On a planet increasingly dominated by people—even the deep oceans today are being altered by humans—it probably makes sense to think about wilderness, too, as a human creation.Elizabeth Kolbert, in “Recall of the Wild”
When I read Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature, back in 1989 (it first appeared in The New Yorker), it had the same impact on me that Silent Spring had when that first came out, in 1962. In that earlier instance, bluebirds made an environmentalist out of me, when Rachel Carson explained why my favorite birds were gradually disappearing. Later, when I read McKibben’s essay, I came to the realization that there is no longer such a thing as wilderness, at least if it is envisioned as an unspoiled place such as existed before the arrival of humans.
This is a theme that has been taken up by other authors, such as Bill Cronon, in his 1995 essay The Trouble With Wilderness, in which he describes wilderness as a state of mind.
To think ourselves capable of causing “the end of nature” is an act of great hubris, for it means forgetting the wildness that dwells everywhere within and around us.
In Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2012 essay on rewilding, she gives much detail about a particular project in the Netherlands, named Oostvaardersplassen. It is a large park, on land reclaimed from the sea (and below sea level), which is being used to house large populations of animals thought to resemble those of ancient times, prior to the age of human agriculture. Similar efforts are underway elsewhere. She mentions Rewilding Europe as an example, and I’m aware of similar projects in North America, where lands in the West are being restored to their “original” (i.e. prior to the arrival of Europeans) grassland species of both flora and fauna.
None of these efforts can truly recreate habitats that are identical to ancient landscapes. The world has gone through phases of climate change, including the Little Ice Age and our current period of global warming. Species have been lost because of over-hunting, habitat loss, and other human-induced changes. Despite their limitations, I applaud these efforts. They do represent an increased awareness that we humans are destroying much that has value, and at the very least they are an attempt to attenuate that process.