The two dominant American views of nature have been that of a place of purity and that of a material resource. The first category includes places with such elusive qualities as “majesty” and “grandeur.” These tend to be places that appear to hold those very qualities that people seeking an escape from the “civilized world” desire. A tall and dark mountain comes to represent other tall and dark qualities, especially those that we see as missing from “unnatural,” civilized society. These formless but alluring draws are things we feel are deeply important to us, like greatness, and wholeness. They are deep longings, but elusive ones. Most conservationists and lovers of nature could not name exactly what about “nature” feels not only aesthetically pleasing but also somehow stirring to one’s soul.
William Cronon also describes another side of the draw of grand and foreign landscapes. They have a quality of religious potential. This feeling that “one might meet devils and run the risk of losing one’s soul in such a place, but one might also meet God” brings about a feeling of deep respect for majestic land. It is the fact that we see these natural places as holding potential for enlightenment and fulfillment that distinguishes them from the other category.
This category includes West Virginia mountaintops and nuclear dumping sites. These places are also rich in things that people desire, but these things are commodities rather than qualities of virtue or feeling. Landscapes that are put into this second category follow two phases.
This process begins with places that are beautiful but hold resources that are more immediately enticing than the prospect of the sublime. Often, a place that fits aesthetically into the first category is so rich in material wealth that it is demoted the second group. These are the desert gorges that are infamously dammed into reservoirs, or the great swaths of the Amazon Rainforest that are flattened for lumber and cattle grazing. Once these beautiful places are no longer aesthetically pleasing or rich in raw material wealth, they are used for dumping grounds or paved over. Places in this second phase are becoming a group large enough to rival the earth’s more pristine locals. It is a group comprised of the places that we see as being unnatural because of how obviously impacted by humans they are: they bear the mark of every day human travel and use. To pursuers of the wild, they hold little of the mystery and grandeur of the first, “natural” places.