Volume 4, Issue 2, Fall 2012
Jason P. Matzke
Walking in Nature
Thoreau’s Local Ambles or Muir’s Wilderness Treks?
It has been argued by philosophers and cultural historians that the notion of wilderness as it has been developed in the West problematically separates—conceptually and practically—humans from wild nature. The human/wilderness dichotomy, it is said, potentially leads even well-intentioned, environmentally minded people to work for wilderness preservation at the expense of paying attention to our local, lived environment. Although Henry David Thoreau and John Muir are often taken to be key architects of the inherited notion of wilderness, I draw from their differing descriptions of spending time in wild areas in order
to argue that Thoreau provides a view of the human-nature relationship that is not susceptible to this particular worry. Thoreau, much more than Muir, provides us with reasons to not ignore our local lived space in favor of protecting only more wild (i.e., less humanized) places. The contrast between the two does not diminish the value of Muir’s work, but it does remind us that key figures—Thoreau in this case—in the development of the dominant wilderness paradigm should not be set aside as unhelpful in our own efforts to better understand our relationship with local place.