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The Terror of the Wilderness
Why have Americans perceived nature as something to be conquered?
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Even that other biblical tradition of the wilderness as a place of spiritual refuge, retreat, to which eremitical holy men repaired to purify themselves and prepare the way—even this fed the stronger and older tradition of resistance to the wilderness, for in this case the wilderness was a testing ground and a place of temptation where the faithful must win out. It was not a locale that could be accepted on what might be its own terms, and certainly it held no secrets of the spirit for the Lord’s people. Indeed, in Jewish folklore the wilderness as a place of temptation carries within it a strong sexual component, as in the passage from Isaiah where it is seen as the abode of Ullith, a wild-haired nymphomaniac prone to visiting unwary wanderers and tempting them into terrible, unholy alliances. Here again, the force of resistance must be at least as strong as the force of temptation if God’s way was to win out. And so, if God did send His people out into these places of desolation, acceptance—or worse, surrender—meant death, the eternal rot of decay that was divine judgment against a fatal embrace. The mission then was more obviously to conquer and prevail out there and, in doing so, to harmonize these places with the rest of God’s kingdom, i.e., civilization.
If from this ancient Near Eastern well we inherited a mythology that enjoined fear of and resistance to the wilderness, from our Greco-Roman inheritance we learned how to create both history and geography in our own image —not that these civilizations invented ethnocentristic images of the world (as a glance at the Pentateuch would surely show), but they did indicate with considerable brilliance how ethnocentrism could become the ordering principle in descriptions of the world, its past, present, and future. History becomes what Western civilization makes happen. History is thus also that which happens to the primitive others that civilization encounters. They themselves can have no history—and no future, either.
Herodotus, that ceaseless old traveler, his ear to every wind of rumor as of fact, tells us that the Persians had themselves developed something of this principle, honoring their nearest neighbors (those most like Persians) the most, then those nearest these, and so on, “their respect decreasing as the distance grows.…” And so it was with the beginnings of our historiography and geography with the Greeks and Romans, in which development old Herodotus is himself deeply implicated. His respect for truth, not to say plausibility, decreased as he described lands and peoples farther and farther outside the Greek world.
Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, in their monumental work on Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity , concentrate on Greco-Roman notions of the admirable, even paradisial qualities of the primitives of the wilderness, and, of course, it is true that this is an ancient dream that man has not easily released: that somewhere else, back there in the precivilized past, harmony and spiritual peace lie buried and waiting. Yet in historical perspective it seems clear that these lingering, latent paradisial notions always yielded to the greater strength of the imperative to conquer the wilderness and to subdue its peoples.
And so, although Herodotus himself, the Father of History, betrays some primitivistic longings in his descriptions of the world, still more strongly do his histories demonstrate the ethnocentric bias, using Greek civilization as the reference point, the norm and apex, in relation to which the faraway lands and peoples become progressively monstrous. Thus we find that there are Indian tribes that rut in open fields like cattle, their sperm as black as their skins; a race of goat-footed men that inhabits a snarled mountain range beyond the farthest reaches of Scythia; a Libyian tribe that hunts a race of troglodytes in four-horse chariots. And still farther toward the dark, unknown West, scarcely a geographical direction really, there were horned asses, dog-headed men, headless men with eyes in their chests, wild women, a race with no individual names, only the tribal one, and men who squeaked like bats. “I don’t vouch for this,” Herodotus wrote, “but merely respect what the Libyans say.”
Such, in brief, are the words our ancient mentors spoke to us. Such, skeletally, was the equipment with which Europeans had been provided for yet further thrusts outward into the West, into its girdle which the Arab geographers and mathematicians called “the Green Sea of Darkness” and of which they were themselves so mortally frightened. For it was the Arabs who were the conduit through which so much of that ancient bequest came to us, and learning through them we learned how to draw up maps that neatly divided the world into three sections, with “Europa” at the center. We learned, too, to draw up deeper, mental maps of existence in which, again, Europa was central, the barbarians at the borders, and the savages and their lands entirely off the edges. Beyond the walls of the city as locus of the light of civilization lay the azoic zones of darkness, anticivilization, nonhistory, death. Or, if not this last, then a mode of existence so free and unsponsored by God as to be terrible, irrational, insane.