Skip to Main Content

American Wilderness Writing (February 2016): The Twentieth Century and Beyond

By Erik Hage

The Twentieth Century and Beyond

In terms of wilderness writing, one should think of the early twentieth century and beyond as a diaspora of diverse writers with common origins in Thoreau—that is, with origins in the highly personal, philosophical, and ecological blend of writing that he forged.  The central tenets of nature-based writing have remained largely the same while engaging the vagaries of the times: ever-increasing encroachment of industrialization and the digital age.

Among the most prominent, eloquent, and enduring works is Rockwell Kent’s Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, which is based on the painter and writer’s journey to Alaska in 1918, when it was still very much a frontier.  In this volume, Kent merges illustrations and personal reflections of time spent living with his nine-year-old son on an island near Seward.  Another standout—though it is sometimes criticized for its dramatic anthropomorphisms—is Sally Carrighar’s One Day on Beetle Rock, in which the author details a day in the life of the wildlife in California’s Sequoia National Park.  Adolph Murie, a pioneer in the study of wolves in their habitat, returns the reader to Alaska with The Wolves of Mount McKinley, which emanated from the author’s two-year study of the relationship between wolves and sheep in what is now Denali National Park.  Murie’s A Naturalist in Alaska, which includes illustrations by his brother, Olaus Murie, details the interrelationships between Alaskan animals.  Margaret Murie, Adolph Murie’s wife, was an esteemed naturalist in her own right.  A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and cofounder of the Wilderness Society, she details her and her husband’s work for the wilderness movement in her memoir, Two in the Far North.

In 1949, ecologist Aldo Leopold produced what is arguably the most influential environmentalist work of the twentieth century, A Sand County Almanac.  In this book, he puts forth his uncompromising, often-cited land ethic (one with clear shades of Thoreau and Muir): “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  By the 1980s, A Sand County Almanac had made such a mark on both general readership and wildlife management professionals that it established Leopold as a central figure in environmentalism.  Robert Marshall was one of the principal founders of the Wilderness Society, and his posthumously published Arctic Wilderness, edited and introduced by Robert Marshall’s brother George, details, through journals and letters, Marshall’s explorations of the Central Brooks Range.  And as the decade turned, John Graves published Goodbye to a River, a lament in which the author attempted to experience a familiar river wilderness area in Texas one last time before it yielded to damming and development.

Later in the twentieth century, prominent poet and novelist Wendell Berry wrote about Kentucky’s wild and untamed Red River Gorge in The Unforeseen Wilderness.  In this book, he assiduously and eloquently details his native region in much the same way that Thoreau had come to absorb and reflect on his own Concord.  Another landmark publication was Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a deeply philosophical, observational work that documents a year the author spent in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Valley.  This book solidified women authors’ position in the annals of wilderness writing and carved out Dillard’s place as a Thoreau for the 1970s.  Four years later, Barry Lopez published Of Wolves and Men, which encapsulates the long history of discomfiting contact between these animals and civilization.  A decade later, Lopez won the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape.  “If we are to devise an enlightened plan for human activity,” Lopez writes in the latter work, “we need a more particularized understanding of the land itself—not a more refined mathematical knowledge but a deeper understanding of its nature, as if it were, itself, another sort of civilization we had to reach some agreement with.”

Moving forward into the 1990s and beyond, wilderness writing has abounded, making comprehensive assessment of wilderness writing difficult.  That said, three works that move the discussion in different areas of popular consciousness deserve particular mention.  The first is Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, an in-depth New Journalism treatment that became a best seller and has found its way into college curricula.  Krakauer tells the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man living his life based on an idealized and mythologized version of Thoreau who leaves his suburban life and family behind to live and ultimately perish in the Alaskan wilderness.  A longtime mountain climber, Krakauer takes a hard look at the wilderness myth wrought by popular sentiment through both McCandless’s life and his own past.  Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail offers moving ideas about wilderness and consciousness.  Strayed, though clearly treading personal terrain, narrates her foot-journey through the wilderness, from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border.  Made into a film in 2014, this book represents another strand of wilderness writing—one in which wilderness becomes a conduit for self-discovery.

Addressing the relationship between civilization and wild nature, Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder is illustrative of another compelling strand.  Louv, an Audubon Medal recipient, makes the argument that, in an age of digital complexity and distraction, reconnection with the natural world promotes health, mental wellness, and creativity in individuals while also building stronger businesses and economic foundations.  Though he does not deal exclusively with wilderness (his focus is nature in general), Louv’s work bears mention because it is a strikingly timely and relevant update on Thoreau and Muir for the digital age (and he alludes to Thoreau, particularly the Concord sage’s thoughts on “wildness”).

Works Cited