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Nature as Garden and Idea of Pristine Wilderness Essay

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Updated: Jul 19th, 2022

Where there was once a tree, there is once a house. Where there was once a forest, there are now corn fields. Over the past couple of centuries, the human race has managed to destroy miles upon miles of land and sea, including a variety of plants and animals. Seemingly, as a coping mechanism after realizing the mistake, humans now disassociate themselves from nature, imagining it as something “out there.”

Nowadays, people are haunted by the idea of pristine wilderness, which raises several philosophical questions about the role of humanity in environmental conservation. This paper examines the argument that nature is a man-curated garden through the detailed analysis of such works as The idea of a garden by Michael Pollan and Changes in the Land by William Cronon.

The idea of a garden presents a fascinating case study focused on the ecological restoration of Cathedral Pines, a site that was substantially damaged as a result of 1989 tornadoes. Michael Pollan, the author of the work, rejects the concepts of environmental purists and offers his take on the role humans play in nature. Pollan notes the importance of refuting the arguments related to a “classic environmental battle,” which pushes environmental purists against hard-core pragmatics (X, p. 193).

On the one hand, Pollan disregards the idea that nature exists solely for human benefit. Thus, the author does not consider nature a garden in that regard. Nature is far more than apple trees and cherry blossoms.

While at times humans need to take advantage of the resources to survive, Pollan stands in opposition to the idea of environmental exploitation. Nevertheless, Pollan does not take the argument of environmental purists seriously as well. Accepting that any human environmental intervention is unnatural would be to support “the wilderness ethic,” which reaffirms the notion of a human-nature relationship displaying the pattern of an inverse correlation (X, p. 195). The idea of a garden proposes to follow a more complex chain of reasoning, given the philosophers’ frequent disregard for history and the flaws in the idea of nature’s self-restoration.

Nature is a garden as it is impossible not to consider it a man-made creation at least in some aspect due to the impact human activity has had on natural processes. Most importantly, the effects of human activity are not necessarily negative. In The idea of a garden, Michael Pollan argues that it is ultimately flawed to assume that nature and humans are separate. Viewing nature as ahistorical is ultimately wrong because there is no way to pinpoint a certain period or a single moment the nature has been pristine.

First, it undergoes a continuous cycle of change and transformation, altering as a result of volcano eruptions, ice ages, and bacteria growth. According to Pollan, looking back at nature even before human activity would be rather disappointing, considering an ice age, for example, which is a stark contrast to the human ideal of wilderness.

Second, one could argue that there was a time in human history when people simply succumbed to nature’s peculiarities. Thus, their activity had minimum effect on the environment, which would conclude that nature should not be considered a garden, which humans essentially take care of. However, since the dawn of the first civilizations, nature has not been undisturbed, with the Amazonian rainforest falsely considered a natural creation, when, in reality, it is a human-made patchwork of gardens.

Another aspect, which is crucial to consider, while discussing nature as a garden, is human responsibility. Like a gardener, the human population must care for, restore, and improve their environment. Pollan uses a curious financial analogy to convey his argument related to the scope of human responsibility regarding the preservation of natural resources. Some might believe that people can ignore the land they live on, with a certain invisible hand doing everything for them in regulating and guiding natural processes.

The libertarian economic theory, which offers a perfect equilibrium model, emphasizes the role of an unobservable market force that can secure complete economic balance under the conditions of non-interference from outside sources. Pollan explains that due to the impact human activity has already had on Mother Nature, it is counterintuitive to rely on a “quasi-divine force” to resolve all the problems (X, p. 199).

If left untouched, nature might create mass destruction, which may lead to species extinction and the complete reduction of biodiversity. With the harm already caused by human activity in regards to climate and pollution, this destruction is not theoretical, but rather inevitable unless there is at least a minimum level of oversight from a self-aware species such as Homo Sapiens. Therefore, The idea of a garden confirms that people do have the responsibility to conserve and garden nature.

Interestingly enough, both Pollan and Cronon reject the analysis of nature as being entirely ahistorical. While Pollan references the transformation endured by Cathedral Pines, William Cronon examines the ecology of New England in Changes in the land. Thus, much akin to Pollon, Cronon agrees that natural environments are not necessarily pristine. Even in the absence of human intervention, they are in a constant state of change and transformation, which is often far from the idea of wilderness people have.

Some might argue that when the European settlers colonized the United States in the 15th and 16th centuries, the nature of the lands was truly conserved and unspoiled. To assume that would be to erase the footprint of the human activity of the Native population on the local environment, according to Cronon. After all, Cronon argues that “the Indians were no more static than the colonists in their activities and organization” (p. VIII). Thus, nature cannot be considered pure, and is, in fact, the result and reflection of its interaction with humans, which makes it a garden.

Despite the similarities in the arguments of Pollan and Cronon, their views on nature conservation are quite different. Pollan considers nature a pet, which should be taken care of as it would harm itself and others otherwise. Cronon, on the other hand, seemingly equates the environment to a pig, a cow, or any other farm animal, which has to be controlled but only to produce benefits to the human population.

Thus, Cronon disregards Pollon’s views on people’s moral obligations and the notion of environmental responsibility. Although Changes in the land certainly criticized the destruction caused by colonization, it almost supports it as part of the inevitable man-made progress.

The ideas humans have of perfect wilderness are largely shaped by false notions and flawed assumptions, which neglect how impossible it is for nature to remain changeless. The idea of a garden by Michael Pollan as well as Changes in the Land by William Cronon challenge the arguments of environmental purists and confirm the absence of permanent stasis in the environment.

Thus, they agree that human activity is an essential factor in forming and altering nature, which makes the environment a garden. Pollan emphasizes this notion by pointing out the hoax of nature’s self-regulation and human responsibility to conserve. Cronon, on the other hand, seemingly highlights how much of a farm or a warehouse humans have made nature out to be, neglecting restoration and focusing solely on generating profits and various benefits.


Cronon, W. Changes in the land. Hill and Wang.

Pollan, M. The idea of a garden. Publishing House.

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IvyPanda. (2022) 'Nature as Garden and Idea of Pristine Wilderness'. 19 July.

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