Ah, Wilderness

December 5, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: What does this landscape mean? Because we write the story of America as a story of a people arriving in a land without history, Americans cannot take the land for granted.

A photographic show recently opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Crossing the Frontier” offers a most unromantic look at what we Americans have done to the land that otherwise we romanticize in John Ford Westerns, William Faulkner novels, and the lyrics of songs from Irving Berlin to Woody Guthrie.

We look at these images of an earlier America from the other side of history. What we know is that the land is finite. What we know–we who fly over the land in economy class–is that the vastness is limited. What earlier generations of Americans felt, traveling on foot or by wagon, was diminished by the space.

For those who made their way West generations ago, the experience must have been both terrible and exhilarating.

This land seemed to exclude the human, certainly was inhospitable to all but those the early American settlers described as savage–the Indian–the pioneer determined to fight oblivious nature, to change it, to dam the waters, to bleed the Earth of oil, to chop down the trees, even at Mount Rushmore to deface the rock like teenage taggers today with proof of our existence. Who fears the wilderness anymore?

This harsh desert of the American Southwest is, after all, not so far from desert resorts and swimming pools. Just a few decades ago, before air conditioning, most Americans would never have considered living in such an inhospitable spot.

Because of technology, it is easier for us to be environmentalists. Because earlier generations hacked their way across the land, it is easy for us to get into our cars, drive to edge of a national park, and hike through meadows, oblivious of a mountain lion lurking.

The division, the tear in the American heart, may now be over the issue of land–skinheads, joggers, environmentalists, ranchers, loggers, miners–the West is full of voices contending over the meaning of land. But the greatest debate may be generational–modern Americans in conflict with generations past.

Some weeks ago when a huge portion of Utah was protected by presidential signature, most modern–that is to say most urban Americans approved the notion of wilderness protected. Earlier generations of Americans, on the other hand, did not so readily believe in wilderness so much as they did the farm.

The farm conformed to the best–the biblical sense of the human within nature–planting, tilling, harvesting. In the early American imagination, the city was neighbor to the farm. Beyond the farm was wilderness, where the savage lived, where danger lurked, and death. Earlier generations idealized an American life like Abraham Lincoln’s were being shaped on the farm. Not today. Today all over the West, settlers were spilling onto farmland, small farmers going out of business.

Nobody much cares. I date the change from Teddy Roosevelt, who was our first modern President, because he changed our sense of the land, urging us to protect the wilderness.

Roosevelt became the most important American who traveled into wilderness to restore himself, to recreate himself. At the root of all the questions about land is the question about the place of the human. In the Bible, it is the fate of the human to tend the land. In the Bible there are stories about humans who flee into the desert to find God.

God lives in the desert. God is not the desert. Today many Americans are moving away from Judeo Christian notions of tending the land. I meet increasing numbers who travel from desert to tundra, between hot and cold, seeking their meaning in the silence–this huge silence that terrified their ancestors.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.