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What is wilderness?

Wilderness has long been defined as desert, an area of solitude, wasteland and wilderness (Nash 2001). It was also considered to be the raw material from which civilisation can be formed (Leopold 1949). Today, however, wilderness is considered an uninhabited land where wild animals live, but people stay away (Nash 2001). Civilization and wilderness are juxtaposed, with one standing for a world under control and the other for freedom (Sæþórsdóttir 2010; Cronon 1996).

From the Old English words willed (to be lost) and deor (wild animal) came wild-deor-ness (Nash 2001). It was not until the Wilderness Act 1964, passed in the USA, in which wilderness is defined as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain" (The Wilderness Act 1964), that a foundation was laid for the protection of wilderness areas. In the course of this, it was decided to preserve wilderness and to allow natural processes to continue without human influence and interferrence.

In the wilderness, human engage in a spiritual experience that reconnects them with nature (McDonald & Schreyer 1991). The distance from everything human-made makes them realize that they are only a small part of something bigger (Frederickson & Anderson 1999). As soon as people are far away from the modern world, they can be one with nature and feel a deep connection (Oelschlaeger 1991) and restore the broken relationship with nature (Foster & Borrie 2011). Since our urban world and every day life lacks naturalness, wilderness is important as a balance to anthropogenic spaces and can be considered as a refuge to contribute to creativity (Lund 2013; Fischer 2015) and inspiration for philosophy and art (Nelson 1998). Through experiences of natural phenomena, people become more aware of them and themselves (Stringer & McAvoy 1992). Secrets, adventure, the thrill of being alone and escape from social control (Sæþórsdóttir 2010, 2011) are the most important experiences that make a stay in nature a wilderness experience. There, human can forget the constraints of society and as an adventurer bring the dreams of childhood to life (Cronon 1996). An important role in the wilderness experience is not only being far away from the human-made, but also solitude as being far away from other people (Sæþórsdóttir 2010).

In my Bachelor thesis about masstourism and wilderness in Iceland (Moesch 2019), I investigated the the image change of Icelandic wilderness in the merge of masstourism (click for more).


References and further reading

  • Cronon, W. (1996). The trouble with wilderness or getting back to the wrong nature. Environmental History, 1(1): 7-28.

  • Fischer, S. (2015). Man schätzt nur, was man kennt. Eine kleine Wildnispsychologie. In: Finck, P. et al. (2015). Wildnis im Dialog. Wege zu mehr Wildnis in Deutschland. Dokumentation und ausgewählte Beiträge des gleichnamigen Workshops des Bundesamts für Naturschutz(2014): 73-85.

  • Fredrickson, L. & Anderson; D. (1999). A qualitative exploration of the wilderness experience as a source of spiritual inspiration. Journal of Environmental Psychology (19): 21–39.

  • Foster, I. & Borrie; W: (2011). A Phenomenology of Spiritual Experiences in Wilderness. Relating Self, Culture and Wilderness. Proceedings of the Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium.The Sagamore, Bolton Landing, NY, USA. April 10-12 2011.

  • Leopold, A. (1949). A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. (Oxford University Press) New York.

  • Lund, K. (2013). Experiencing nature in nature-based tourism. Tourist studies, 13(2): 156-171.

  • McDonald, B. & Schreyer, R. (1991). Spiritual benefits of leisure: participation and leisure settings. Benefits of Leisure. (Venture Publishers) State College, USA. 174-194

  • Mösch, S.S. (2019): Massentourismus und Wildnis. Islands Naturdestinationen im Wandel. Natur und Landschaft 94 (2), 65-73. (

  • Nash, R. (2001). Wilderness and the American mind. 4th edition. (Yale University Press) New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

  • Nelson, M.(1998). An amalgamation of wilderness preservation arguments. Callicott, J., M. Nelson (Hrsg.). The great new wilderness debate. (The University of Georgia Press) Athens, Georgia, USA. 154-198.

  • Oelschlaeger, M. (1991). The idea of wilderness: From prehistory to the age of ecology. (Yale University Press) New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

  • Sæþórsdóttir, A.D. (2010). Tourism struggling as the Icelandic wilderness is developed. Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism, 10(3): 334-357.

  • Sæþórsdóttir, A.D. et al. (2011). Making wilderness: Tourism and the history of the wilderness idea in Iceland. Polar Geography 34(4): 249-273.

  • Stringer, L. & McAvoy; L. (1992). The need for something different: Spirituality and wilderness adventure. Journal of Experimental Education 15(1): 13-20.

  • Wilderness Act (1964). Section 2. (c) Definition of wilderness. Public Law 88–577 (16 U.S. C. 1131–1136). 88th Congress, Second Session, September 3, 1964.

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