Looking out across the Wyoming canyons, an emptiness greater than the physical space between the red rock reverberates loudly, echoing into the landscape. Who and what has been removed to create these vast spaces, carved up into different contemporary land holdings? This idea is wrestled with in Owen’s short story ‘Burning the Shelter’, shattering the idea of a “pristine wilderness” so popular among environmentalists and naturalists throughout the years. The idea of a pristine, unmarked wilderness seems benign and aligned with environmental justice and restoration ecology on its surface, but examining more closely, the notion of an empty wilderness is not a restored, healthy, and original ecosystem, but a fantasy narrative laid into place by early European invaders of North America. Contrary to the idea of this empty land painted into the American imagination through written, spoken, and artistic propaganda, these wild lands were home to people who were removed from them to fulfil a colonial fantasy rooted in racist and gendered violence. The deep yearning for a land emptied of human touch stems from a desire that leaves no room for the indigenous inhabitants of the land that the invading colonizers encountered when they arrived in their ‘new world’. Their violence against the peoples who “lived in a hard-learned balance with the natural world” was indicative of their white supremist views, views backed by the moral ease at which they committed genocide and laid destruction to the landscape.
Today, landscapes are carved up through different land-holdings, artificial boundaries drawn to ignore tribal rights, watersheds, mountain ranges; some areas are designated sacred and worthy of protection, and others are thrown to industry and development. At this point in the Anthropocene, forest and wilderness designations are important because many of the ways in which humans interact with and extract from the landscape are deeply problematic and destructive. Systematic violence against the landscape is an ingrained pattern driven through economic forces, felt disproportionately by indigenous communities often displaced and or pressured to partake in the destruction. Often the remedying forces of ecological restoration and mitigation efforts focus around restoring ecosystems through removing all marks of humans; however, the perspective offered in “Burning the Shelter” reminds the reader that even in the perceived benevolent act of restoration, we are also deeply interwoven with our landscapes and that human presence within the landscape is part of the ecology of place. Ignoring this furthers the legacy of white supremacy and colonizer violence. Learning to walk in the landscape and work with the landscape in holistic ways that include human presence not only reconnect us, but are critical for the future. The balancing act of humans and the environment existing in nurturing ways defies the narrative that we are separate and supreme. Accepting the human as part of landscape ecology helps us all to see our “part[s] in the long pattern of loss which [Indigenous peoples have known] so well.”
The fantasy of pristine wilderness is a figment of the European and colonial imagination that erases millennia of indigenous presence. Humans are integral parts of the ecosystem, and while this is not a new concept, it’s an important and often overlooked one if any true ecological and restorative justice is to be worked towards in a meaningful context. As Owen’s states, “human-made structures were as natural a part of the Cascade ecosystem as the burrows of marmots in the steep scree slopes.”
The human ecology in a landscape is complex, deep, and ancient. Our habit of parceling up wilderness areas to designate as the only place where wilderness can remain wild, otherwise known as fragmentation, is problematic and sets us up for ecosystem collapse. Connection of these wild spaces often encounters the problem that there are human developments in the way, and the artificial boundary of human space and wilderness space is reinforced. Ignoring the potential of humans to be integrated into landscape ecology echoes Owen’s sentiment that “a few square miles of something called wilderness will become the sign of failure everywhere”. Through the lens of human growth and expansion, we simply cannot accommodate our exponential growth without returning to learn the deep complexity of our ecological ancestry. I would argue that current wilderness designations need protection and landscapes void of human development due to our deep indoctrination into capitalist systems of destruction and violence in the name of economic prowess, however progress towards a greater goal of wilderness integrated back into the human landscape begins first by shattering the perception of humans existing separate from ecological processes, and then working towards greater realistic conservation and restoration goals.
Owens, L. Burning the Shelter. Manoa, 25:1, 76-79. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42004492