The Trouble with Wonderlands: Social constructions of nature and the National Parks Service
Reckard, Margaux A.
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Contemporary public discourse often view nature and wilderness as separate from humans and culture. This dichotomy ignores human relations with natural environment throughout history, and also ignores the recent anthropogenic effects of climate change. The purpose of this paper aims to broaden the traditional dichotomy between humans and nature by reconciling social, historical, and ecological realities. I deconstruct the terminology for understanding and relating to natural spaces, particularly through examining how nature and wilderness are socially constructed. One of the t:JlOSt revealing avenues for understanding wilderness and nature's construction in crossing the nature versus culture dichotomy is through the history of the National Parks Service and the history of the United States' westward expansion. Conceptions of wilderness and nature that developed during the establishment of the Parks underpin current conceptions, so the Service's history remains relevant. Much of the recent sociological literature surrounding wilderness attempts to complicate the dichotomy of nature versus culture; in this paper I aim to continue that effort by using the history of the National Parks to expose the social constructions of nature and wilderness. I borrow Henri Lefebvre's idea from The Production of Space that space is socially produced, creating a lens for viewing nature and wilderness that shapes my examination of the existing literature surrounding ideas of wilderness, the history of the National Parks, and relations between the two. In particular, my findings reveal that Romanticism, the mythic American West, and the quest for nationalism through Manifest Destiny shape nature and wilderness so that they constitute socially produced space within Lefebvre's framework. Furthermore, the struggle between conservation versus preservation paradigms has privileged certain spaces for National Park designation, as well as prescribed dualistic, separatist ways for Park visitors to relate to nature. In an era confronting anthropogenic climate change, the dichotomy between humans and nature constitutes an anachronistic, socially constructed relationship that does not reflect social or ecological reality. My findings suggest that Park users continue to ascribe to Romantic notions of nature grounded in nationalism and preservationism. In order to combat current environmental problems, the Park Service must also confront overly simplistic ways of relating to nature.