The Tonic of Wilderness

Ernest Partridge*


We need the tonic of wildness... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature... We need to witness our own limits trangressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

Henry David Thoreau

The Experience of Wildness

Wildness and "Human Nature"
The Natural Endowment
    Artifice and Agency

Morality and Wildness

The opponents of wolf re-introduction will often argue that according to the calculations of cost-benefit analysis, a favored method of policy analysis, the wolf has no place in the Adirondacks. It is, they point out, a predator to a profitable game species, the deer, and thus would adversely affect the economy of a region that depends heavily upon sport hunting. Moreover, while the danger of wild wolves to humans has been vastly exaggerated, their introduction into inhabited areas is not without risk. In short, Richard Sage's objections in this collection are well-considered and weighty, and if we were to confine the controversy to economic considerations, they might well settle the issue: no wolves in the Adirondacks. The case for wolf reintroduction, which I support, must therefore appeal to non-economic values, which can be neatly summarized by a single word: wildness. (1)

The Adirondack region, once-logged over, now inhabited, and surrounded by human settlements, is not a wilderness, and can never be a wilderness in any time-scale relevant to the concerns or planning of our generation or its near successors. But the region can be more or less "wild," and in fact becomes ever more wild as the time of its exploitation recedes in to the past, and natural processes are allowed to take over and dominate the landscape.

A region that is "managed" by game laws and private property owners, is a region that is less "wild." A region that acquires its qualities through the uninterrupted playing out of natural forces is more wild. A deer population that is kept "healthy" through careful monitoring by wardens and researches, and consequently by fluctuating hunting seasons and quotas, is less wild than a population that is culled "naturally" by predators. (2)

Thus a decision to reintroduce wolves into the Adirondacks would be a deliberate decision to enhance the wildness of the Park. Why would we wish to do this?

In this essay, I will defend the thesis that by enhancing, preserving and enhancing wildness where it exists, and reintroducing wildness where it is absent, we enrich our personal lives, our communities, and our culture, now and far into the future. Furthermore, I will argue that the preservation of wildness enhances both our capacity and our worthiness, as a species and a civilization, to survive on the earth.

An Adirondack Park with wolves would be wilder place, and that is why the wolves should be re-introduced.

The Experience of Wildness

To begin, the value of wildness might be understood through an analysis of "the natural aesthetic" - the features of the experience of the wild.

The word "beautiful" is used to describe both fine art and natural landscapes. But the beauty of art and of nature are radically different. Natural beauty, unlike artistic beauty, is uncomposed, unframed, and inclusive. Each of these qualities bear important implications regarding the value of wildness.

Composition. Art is the product of the artist, while nature is the product of natural forces - both abiotic (e.g. erosion and sedimentation) and biotic (e. g., evolution). The composition of an art object is a deliberate creative act of the artist, though the creative act often draws upon unconscious sources that astonish both artist and spectator. Art, therefore, addresses our humanity - as a communication from artist to audience, one person to another.

Encounters with nature address a more fundamental essence: our naturalness - the sources and sustenance of our biotic being, including the pre-cultural neural apparatus of our senses and cognition. The sight of eroded slickrock in the Utah canyonlands, the sound of cascading water in the Hudson rapids of the Adirondacks, the fragrance of a rotting log in an eastern deciduous forest, the fleeting glimpse of the wild wolves, the sound of their howl, and the still evidence of their work on the forest floor - none of this was "composed" with the purpose of communicating from one person to another. Yet all of this "communicates" - but communicates what?

Most of the remainder of this essay will address that question. But as a beginning, we would suggest that the "uncomposed" message of wild nature speaks to us of vastness, independence, permanence, ontological priority. With no creative "artist" in the landscape, we encounter instead the results of forces, in the past and still at work, which preceded our personal and cultural existence, formed us and sustain us, and which will long survive us. In the face of the timeless and infinite, we are thus reminded of our own finitude. We encounter in undisturbed wildness what Edmund Burke called "the Sublime" - at once terrifying, invigorating, and morally instructive.

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect. (Burke)

Framing. Artistic works are confined by boundaries. The dance and the sonata are temporally bounded - they have a well-defined beginning and an end. The painting is bounded by the edge which separates it from the gallery wall.

In contrast, wild nature is unbounded. Gazing through the desert skies of a moonless midnight, we find no borders around the mantle of stars. The eastern horizon, we well know, hides still more stars that will soon come into view, and in its fullness, a cosmic sea which surrounds our insignificant planet and its minor star. Similarly, we know that beyond the horizon that we view from the mountain top there is "still more." The uncomposed wild landscape before us is without "frames" - without well-defined borders that define it as a separable "object." Likewise, as we hear the howl of a wolf, and watch the alerted deer bound out of sight, we understand that this episode is a snapshot in time, emerging from a natural past without defined beginning and merging into future without defined end.

Thus, in the presence of unbounded wildness, we are drawn into an awareness of "ever-more" time and space. And in contemplation of time past, our imagination is cast before the time of our personal origin, and of the origins of our culture and our species, to the timeless foundations of all process, of all Being.

Inclusion. The spectator of a work of art, stands apart from the art object. For it is, in fact, a separable "object," framed and unified by the creative act. In contrast, in the presence of unbounded wild nature, one is "drawn into" the landscape as it surrounds him. This is especially true, as one becomes physically engaged with the wild - as a kayaker negotiating the rapids of the Hudson river, as a photographer stalking the wild wolf, as a hiker along the Appalachian Trail, or as a skier carving into the virgin Rocky Mountain powder. In such cases, the subject/object boundary is obscured as one "becomes," Zen-like, his natural environment. (3)

Thus might an encounter with wild natural beauty - uncomposed, unframed and inclusive - add to abstract knowledge, the vital personal dimension of appreciation. Knowledge is intellectual, and appreciation is the esthetic, emotional and moral supplement to the knowledge that leads to action. The heavy smoker knows that he is taking a risk: appreciation comes too late, with the diagnosis. We know that the tropical rain forests are disappearing at the rate of an acre a second, but do we appreciate it? The National Geographic will teach us that the Grand Canyon is a mile deep and two-hundred miles long; appreciation comes from sitting on the south rim, feet dangling over a thousand feet of sheer drop, looking across to Bright Angel Canyon. Books will tell us of the eras and periods of geological history; appreciation comes as we leave the rim of that canyon and walk down through the strata of frozen time toward the Phantom Ranch in Granite Gorge.

Aldo Leopold's moment of appreciation came as he saw "a fierce green fire dying in [the] eyes" of the wolf that he and his companions had shot.

I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view. . . .
We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. . . . A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men. (Leopold, 1949).

Wildness and "Human Nature"

Homo sapiens is both a natural and an artificial creature. We disregard either aspect of our "nature" at our peril.

The Natural Endowment. I submit that our naturalness is beyond reasonable dispute. We breath natural air, we are nourished by natural food, we respond naturally to the rhythms of life, and eventually give back to the earth the matter which it gave to us.

Significantly, our natural endowment long predates our artifice. Ten millennia ago - an instant in geological time - homo sapiens established the first permanent agricultural villages, and began its domestication of plant and animal species thus pushing wild nature back to the perimeter of the village, then further still until, today, only scattered remnants remain. These ancestors, who for all time before owed their survival to their adaptation to wildness, carried essentially the same genome that each of us possess today. Thus wild nature, not the artifice that surrounds us today, selected our genes. Accordingly, writes biologist Hugh Iltis, "like the need for love, the need for [the] diversity and beauty [of nature] has a genetic basis." He continues:

... the best environment is one in which the human animal can have maximum contact with the type of natural environment in which it evolved and for which it is genetically programmed without sacrificing the major advantages of civilization... Every basic adaptation of the human body, be it the ear, the eye, the brain, yes, even our psyche, demands for proper functioning access to an environment similar, at least, to the one in which these structures evolved through natural selection over the past 100 million years. (Iltis 1967).

More recently, the eminent Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, has given this theory the name of "biophilia. He writes:

The brain evolved into its present form over a period of about two million years, from the time of homo habilis to the late stone age of homo sapiens, during which people existed in hunter-gatherer bands in intimate contact with the natural environment. Snakes mattered. The smell of water, the hum of a bee, the directional bend of a plant stalk mattered. The naturalist's trance was adaptive: the glimpse of one small animal hidden in the grass could make the difference between eating and going hungry in the evening. And a sweet sense of horror, the shivery fascination with monsters and creeping forms that so delights us today even in the sterile hearts of the cities, could see you through to the next morning... Although the evidence is far from all in, the brain appears to have kept its old capacities, its channeled quickness. We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world. (Wilson 1984).

Biophilia lends depth and credence to the notion that we are natural creatures, for it adds to the unquestioned biotic requirements for human life, the intriguing notion that the wild nature which selected our genes is required to satisfy genetically programmed emotional and psychological needs as well.

But the "nature" that effected this selection, is a nature that is fast disappearing due to our carelessness and greed, so that we may at length find ourselves in world to which we are ill-adapted. Thus it may be a deadly error to treat nature solely as a mere resource for our use, for to do so is to commit the deadly sin of pride -- the hubris of regarding our artificial needs as of more fundamental value than the nature which, in fact, is continuous with ourselves. Science tells us otherwise. We are nature, and nature is us -- "the world is our body."

If the biophilia hypothesis is correct, the implications are portentous: destruction of the final remnants of wildness will cast us into an alien world, devoid of the landscape that selected us and thus, in a fundamental sense, is us. Because we are quite unaware of the price of that alienation, we should pause before we commit ourselves to its payment. In the meantime, we are best advised to preserve the wildness that remains, and to nurture its return to regions, such as the Adirondacks, from which it has been diminished.

Artifice and Agency. And yet, we are also "artificial," through and through, not only due to the artifacts which surround us, but more fundamentally due to that most basic of human institutions, language, which is the foundation of our mode of perception, of thought, of our funded knowledge, and of moral responsibility.

Mark Twain once said that "Man is the only animal that blushes - or needs to." That observation was more wisdom than wit. Blushing is a response to the moral sentiments of shame and guilt. These sentiments, along with the positive sentiments of pride and approbation, issue from our concept of self and from our knowledge of good and evil - from the bite of Eve's apple.

We blush, and need to, because we evaluate. We rank things as good or better, as bad or worse. And when we evaluate morally, we evaluate ourselves and other selves. Our capacity to evaluate, combined with the knowledge discovered by our sciences and the capacities gained by our technology, place upon us the inalienable and portentous burden of moral responsibility.

Accordingly, to affirm that we are natural creatures, and then to say no more, is to utter a pernicious half-truth. For we are natural creatures with a difference: we are creatures who have evolved through and past a momentous transformation -- the transformation into moral agency. Through our acquisition of articulate syntactic language, and our accumulation of culture, we have become self-conscious, deliberative, and thus responsible for our behavior. In this sense we are, to the best of our knowledge, unique in this regard. Thus, while we might "retrain" disobedient animals, we do not hold them morally responsible and put them on trial.

The significance of moral agency can scarcely be overstated, for on a planet without moral agents, there are no rights, no duties, no justice, no virtue or vice, and no responsibility, though on a personless planet with a flourishing ecosystem and sentient beings, there will be values and value-potentials.

With our acquisition of moral agency, we have also acquired the capacity to recognize, celebrate, enhance nature, and thus the responsibility to protect and preserve the natural values around us. We should be ever mindful that with these capacities for recognition, knowledge and celebration comes the burden of responsibility. For as we come to recognize the value in nature, we also recognize its vulnerability. We are responsible for nature because our science has given us some understanding of the processes at work in nature, and our technology has given us the capacity and thus the choice either to preserve or destroy our natural estate. And finally, if the central contention of this paper is correct, through reflection we recognize the values within nature. These four conditions, knowledge, capacity, choice and value significance, entail our moral responsibility toward nature.

Responsibility, let us remember, is a burden, since, given knowledge and capacity, the choice to do nothing is a dereliction. Thus, having taken up the burden of responsibility for nature, we are not morally permitted to set it down again.

Returning to the case at hand, we may choose to reintroduce the wolf to the Adirondacks, or we may not. However, knowing what we know about wolves and the Adirondack ecosystem, we can not opt out of making a responsible decision, one way or the other.

To summarize this brief discourse on "human nature," we are both natural, along with our brother creatures, and unique in our possession of the capacities which define our moral agency. I daresay that the gravest errors in environmental ethics arise from the failure to acknowledge and incorporate both our naturalness and our agency into a system of ethics -- to settle for either half of this full truth. On the one hand, by "denaturalizing" ourselves we give license to those who would objectify, and thus utilize and exploit, the nature "out there." On the other hand, by depersonalizing ourselves, we divest ourselves of moral responsibility for nature, for we thus come to regard ourselves as "objects" totally captivated by and helpless in the stream of "natural" cause and effect.

Morality and Wildness

If our argument has been successful, then both human experience and human nature support our contention that wildness is a condition that enriches personal and communal life. Encounters with wildness can disabuse us of the dangerous conceit that we are nature's favorites, and that our time is the culmination of all natural history. Wildness can enhance our personal, moral and social health, by reminding us that we are parts of a larger, pre-existing order, which produced us and now sustains us. From encounters with the wild we can learn and appreciate that all the products of our ingenuity function only as they conform to natural laws, and ultimately fail as they attempt to contravene these laws.

On the other hand, despoiling a wild ecosystem diminishes us by reducing our sense of natural "place," of perspective, of context. With this we lose our sense of personal transcendence beyond our immediate time, place and species, turning inward to our species, then to our immediate community, then to our own generation, then to ourselves. As we thus become narcissistic and alienated, the advantages of the moral perspective and the moral life are lost. We lose this moral vision as we lose our capacity to see ourselves, our species, and our era in their natural contexts - as we forget that we are actors in a drama and participants in an adventure too complex for us ever to comprehend, and yet despite that and even because of that, of ultimate value to us. (4)

To this moral disorder, our scientific knowledge of wild nature, transformed through personal encounter into a appreciation thereof, offers a remedy. For from that perspective, we can once again regard our "world partner" with dignity and respect. This is a perspective, writes Holmes Rolston III, which "starkly" rejects

. . . the alienation that characterizes modern literature, seeing nature as basically rudderless, antipathetical, in need of monitoring and repair. More typically, modern man, for all his technological prowess, has found himself distanced from nature, increasingly competent and decreasingly confident, at once distinguished and aggrandized, yet afloat on and adrift in an indifferent, if not a hostile universe. His world is at best a huge filling station; at worst a prison, or "nothingness." Not so for ecological man; confronting his world with deference to a community of value in which he shares, he is at home again. (Rolston 1975).

Wildness, which once contained our species, now is contained by our civilization and survives only through our sufferance, leading to the false conceit that our artifice can endure and thrive in a totally artificialized world. As wildness becomes ever more rare it becomes more valuable. All further loss of wildness diminishes us, as all recovery of wildness enriches us.

The grey wolf will reinhabit the Adirondacks only with our permission. Yet that reintroduction may be more valuable to ourselves than to the wolf. For by simply going about their livelihood, quite indifferent to our needs, the wild wolves of the Adirondacks have much to teach us: lessons of our origins, of our sustenance, of our limitations, of our planetary home. From such lessons as these we just might gain the perspective, the appreciation, and the motivation to preserve our natural estate, and with it our sustainable place within it.

Thus we conclude, with Thoreau, that "In Wildness is the Preservation of the world."


Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful..., Part II, Section I..
Iltis, Hugh. "To the Taxonomist and the Ecologist, Whose Fight is the Preservation of Nature," Bio-Science, December, 1967, 887.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, 1987, pp 130-3.
Partridge, Ernest. "In Search of Sustainable Values," Paper delivered at an international conference "Reflections on Discounting" Vilm Island, University of Greifswald, Germany, May 28, 1999. Publication of the conference papers is being negotiated by sponsors.
Partridge, Ernest. "Nature as a Moral Resource," Environmental Ethics, VI, (Summer, 1984), pp. 101-130.
Rolston, III, Holmes. "Is There an Ecological Ethic," Ethics, 85 (1975), 107-8.
Sagoff, Mark. The Economy of the Earth, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984, p. 101.


1. By "non-economic values" I mean values not reflected in market prices - neither actual or hypothetical (so-called "shadow") prices. Non-economic values, in other words, can not be "commensurated" with cash - i.e., with willingness to buy or sell. Wilderness advocates will often argue that enhancing wildness (e.g., by introducing wolves into Yellowstone Park) also enhances the economic value, by making the area more attractive to tourists. Granted. But this argument plays into the hands of the opponents, for what if the "cost-benefit" balance sheets go "the wrong way?" By introducing "non-economic" (i.e., non-monetary) values into the policy equation, I would urge that a cost-benefit "bottom line" against wildness does not suffice to deliver the verdict against wildness. For more about the limits of economic analysis in environmental policy-making, see Mark Sagoff's The Economy of the Earth (1986), especially Chapters 2 & 3. Also, my "In Search of Sustainable Values," (publication pending, but available at my website: (Partridge, 1999).

2. The reader is urged to note the qualifiers, "more wild" and "less wild." Because (as noted) the Adirondack preserve is an ecological "island" surrounded by human settlements, wolves, like their prey the deer, will also require management. However, a wildlife community in which surplus deer are culled by both "natural predation" (wolves) and by controlled hunting, is a community that is "more wild" than it would be without wolves. To point out just one significant difference, hunters seek out the "best" trophies - e.g., the healthiest bucks - while natural predators select the weak. Thus the former degrades the gene pool of the prey population, while the latter, as an agent of "natural selection," promotes the process of evolution.

3. This is a phenomenon that is as amazing and mysterious as it is commonplace - as commonplace as riding a bicycle or driving a car, or even walking. As one progresses from the self-conscious struggles of the novice to the "automatic" reflexive skills of the intermediate and expert, complex perceptual and kinesthetic awareness fades into the sub-conscious, thus "erasing" the perceived subject-object boundary between biker-bike-path, skier-ski-slope, or paddler-paddle/kayak-river.

4. The task of demonstrating moral lessons of wild nature is beyond both the scope and the objective of this paper. However, it is a task that I have attempted elsewhere, in a paper from which this paragraph is adapted: "Nature as a Moral Resource," (Partridge 1984). In that paper, I conclude that

We need viable, independent, flourishing natural ecosystems. . . as scientific resources to expand our understanding of what we are biotically and what made us what we are. We need wild ecosystems as economic and technical resources, to provide rare biochemical substances for our future use. We need nature as an aesthetic resource to enrich our sense of delight and wonder. We need natural landscapes and seascapes as psychological resources so that we can put ourselves at ease by returning home again to the environment that made us the natural organisms that we are. And we need nature as a moral resource -- as a source of wonder, amazement, admiration, humility, perspective, and solicitude.
* Used with permission of the author.
Copyright, 1999, Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
Website < >

From Wolves and Human Communities: Biology, Politics, and Ethics,
Edited by V. A. Sharpe, B. G. Norton, and S. Donnelley
Island Press, 2001.
See at < >.