The Difference Between 'Wildness' And 'Wilderness'

Aug 1, 2017


I’m spending my summer in Minnesota, near the Canadian border, thinking and teaching about the difference between wildness and wilderness.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 allows Congress to designate “wilderness areas.” In 1978, the boundary waters canoe area wilderness was created here. At a million acres, it’s the largest wilderness in the Midwest. There are now nearly 110 million acres of wilderness in the U.S.

So what makes a wilderness? The Act defines it as an area “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” My friend Louisa recently stated with a wink that it was indeed “man” who had done all the trammeling. Femalekind had nothing to do with it. The Act also ignores that first nation peoples lived in wilderness areas—and had to be forcibly removed—to satisfy its demands. Despite those flaws, it’s hard to imagine a comparable piece of conservation legislation being enacted today.

So, what’s the difference between wildness and wilderness? Henry David Thoreau wrote famously that “In wildness is preservation of the world.” But he’s often misquoted on that one. "Wildness" gets exchanged for "wilderness." Clearly you don’t need wilderness to experience wildness. A dandelion is a wild creature, as is a damselfly, or a five-year-old daughter.

The great Wisconsin naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote that “there are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” I guess I count myself with Leopold as one who cannot. I’m happy to go looking for my dose of wildness in my own neighborhood, but I’m also grateful for the invisible borders preserving this wilderness.

I’m Chris Fink, and that’s my perspective.