances, geological history and climate (Soule 1995, p. 157). Wilderness is not simply a cultural construct ‘devised to mirror our own broken nature’ but is a home to all that is wild, a blank space on the map ‘that illustrates human restraint’ (Tempest Williams 1999). Regarding Yosemite, only a small part of the park has been influenced sufficiently to be called a ‘humanized landscape’, while the majority has not been (Vale 1999). Wilderness ‘created itself long before civilisation … wildness a state of mind? Wildness is what there was before there were states of mind’ (Rolston 2001). Rather:

it seems that the main idea in nature is that the natural is not a human construct. Intentional, ideological construction is exactly what natural entities do not have: if they had it, they would be artefacts. The main idea in nature is that nature is not our idea. (Rolston 2001).

Hay (2002) asks an essential question in regard to this debate:

Why should it be assumed that the smallest incursion of culture into nature constitutes the end of nature? It is just as logical to argue the opposite – that because trees grow in London’s parks … London has ceased to be part of the realm of culture, and has become nature. The fact is that there are natural processes and there are cultural processes, and in any place the mix is likely to be uneven. (Hay 2002, p. 22)

It would seem the failure of many scholars to acknowledge the natural/ cultural process mix is a key source of the confusion around this debate. Hay goes on to point out that, far-reaching though human modifications may be, they cannot be said to be the defining constituents of the Earth’s biophysical systems. It is philosophically misleading to talk about humans ‘constructing nature’ in any general way (Plumwood 2001). Construction implies that ‘what is often mere influence or impact is actually control’ and suggests that because we can ‘affect’ the biosphere we can produce the outcomes we want. It also suggests we can reconstruct it, when ‘we cannot even reconstruct a bird’s feather’ (ibid.). The human artefact argument is a ‘fashionable myth’ that threatens conservation:

people did not construct nature. They did not invent the flora and fauna of Australia, for example, although human activities such as burning and hunting may have slightly altered the genetics of some species, and permanently altered the distribution and abundance of others. (Soule 2002)