Myth of Wilderness

Redefine the term wilderness and learn how native descriptions of natural spaces can help us better understand and combat invasive species.

Getty Images/OceanFisher

America’s most celebrated wilderness areas were once peoples’ homes, and many of the most prized native plants are remnants from gardens and orchards. Native plant lists from every state or region in the United States show an abundance of perennial edibles, medicinals, fuel and fiber plants, as well as pollen and nectar sources. Georgia’s native plant inventory includes American chestnut, Allegheny chinquapin, hackberry, five species of hickory, hawthorn, hornbeam, honey locust, saw palmetto, red mulberry, eighteen species of oak, pawpaw, persimmon, sassafras, serviceberry, wintergreen, redbud, sourwood, and black walnut.

In Michigan, the list includes milkweed, strawberry, lobelia, bergamot, nodding onion, boneset, wild ginger, and blue cohosh, grown among linden, elderberry, black cherry, sugar maple, nannyberry, and highbush cranberry.

In Arizona, natives include cat’s claw, agave, chia, mesquite, ephedra, ocotillo, hackberry, perennial chiles, barberry, palo verde, prickly pear, pinyon pine, lemonade berry, jojoba, wolfberry, and yucca throughout the landscape.

This proliferation of useful plants throughout the Americas was not a matter of chance but of purposive guidance by the people who lived in the regions for millennia. These plants have come to be known as native, wild, and natural, but in fact, they were intentionally cultivated. Like any garden, these species were carefully chosen, maintained, and propagated over generations until eventually the entire landscape was full of useful plants. European colonists, who were accustomed to fields of annual grains and pulses along with domestic animals, seemed to have had no idea what they were looking at when they encountered these diverse perennial landscapes.

Acknowledging that people were, to a greater or lesser degree, responsible for the bounty and diversity requires a massive shift in our ideas of wilderness and nature. Instead of imagining no human presence on wild land, we might begin to see the patterns of their interaction and gardening. This awareness is important to how we understand changes in the ecosystem structure, including invasive species. Instead of viewing invasive species as disturbing pristine natural landscapes, we have to better understand how changes in historic land stewardship practices have also altered them. As Kat Anderson, ethnoecologist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, relates in her book Tending the Wild,

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