Fifty years ago this week, on Sept. 3, 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, one of the landmark achievements of the Great Society. That act set aside 9.1 million acres of land as inviolable—places to be left alone, with an absolute minimum of human interference. Even that familiar sight of the 1950s—the family camper—was excluded under the new rules, which forbade roads.
Today the act is seen as a beginning of sorts; the first major accomplishment of the modern environmental movement, just finding its voice in the early ’60s. But in another sense, the act marked an end—the legal conclusion of more than three centuries of deliberation over the “wilderness” and why it matters to us. At long last, the act provided a definition of the word, with language more poetic than most federal legislation:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Most of the land set aside was in the West, and it remains so—more than half in Alaska. But New Englanders had done much over the centuries to sharpen the definition of the wilderness, beginning with their earliest encounters with a “New England” that was neither new nor English. Along the way, they completely revised their outlook. Their willingness to adapt and think anew may guide us as we enter what many scientists consider a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene—and confront an environment that is changing more quickly than we are.
he first generation of Puritans could never have imagined protecting the wilderness, never mind celebrating it. The immense forests these farmers and barristers found upon their arrival concealed physical danger, from the natives who already lived there and from unfamiliar animals. But they also saw it as a moral wilderness. Having left one degenerating environment—a corrupt England—the point was to regroup and create a perfect society, and the wilderness, so easy to escape into, made it difficult to compel perfection. The earliest governors—William Bradford in Plymouth and John Winthrop in Boston—gnashed their teeth at the “hideous and desolate” wilderness that enveloped them.
As the settlements grew, the children and grandchildren of the first arrivals came to feel more at home with “this strange lande,” as Winthrop called it. They appreciated the rivers and shorelines where they gathered sustenance; they wandered on trails deep into the interior, and they marveled at America’s seemingly inexhaustible grandeur. Slowly, they developed a sense that divinity was present in the church of nature as well as in the churches they built to keep it out.
In a way, they needed the wilderness, to explain what they were doing here, and why their parents had come in the first place. In 1670, a Roxbury minister named Samuel Danforth wrote an election sermon that has lived on. “A Brief Recognition of New-England’s Errand into the Wilderness” was not exactly sweetness and light—it listed a long catalog of New England’s sins. But it held up the wilderness as a central reason to admire the founders, who had fearlessly built their society near to “these wilde Woods and Deserts.” And it even hinted that special rewards awaited those who left cities for “a woody, retired and solitary place.” Suddenly, the wilderness was not the enemy; in a complicated way, it had become essential to the identity that these endlessly scribbling proto-Americans were always working out.
From that point, the settlers’ sense of the redemptive power of nature only deepened. As one generation begat another, a proud note of survivalism penetrated American writing, eventually bringing us everything from the Leatherstocking to “Duck Dynasty.” Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century theologian, read books in endless proliferation; but he was also given to reading the book of nature, and scrutinized flowers, birds, and even twigs for the tiniest evidence of God’s handiwork. Benjamin Franklin, the ultimate urban sophisticate, was never more cunning than when he donned a beaver hat to impress the French with his lack of sophistication, before coaxing them into support for American independence. It did not hurt George Washington’s career that he had been a surveyor, deep in the hinterland of North America, felling trees, shooting game, and living by his wits. To reckon with the wilderness had become a source of national pride, even before the nation was established.
To reckon with the wilderness is one thing; to call for its protection is another. In the middle decades of the 19th century, as a school of nature writers gathered around Concord, one reader in particular understood that the flora and fauna of New England had been altered by the presence of an invasive species—New Englanders themselves.
No one drew more from the wilderness than Henry David Thoreau. To this day, his ideas about simplicity become ever more popular, in direct proportion to our inability to achieve them. It was not just that Thoreau famously lived in the woods. He celebrated a fundamental wildness that he saw disappearing, even 170 years ago, as civilization continued its relentless advance. He read carefully the old Puritan accounts of New England, noting species of plants and birds that were no longer in evidence. And he urged that local governments put land off limits to developers, to protect what was left of the old wild. In 1859 he recommended that each township in Massachusetts set aside 500 or 1,000 acres of primeval forest. His posthumous essay, “Walking,” denounced the tackiness of new construction, the cutting down of the old trees, and protested, “Give me the ocean, the desert, or the wilderness!”
Although Thoreau is most closely associated with the movement, other New Englanders played crucial roles in the evolution of this idea. A Vermonter who admired Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, grew up as a careful student of New England forests—his father would take him into the woods to identify trees and inspect watersheds. In the middle of a distinguished diplomatic career, while stationed in Italy, he exhausted himself writing a remarkable book, “Man and Nature,” that came out 150 years ago, in 1864. That book was not the first to celebrate nature, but it broke new ground with its argument that human beings were senselessly damaging the environment, possibly beyond repair. Marsh was especially agitated over the deforestation that had already turned New England into something very different from the land that the Puritans had come to. He hated the scrubby second-growth forests he saw around New England, and pitied the exhausted farms and their families. He wrote, “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.”
Marsh’s book had a wide impact, and invigorated the movement to set aside protected public land for the use of the public. The 1906 Antiquities Act gave the president the power to restrict areas of great natural or historic importance, such as the Grand Canyon. Successive presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt protected the wilderness in ever more sophisticated ways, consolidating a vast network of national parks and other natural areas. Under FDR, especially, the public grew to embrace the idea that it had a civic right to experience nature, and depended on wise government stewardship to protect this access—a reversal of the earlier idea that good government amounted to keeping the wilderness at bay.
The Wilderness Act drew on all of these New England antecedents, and on one New Englander in particular, in the years just before it was signed. John F. Kennedy was another reader of Thoreau—”Cape Cod,” in particular, which he kept on his bookshelf in Hyannis Port. As a senator, Kennedy had cosponsored the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1959; as he neared the presidency, he declared his affinity for the outdoors with gestures small and large, including his catchy slogan, the New Frontier. In August 1960, he wrote an article for Life that portrayed polluted air and water as part of a national malaise. He called for the protection of woodlands, and invited New England’s woodland bard, Robert Frost, to give the inaugural poem.
As he settled into his presidency, this commitment only deepened, and it is likely that if he had survived, Kennedy would have become as significant an environmental president as Theodore Roosevelt. In his reading, Kennedy inevitably came across Rachel Carson, the oceanographer who was just beginning to turn her attention to the problem of pesticides in the nation’s groundwater. As they got to know each other, they found much to admire, including a shared opposition to nuclear testing that was closely related to environmental thinking. Carson volunteered for Kennedy, and served on a committee recommending the creation of what ultimately become the EPA. When “Silent Spring” appeared in 1962, it created a sensation, and drew a blistering counterattack from the chemical corporations. Unfazed, Kennedy directed the government to look into its claims, and ultimately endorsed it.
In September 1963, President Kennedy embarked on an 11-state trek to express his rapidly evolving environmentalism, and endorsed the wilderness bill, which had gone through dozens of drafts since first being drafted by Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society. Credit for the act belongs to many Americans, including the Texan president who lobbied hard for it. But surely some belongs with the New Englander who brought his own form of environmental activism to the White House. Appropriately, the only piece of Massachusetts in the national wilderness system is on Cape Cod, on Monomoy Island.
In 2014, we recognize the wilderness as endangered in a whole new way, and climate change has forced us to question a central premise of the Wilderness Act—that we are capable of preserving a state of nature at all. But as we confront these problems, it is comforting to recognize that we are not entirely alone. As Kennedy understood by reading Thoreau, and as Thoreau understood by reading the natural historians of colonial Massachusetts, history offers a compass as well as a map of where we have been. When Samuel Danforth delivered his “Errand into the Wilderness,” he warned that arrogant New Englanders would soon face “severe Drought, sometimes great Tempests, Floods, and sweeping Rains, that leave no food behinde them.”
He also offered a solution, which still resonates. When in trouble, he counseled New Englanders to take stock, “repent, and do our first works.” More specifically, “let us lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees, and make straight paths for our feet.” Straight paths can be hard to find in a wilderness. But with some knowledge that a path has been blazed before us, and a sense of shared purpose notably lacking today, we might yet stand a chance.Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University and a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation. He is an Ideas columnist.