The Nation’s Most Ironic Nature Refuge and The Trouble With Wilderness

Irony is a concept I struggle to teach to my students.  They sort of get it when I give them the classic example of a firehouse burning down.  Or when I present Alanis Morrisette’s song “Ironic” as an example of irony, since as we all know the song lyrics do not describe irony at all.

A buck at the Arsenal Refuge. Photo Credit: Aaron Rinker, USFWS

Now I have a new example I can give them: The Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Preserve.  This nature preserve, near Denver, Colorado, is built upon millions of tons of toxic chemicals.  During World War II, the US Army developed both incendiary and chemical weapons at the site, and later, Shell Oil moved in and used the facility to develop highly toxic pesticides.  Although the government and Shell undertook a massive clean-up operation back in the 1980’s, the site remained too toxic for any kind of intensive human use, like parkland or housing development.  So people stayed away.

But wildlife moved in.

Today, bald eagles roost in the tree tops, elk and deer forage in the woodlands, and ponds and streams teem with fish.  The refuge is home to one of the most successful short-grass prairie restoration projects in the country.

Sites like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal really call in to question our traditional perceptions of Wilderness.  As do many of the innovative projects going on at brownfield sites across the country — converting old canning factories into public parks, for example.  Or building playgrounds on top of landfills.

On the other hand, we also have traffic jams in national parks. 

Traffic jam at Yosemite National Park.

How is it that a former Superfund site may be a truer wilderness than Yosemite National Park?

Frederick Law Olmsted urged the preservation of Yosemite so that Americans of every class could reap the benefits of “the deepest beauty of nature.”  Interestingly, Olmsted actually predicted the possibility of overcrowding in the park, and recommended steps be taken to manage Yosemite very carefully.  So even today, Americans’ experiences of “sublime” and “unspoiled” landscapes like Yosemite are, in fact, highly managed.  If we judge “wild” landscapes by their degree of human management, then inner city Detroit is certainly more of a Wilderness than Yosemite National Park.

Rather ironic.

If you have not read William Cronon’s essay “The Trouble With Wilderness” I urge you to do so.  No writer so eloquently expresses the complexity of the nature/culture relationship as Cronon (in my opinion).  In it, he argues that the American tendency to idealize “pristine” landscapes — those untouched by human culture — is actually hurting the environmental movement.  He believes, as I do, that human beings and their messy activities need to be accepted as an integral part of the natural landscape, that environmental solutions which do not consider human needs are doomed to fail.  The essay is full of gems, but one that particularly struck me is this:

“idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home”

This statement has monumental implications for those of us who think about and shape the land — even if it’s the tenth of an acre out the porch door.  Landscape architects, designers, home gardeners….we’re the ones who can help direct the next phase of environmentalism. 

In our hearts and minds, what do we believe to be true about nature? 

Our answers will be revealed in the landscapes we create.

(Information about the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Olmsted’s role in Yosemite came from Uncommon Ground, William Cronon, ed.)

26 thoughts on “The Nation’s Most Ironic Nature Refuge and The Trouble With Wilderness

  1. I always wonder about that. Why don’t we call what we create natural? We are all natural results of a natural process after all. And I love what you point out… If we must differentiate between ‘man made and ‘natural’ some of our preserved areas are more ‘man made’ or ‘man managed’ than a lot of things we’ve built and then left to its ‘natural’ evolution. 🙂 Thank you for reminding me to think about that when creating landscapes!

    • Exactly! I was surprised to learn that Niagara Falls has been highly manipulated throughout its history. The water was actually dammed up for five months at one point so they could study the falls dry. They considered removing/re-arranging rocks at the base of the falls to change the way it cascaded! Also, the area around the falls was once highly industrial, with mills, etc. lining the banks of the river. The park-like backdrop we see today is completely artificial….designed by our man Olmsted.

        • Well, not exactly, Tracy. “Garden” has a much more specific meaning in my mind….I think of it as a more intimate place where its creator is not necessarily trying to conceal his/her authorship. Public Wilderness areas are not necessarily “created” in the same way, but they are certainly managed, manipulated.

      • I realize, it was meant to be a little joke – which I am not adept at in text form – the information is ALL good in any case. Thanks, you are excellent. Yes, and created vs. managed vs. maintained… yet another distinction to talk about.

  2. What a great post. I lived in Va Beach when Mount Trashmore was proposed and later built. Many joked about it at the time, but what a result. It is one of the most used parks in Virginia. Here in South Boston, we are in the process of converting the site of an old cotton mill into a ten acre public garden.

    • Funny, Charles. I drive by Mount Trashmore every day on my way to work. The only thing that annoys me about it is that in the springtime you can see that it’s covered in Bradford pear saplings…it’s kind of pretty, but those of us who hold grudges against the Bradford Pear can’t really appreciate the explosion of blossoms the way most folks can…

  3. Wow. It’s like you just put your fingernail on my scab and pulled. I joked to the city inspectors, after they finished ramming their Mitigation plan down my throat, about building a sport court with stadium lighting after they left. A year on, I realize that if I HAD, I’d have deer and coyote and bears and lynx and such on it just like I do on my property now. A slavish devotion to the preservation and perfection of ‘nature’ does not account for the resilience of nature, nor the needs of those most proximate to it. Nature isn’t something in a painting from the Hudson River School. Nature is a process, in constant growth, flux, change, and adaptation, which we are a part of. Somehow my land revived after being clear-cut 70 years ago, but according to my city now needs to be protected from my family and me. They don’t realize that if you can’t use it, you can’t love it. Well said, Mary.

  4. Used to live 15 min SSE of R.M. Arsenal in middle-high school. Interesting what can happen with restoration, and I only wish people would appreciate what great things happen when habitat is re-created. (in the last 10 years, w/ more xeriscape and far less lawn in town, the increase in roadrunners here is simply amazing…used to only be along the river or foothills)

    “Our answers will be revealed in the landscapes we create.” > yes!

    • David, Funny, when I saw that the ARsenal was located so near Denver I thought of you, since I remembered you’d said you’d lived there. Figured you might be familiar with it. That’s great news that xeriscaping is replacing lawn in the SW….thanks to folks like you I’m sure!

  5. Well said. I am so content to roam my little acre, my neighborhood, and my county. I will never be done with exploring and discovering them. People are amazed when I tell them I’ve spotted 122 different kinds of birds in the neighborhood.

  6. Mary, I’d like to hear your thoughts sometime on the vast total expanse of lawn that characterizes the American landscape. I forget how many acres our yards run to but it’s considerable…a kind of unofficial National Park of the People…and all that fertilizer running into the watershed.

  7. It’s only ironic as long as you consider man separate from nature. Eliminate 1) the conceit of man’s superiority to all other creatures and 2) man’s supposed dominion over nature & this starts to make sense. It may not be good, but it makes sense. Wilderness is a myth.

    • Wow, pretty strong words there, Rich. Obviously humans can be a force of destruction, but I think the hope is that we can become a positive force, too, and that we need to continue working toward that instead of seeing ourselves as the Enemy of Nature. If you adhere to that philosophy, the only solution would seem to be to eliminate ourselves from the face of the earth. No thanks.

  8. Great stuff. Its good to see more people discussing these issues, and i think in the landscape and horticulture industries we have learnt to be very pragmatic, and maybe should take more of a lead. For too long political ecologists have stated what is meant to be best for nature, but as so often, environmentalists have proven bad for the environment. Cronin is a good perceptive writer. I’m glad i read his book about American wilderness years ago. I’ve just read Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris, which is very good, very sensible, and totally science -led. If you are interested in these issue s i really rcommend it.

    • Thanks so much for the book tip! And may I say I’m honored to have you comment on my blog…I’m a big fan. I think I’ve got every book you’ve done in conjunction with Oudolf, plus Gardens By Design. Also, I read Vista recently and it was a real eye-opener, in the same way that Cronon’s essays have been for me. So many thanks!

  9. I saw Cronon speak a few years back, great talk. I have nothing interesting to add beyond this navel-gazing comment, other then I’ve been enjoying catching up on your blog–I mean, those outdoor beds were great. As for ordering plants from magazines, I don’t anymore. No need to. I am a magazine. Turn to page 26 for nudes. Eh.

    • Oh cool, I would love to see him speak. I am reading a collection of essays he edited called Uncommon Ground, but so far his opening essay is still the best one. Also, I salute you for your plant buying abstinence. I’ll bet you still look at pictures of plants though, don’t you? On the internet? While your unsuspecting garden is fast asleep? Ha-ha.

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