Wilderness and the American Mind

Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash, (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1967), 288pp.


Understanding environmental problems; justifying aspirations; of general applicability to environmental problems; written for the first party participant.


Wilderness and the American Mind is an examination, both cultural and philosophical, of the evolution of the American concept of wilderness. Nash employs the work of historical and contemporary figures who wrote from a Western perspective about the American concept of wilderness.

Wilderness and the American Mind is a classic work in environmental thought. It is routinely used as required reading in philosophy, political science and ecology courses. It will be useful to the reader who desires an understanding of the basis of environmental thought in the United States. After a prologue Nash begins his examination of the concept of wilderness with consideration of the conceptual baggage that the New World settlers brought with them. He acknowledges the primitive notion that nature which contributes to one's survival is good and nature which does not is bad. New World settlers battled this, so- called, bad nature on a daily basis, both in the Old and New Worlds; thus nature was viewed as something to be subdued.

The second chapter examines the divergence between New and Old World conceptions of wilderness in the beginning of the nineteenth century. European visitors had little experience of wilderness having brought most of the land in Europe under the influence, if not the outright subjugation, of humans. The adjectives which European visitors and many New Worlders used to describe wilderness reflected this divergence. Nash attributes this to the struggle in which many Americans continued to engage with the wilderness. The third chapter examines the romanticazation of the wilderness. The author traces the beginnings of this process to writers who lived in cities and thus came to appreciate what was wild and escaped human control.

Nash next addresses the formation of a distinctly American concept of wilderness. He asserts that the impetus for this formation is to be found in the need for the many Americans living on the edge of a still vast wilderness to cease to feel as if they were inferior provincials in comparison to the Old World. Nash asserts that a cultivation of a pride and appreciation of the one area in which the New World excelled (vast areas of wilderness) accomplished this elevating of the American self-esteem. Henry DavidThoreau's insistence that the preservation of wilderness was necessary to prevent humans from becoming as domesticated as the barnyard animals they kept is examined by Nash.

John James Audubon and Horace Greeley are cited as exemplars of the new exhortations to preserve the irreplaceable wilderness. John Muir, as publicist for wilderness, is the subject of chapter eight. After examining what Nash calls "the wilderness cult" he addresses the fight to preserve the Hetch Hetchy valley and the subsequent designation of Yosemite as a National Park. Aldo Leopold and his insistence that "the first rule of tinkering is to save all the parts" and the drive to designate permanent wilderness areas is Nash's next focus. In the epilogue, Nash examines what he terms "the irony of victory". That is, he examines the irony that the evolution of the American concept of wilderness to the state where wilderness is valued and sought after may, indeed, be the ultimate demise of wild places.

Wilderness and the American Mind sets the conceptual framework for examination of American environmental problems and as such is beneficial to all readers who plan to address any environmental problem.

T. A. O'Lonergan