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Go back 250 years in American and European history, and you do not find nearly so many people wandering around remote corners of the planet looking for what today we would call “the wilderness experience.” As late as the eighteenth century, the most common usage of the word “wilderness” in the English language referred to landscapes that generally carried adjectives far different from the ones they attract today.To be a wilderness then was to be “deserted,” “savage,” “desolate,” “barren”—in short, a “waste,” the word’s nearest synonym.As Henry David Thoreau once famously declared, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” (1) But is it?The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems.Instead, it’s a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural.Remember the feelings of such moments, and you will know as well as I do that you were in the presence of something irreducibly nonhuman, something profoundly Other than yourself Wilderness is made of that too.And yet: what brought each of us to the places where such memories became possible is entirely a cultural invention.
One by one, various corners of the American map came to be designated as sites whose wild beauty was so spectacular that a growing number of citizens had to visit and see them for themselves. government to the state of California in 1864 as the nation’s first wildland park, and Yellowstone became the first true national park in 1872. Seen in this way, wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves, a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet. It is an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness.Its connotations were anything but positive, and the emotion one was most likely to feel in its presence was “bewilderment” or terror.(2) Many of the word’s strongest associations then were biblical, for it is used over and over again in the King James Version to refer to places on the margins of civilization where it is all too easy to lose oneself in moral confusion and despair.