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Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creationindeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.
It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization.
Seen in this way, wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves, a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet.
As Henry David Thoreau once famously declared, In Wildness is the preservation of the World. The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems.
For many Americans wilderness stands as the last remaining place where civilization, that all too human disease, has not fully infected the earth.
It is an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness.
To assert the unnaturalness of so natural a place will no doubt seem absurd or even perverse to many readers, so let me hasten to add that the nonhuman world we encounter in wilderness is far from being merely our own invention.
For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our cultures problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem.Instead, its a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural.Remember this too: looking out across a desert canyon in the evening air, the only sound a lone raven calling in the distance, the rock walls dropping away into a chasm so deep that its bottom all but vanishes as you squint into the amber light of the setting sun.
Each of us who has spent time there can conjure images and sensations that seem all the more hauntingly real for having engraved themselves so indelibly on our memories.
Such memories may be uniquely our own, but they are also familiar enough be to be instantly recognizable to others. The torrents of mist shoot out from the base of a great waterfall in the depths of a Sierra canyon, the tiny droplets cooling your face as you listen to the roar of the water and gaze up toward the sky through a rainbow that hovers just out of reach.