Wilderness is where the hand of man has not set foot: Brower

For The Wilderness Act, this September marks the Big 5-0, its biggest birthday to date. 

This should be a celebratory moment, as the Wilderness Act has for many many years been considered the high water achievement of the environmental movement in America, the legislative flowering of the vision of great American nature thinkers such as Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold. 

But today, as Kenneth Brower has the temerity to point out in this month's Sierra, nature writers in activism and in academia mostly dismiss wilderness as a myth, a figment of the white man's imagination, "flawed" and "imperialistic."

Brower, affronted by this brand of "wilderness denial," promulgated by, as Dave Foreman describes its scoffers, "wilderness deconstructionists," puts in a word in person at a Marin County conference for what his father David Brower worked so hard to protect and enact into law when he ran the Sierra Club. 

Brower admits he spoke "with some heat." He points out that the phrase "Geography of Hope" that gave the conference its name was a phrase the writer Wallace Stegner used to describe, yes, wilderness:

The green fire in that year's theme, "Igniting the Green Fire: Finding Hope in Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic," had nothing to do with a land ethic, or sustainability, or restoration–as admirable as all of those causes are. The words are from Leopold's most famous quote of all, about a wolf he had just shot: "We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes–something known only to her and to the mountain." That fierce green fire, that thing known only to the wolf and to the mountain, is wilderness. 

Brower stands up for the reality and worth of wilderness, and eloquently so, and points out that, contrary to the deconstructionists' claims, John Muir knew full well the native Americans who lived in the wild places he loved to explore, and remarked on their gentleness.  

Muir was actually acquainted with the Indians in question, was photographed in conversation with them, and in various accounts describes their "huts" on the floor of Hetch Hetchy. Muir knew full well, and firsthand, that Indians used the valley. He also knew and appreciated the vast difference between Native American and Euro-American impacts on the land. "How many centuries Indians have roamed these woods nobody knows, probably a great many," he wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra. "It seems strange that heavier marks have not been made. Indians walk softly and hurt the landscape hardly more than birds and squirrels." 

Brower defends Muir, and wilderness, and the Sierra Club. He alludes to actually visiting the wilds, and quotes a joke on the subject from his father David Brower, whose defined it as:

"Wilderness is where the hand of man has not set foot." 

As much as I agree with Kenneth Brower, and thank him for letting us in on his father's joke, I wonder if there's something specific about the Wilderness Act that makes it uncool today. 


From the bill: [Wilderness] "has outstanding opportunities for solitude."

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Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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